People often seem to want what they can’t have, which makes exclusivity among the most potent ingredients when it comes to our dining preferences. But landing a table for two at Rose’s Luxury or Little Serow doesn’t cut it for some food hunters these days: Washington has become a buffet of members-only supper clubs, unique pop-up meals and limited-seating chef’s tables, dining experiences that add a dash of intrigue to the once-routine act of going out to dinner.
“D.C. is a town where, like it or not, if you tell somebody no, they will want to [do something] that much more,” said chef Tom Madrecki. And he would know: For two years, Madrecki hosted Chez Le Commis, a sporadic 16-seat supper club, in his former Arlington apartment.
But Chez Le Commis is only one of more than a dozen nontraditional dining events in and around Washington this year. Some are upscale and expensive, while others are as simple as a home-cooked meal in a stranger’s apartment. Some last for a week or a single night, while others are held monthly and shift chefs and locations every time. And a few take a concept that shouldn’t be scalable — a unique, personal dinner in an intimate location — and use sharing-economy concepts to make it more accessible.
With so many variables, it can be difficult for diners to know what they’re in for when they sign up for a pricy dinner in an otherwise ultra-casual setting. And without a manager on duty, there isn’t as much accountability as in a typical restaurant.
“Rose’s [Luxury] is held to one standard and Komi is held to another standard,” Madrecki said. “But with a supper club, people could charge $100 for really unprofessional food. Nobody calls it out. Nobody’s like, ‘Hey, you just charged me more than $170 for a catering company.’ ”
Madrecki’s involvement with Chez Le Commis is a labor of love. The French-trained chef has a day job as a communications director, and he frequently spends his office hours working on future dinners, having Burgundy truffles and other rare ingredients delivered to his workplace. A glimpse at his living room reveals stacks of coolers and Ikea dishware that he stores for future events. He rarely makes much of a profit; he is often lucky to break even. And, Madrecki said, it can prove difficult to be taken seriously.
“There’s a perception among chefs that supper clubs are not real things,” Madrecki said. “So you have to be very intentional and say, ‘No, come to the dinner, see what it is.’ ”
But some traditional chefs understand, as Madrecki does, that accessible exclusivity sells. Chef Ferhat Yalcin, who owns Fishnet in Shaw and College Park, created a four-seat chef’s table that he calls Fish Nook. It offers a different — and more refined — experience than his regular menu of fish tacos and sandwiches.
“People want to feel . . . that they are special,” he said. “If you go into a dining room, nobody’s going to know you, but you go to a chef’s table, you interact with the chef directly.”
Fish Nook diners sit in the restaurant’s kitchen and watch Yalcin cook, which puts the chef on display. He said he still gets nervous before every dinner. “For the first hour, it’s sort of like a breaking-the-ice between me and the guests sitting there,” he said. “But after the second or third course, you feel a little more comfortable.”
That same sense of anxiety can accompany some diners, at least initially. Attending an event in a stranger’s home might feel like the start of a blind date. But such sites as Feastly and Bookalokal aspire to make such encounters as commonplace as riding in a stranger’s back seat: Think of it as the UberX of pop-up restaurants, as ambitious home cooks (or even pros, such as chef Dean Gold of Dino’s Grotto) host their own events.
A year after 33-year-old Lily Dvornichenko attended a Bookalokal dinner, she decided to host her own Soviet-themed meal through Feastly. “I can’t tell you how nervous I was,” said the database administrator. “When you charge people, the expectations shoot through the roof. I was really scared that something wouldn’t go right and people would be upset.”
Her dinner was a smashing success, but if it hadn’t been, Feastly cooks are covered by a $1 million insurance policy if a guest gets hurt or sick. The company vets its cooks through an interview process. But when amateur cooks are able to turn their homes into restaurants, have we reached peak supper club? If supper clubs become a dime a dozen, will they still hold our attention?
“There will come a point when there are so many that it sort of loses its appeal,” Madrecki said. “It’s just not as exclusive and unique anymore, and you’ll move on to the next trend. Just like Brussels sprouts, there will come a point when the market is saturated, and you won’t see as many happening.”
Until then, enjoy the experience — whether it happens to take place in a warehouse, an abandoned church or even the middle of a grocery store while other people are shopping.
“People are more interested in food than ever,” said Skiz Fernando, a chef with Dinner Lab, a members-only network for pop-up dinners. “You can’t always get everything you’re looking for in a restaurant. I think this whole industry of supper clubs and pop-ups has been fueled by that desire for something new.”
Which supper club, pop-up, or chef’s table is best for you? Take our quiz.
“Is it okay if I fillet the fish in front of you?” chef Ferhat Yalcin asks the four guests at his prix-fixe chef’s table, set on a counter built directly into the Fishnet kitchen. “I’ll do it nicely.”
No one objects. In fact, we all lean forward enthusiastically to see him behead a mackerel with two swipes of a knife. Watching Yalcin work at Fish Nook is like having your own personal cooking show. Best of all, you get to eat the fruits of his labor.
