World Bank employee starts dining event in D.C. that includes smart conversation as focus

By Hannah Seligson
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 8:16 PM

After a bite of beet salad drizzled with chocolate and a sip of a pear brandy cocktail, Soung Wiser turned to her husband, who was seated next to her at the giant, L-shaped table.

"What's your happiness number?" Wiser, 38, asked David Batista, 40, a restaurateur.

"Six," he said, with one being miserable and 10 being jubilation.

"Mine is seven," responded Wiser, co-founder of the General Design Co., a D.C.-based graphic and web design firm.

The couple seated across from them wasn't in as much agreement over their ratings, Wiser later recalled. "The wife's number was really low, and the husband's number was very high," she said.

On the evening of Feb. 20, Wiser and Batista were dining with about 40 guests in a loft on 14th Street NW that during the day is home to Fathom Creative, a design firm. An open kitchen bustled with sous-chefs plating pork shank ravioli with mustard rye, a dish conceived by Mike Isabella, the former executive chef of Zaytinya who is opening his own restaurant this spring in Penn Quarter. A makeshift bar brimmed with frosted cocktail glasses to be filled by Derek Brown, mixologist and co-owner of the Columbia Room and the Passenger. A film takeoff on the Bonnie and Clyde legend, provided by DC Shorts, streamed on an exposed brick wall.

Judging by the murmur of conversation about the nature of happiness, might this have been the scene of a new self-help movement? A literary salon? Couples therapy with inventive cocktails and great lighting?

Try again.

This was the No. 68 Project, which Jill Richmond, 34, who started it in London in March 2010, describes as "a conceptual dinner party." Translate that as an attempt to roll together culture, film and provocative conversation over a restaurant-caliber meal with a handpicked group of guests who had to apply for a seat at the table.

That night, Eric Weiner, former NPR correspondent and author of "The Geography of Bliss," was the cultural ambassador, a non-paid gig that entailed making thought-provoking comments throughout the night. So over a course of tuna crudo, Weiner asked the guests to think about their happiness number. And that's how Wiser and Batista wound up telling complete strangers how happy they were.

Getting a spot at No. 68, which will run every Sunday evening through April 17, might be reason enough to feel good.

First, you have to request an invitation through No. 68's Web site. Then an application arrives in your inbox asking, among other questions: "What is your idea of earthly happiness?" All of the applications are read by a committee of two - Richmond, a former communications professional whose official title is "culinary director," and Hosan Lee, 34, a former entrepreneur Richmond recruited to be the cultural director for the D.C. edition.

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