Our late-fall dinner revolved around sweet corn, shiitake mushrooms and a variety of seafood: Lobster, red snapper, scallops, shrimp and the aforementioned mackerel were components of the all-
Yalcin personalizes the take-home menus with each guest’s name, a nice touch. He’s also generous with his portions and pours: By the end of the six-course meal, we were totally stuffed. For $55, not including the $25 beverage pairing, this is one of the best-value dining
experiences your money can buy.
Frequency: Monday-Tuesday, with intermittent frequency during the holiday season.
Price: $55, plus $25 for wine pairings.
Location: Fishnet, 1819 Seventh St. NW. 202-350-4350. www.eatfishnet.com.
“This is what we do in Richmond: We invite everyone over for dinner,” said Underground Kitchen founder Micheal Sparks. It was the first time he had brought his popular Richmond supper club on the road, but he didn’t leave Richmond behind: When he asked for a show of hands to see how many guests had traveled north for the dinner, several raised their hands. When you consider how quickly many of Sparks’s dinners in Richmond sell out, the 2
At the Dupont Circle bar the Sheppard, the District’s first Underground Kitchen event began with cocktails and amuse-bouches of oysters and cornbread, before guests were ushered through a hidden door connecting to the adjacent nightclub, Kabin. There, rows of elegant tables with floral arrangements and white tablecloths were laid out. Richmond chefs Brandon MacConnell and Tad Grenga of River City Supper Company were cooking in a makeshift kitchen of hot plates and convection grills behind a backdrop. Their fall harvest-themed menu progressed through seven luxe courses, including bourbon-smoked bone marrow and squab with collard-green kimchi and rice grits.
Underground Kitchen was the most upscale of the dining experiences we tried; befittingly, it also was the most expensive. And while the meal was pleasurable, your dining dollars might go further at an upscale restaurant. Sparks told guests that Washington will become a new outpost for him: “You made me feel like I was at home.”
Frequency: Underground Kitchen doesn’t like to announce dates too far in advance, but a representative promises that the club will return to D.C. in January.
Price: $175 for seven courses, including beverages.
Location: Varies. Visit www.theunder groundkitchen.org for future events.
You’ll definitely have an appetite by the time you get to Anju, a Korean food pop-up at Mandu on K Street NW. Held on the first Friday of every month, the event doesn’t begin until 10 p.m., but guests will be lined up by 9:45, waiting until the tables are released to late-night diners eager to sample inventive takes on Korean bar snacks.
Anju is the brainchild of Mandu owner Danny Lee, who invites co-host Jonah Kim (formerly of Baltimore’s Pabu) and other chef friends, such as Will Morris of Vermilion and Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya, to join him in improvising
everything from oxtail terrine to a version of Frito pie made with ma po tofu. The latter was “next-level stoner food,” my guest proclaimed, and he meant that in the best possible way. Guest bartenders also step in, creating drink specials that incorporate Asian flavors and liquors such as soju.
The vibe is casual. You can order dishes a la carte, and there are more than enough options to make a dinner of it, if you can wait that long without getting too hungry.
Frequency: The first Friday of every month.
Price: $6 per dish or a set of three for $15. Drinks are priced between $5 and $18.
Location: Mandu, 453 K St. NW. 202-289-6899. www.mandudc.com.
Glen’s Garden Market
We drank cider and ate succotash while the shoppers surrounding our table bought cereal and milk. Glen’s doesn’t close for its monthly tasting table dinners: Customers have to make their way around the 10-person table, eyeing your dinner hungrily while picking up their produce and sandwiches. “Thank you for trusting us,” owner Danielle Vogel told the seated diners in her introduction. “I know this is a big leap of faith to do something like this in a market.”
Once the food begins to arrive, you won’t even notice the jealous shoppers. Chef Travis Olson builds his eight-course dinners around ingredients in the market, but gives them an extra-special touch: Our first course for a late-August dinner was a ham, right off the smoker, and some freshly churned cultured butter for the just-baked sourdough bread and buttermilk biscuits. Local, seasonal fare reigns supreme.
The atmosphere is casual, but don’t let the laid-back grocery store vibe fool you: Olson trained at Copenhagen’s famed Noma, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world, and he has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as a salad topped with shaved kombucha ice, which melts into a salad dressing.
The other great thing about dining in a grocery store? It’s easy to package up leftovers. Olson’s cultured butter tasted just as good at home the next day.
Frequency: Typically the last Thursday and Friday of every month. Dinners will
resume in January.
Price: $75 for approximately seven courses. Beverage pairings are an additional $25.
Location: Glen’s Garden Market, 2001 S St. NW. 202-588-5698. www.glensgardenmarket.com.
Flour figures into every course of this casual but elegant meal served at Bread Furst, Mark Furstenberg’s Van Ness bakery.
Die-hard Palena fans will know why this dinner is notable: It’s the only place to enjoy cooking by Frank Ruta, the former owner of the shuttered Cleveland Park restaurant. He and former Palena pastry chef Aggie Chin have teamed with Furstenberg to present a family-style dinner with a menu that changes weekly.
At the inaugural Bread Feast, a 7 p.m. cocktail half-hour, accompanied by dishes such as marinated sardines and pâté with plenty of house-baked bread, made way for a course of bread bowls filled with marinated peppers, tomato and a runny egg, and plates of veal, potato gougeres and hazelnut rapini.
Anything that arrives at your table atop one of Chin’s crusts — such as the dessert apple tart atop a layer of buckwheat — may very well be the most perfect version of that dish you’ve ever tasted.
Frequency: Dinners typically occur once or twice a week. Dates are announced a few days in advance.
Price: $85, with tickets sold online. Drinks are charged separately.
Location: Bread Furst, 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-765-1200. www.breadfurst.com.
Feastly and Bookalokal
Just a few minutes after we walk through the door of Lily Dvornichenko’s Navy Yard apartment, our hostess hands us a shot of honey pepper vodka. Dvornichenko is a native of Ukraine, where dinner parties in her home town always begin this way. So why should her Feastly dinner be any different?
It would be the first of many drinks at this homey dinner party, which she designed to showcase the foods of her Soviet childhood. And while it seems like a gesture one would extend to good friends who come to dinner, we’d never met Dvornichenko.
Feastly and Bookalokal dinners may be an introvert’s worst nightmare: They tend to be small — usually about 10 guests — and all take place in the host’s home, so it would be especially rude to pull out your smartphone, and there’s no bar to run to. But if your party is anything like the one we attended, you won’t want to: We swapped travel stories with the other worldly guests and were regaled with tales of Dvornichenko’s childhood as she walked us through the significance of the dishes she made for her four-course menu. Those included borscht, vareniki and “Soviet kimchi,” a variation on the Asian dish that came from Korean immigrants who lived near her town.
It was the only dining experience I’ve ever had where, when presented with a dish — in this case, pickled tomatoes — the chef said: “It’s an acquired taste. If you do not like it, I will not be offended.” For the record, the tomatoes were great — and made for an excellent chaser for the next round of vodka shots.
Frequency: Dinners, each from a different host, take place at least weekly. If you see a menu listed on the site that looks good, you can message the host and request that they schedule a date.
Price: Varies. My Soviet dinner was $18; prices tend to hover around $40.
We were looking forward to eating some spicy Sri Lankan curries at a recent Dinner Lab hosted by chef Skiz Fernando, and not just because it was a fascinating chance to try a cuisine that was otherwise scarce in the area. Dinner Lab prides itself on arranging dinners in raw, interesting spaces, and our dinner that night was held at Blind Whino, a gorgeous, graffitied-up church and art gallery in Southwest.
But true to its “raw” form, the space didn’t have adequate heating, and on a cold night, we were grateful that Fernando’s five-course dinner — which began with a mackerel croquette in spicy sweet chili sauce and ended with a coconut flan in palm sugar syrup — could warm us up.
It was one of the cooler places I’ve eaten dinner lately. There’s a certain stripped-down opulence to Dinner Lab events, which always feature long banquette tables and free-flowing booze in a space that, hours before, was nothing resembling a restaurant. Of course, to find out where your dinner will be held, or to even see the potential menus, you must purchase a $175 annual membership. Dinners, which are hosted by local chefs (Kaz Sushi’s Kaz Okochi and Jack Rose’s Russell Jones have starred recently) are an additional cost, with a small surcharge to bring non-members.
Frequency: Dinners take place at least weekly.
Price: $175 for membership, and then between $50 to $95 for each dinner.
Location: A raw space that will be revealed to you on the night of the dinner. Buy tickets at www.dinnerlab.com.
Chez Le Commis
At 8 p.m. on a recent Monday, Capitol Hill’s Le Bon Cafe seems like the coziest place in Washington. Guests seated shoulder-to-shoulder are working their way through the third of four courses by chef Tom Madrecki. A few of us who are waiting for the next seating have sidled up to the bar with glasses of cider and wine.
Madrecki’s menu in November was among the most creative of the pop-ups attended for this story. It began with his take on three-star Michelin chef Alain Passard’s “L’Arpege egg”: Madrecki subbed out the egg for sake-cured roe, which, combined with maple syrup, vinegar and yogurt, was an inventively sweet and sour appetizer. A subsequent aged beef was topped with lovely purple leaves of angel wing begonia, a lemon-pepper-flavored plant that no one at our table had ever heard of, much less eaten.
Madrecki’s girlfriend acted as hostess, and his friends stepped in as servers. But despite the pop-up sensibility, the event ran with the professionalism that could be expected of a full-time establishment. He and his staff seemed at ease in the space. It’s almost as if it was theirs to begin with.
Frequency: Sporadic, though Madrecki has pledged to host more events in 2015.
Price: The November pop-up was $60 for four courses, with an extra $30 for wine pairings. Prices may vary for future events.
Location: Varies, but Madrecki plans to host more events at Le Bon Cafe, 210 Second St. SE. www.chezlecommis.com .