There's something kind of fun, perhaps even a little illicit, in attending a so-called underground dinner. They're typically BYOB and you don't find out the location until the day of the meal. The cooks in charge are usually alumni of someone else's restaurant and their flexibility allows them to cook whatever and where ever they like.
Efrain Cuevas is like a lot of young cooks. He's passionate about his work, but doesn't have tons of money at his disposal. Like a number of his colleagues these days, he didn't want to sink money into real estate for his own place. The result? Clandestino: an operation that cooks dinners in exchange for donations, averaging $70 a head.
On this night, braised and grilled pork belly is on the menu, along with pickled green tomatoes and a pear tomatillo sauce. The belly is smoked for an hour and a half, then braised, and finally, dredged in a spice rub and pan-seared. Along with a sauce made from Asian pears, this dinner is clearly for the adventurous.
Adventurous doesn't quite describe the mood at the X-MARX dinners, which are usually held in an undisclosed space near Ukrainian Village. The dinner club started about three years ago by partners Abe Conlin and Adrienne Lo. The music and art might be modern, but on this night, the theme was French Farmhouse.
Creamy watercress soup is served with preserved lemons and chives, while chicken fricasse arrives with veal sweetbreads, served over a cauliflower puree. Earthy cassoulet is also on the menu - loaded with lamb, sausage and beans. Themes here change frequently; it all depends on what Conlin and Lo feel like researching and cooking.
The granddaddy in the underground scene is already five years old. Sunday Dinner Club considers itself a "community dining operation" with the stipulation that you have to either know someone on the mailing list to get in, have them bring you to a dinner, or go meet the owners at their Green City Farmers Market booth on Saturday mornings.
"We cook seasonal meals for groups of people who are invited to our homes and homes of friends to eat great food from local farmers," said Joshua Kulp, co-owner of the Sunday Dinner Club.
Kulp and his partner are licensed caterers so it's technically not illicit or under the radar. This format just saves them from having to raise money to buy real estate and lets them explore ideas with farmers and other food people.
They rent commercial kitchen space for storage and some prep work and also buy high-quality ingredients. Dinners cost about 60 bucks a head-- but it reflects their costs.
"We have liability insurance, workmen's comp insurance..." said Kulp.
There are several other dining clubs in operation, including one called Culinary Speakeasy that is operated by a former Top Chef contestant, as well as One Sister, a more upscale, underground experience.
X-marx information is available at its website, xmarxchicago.com, where you can also sign up for an e-mail list. They have 7 events in November, ranging from a la carte pop-up restaurants to $110 dinners with wine pairings at every course.
Nov. 6 and 13, the X-Marx team will be working in the kitchen of another restaurant, a practice called a "pop-up restaurant." From 7-11 p.m. on these dates, X-Marx food will be available at Dodo Chicago, 945 W. Fulton St. Visit X-Marx's website for registration information.
Sunday Dinner Club
Sticking to the original formula of "you have to know somebody," Sunday Dinner Club's dinners aren't advertised or open to the public--unless you meet the proprietors at their Green City Market booth on Saturdays. You don't have to introduce yourself in person if someone already on the e-mail list (the only way to find out about the dinners) can vouch for you.
The next sit-down dinner will be Nov. 19. It's BYO, with five courses plus and amuse and a cocktail for $79, and it will benefit a community arts center in Humbolt Park. Tickets are usually purchased online, at clandestinodining.org. The site also has more information about the organization and upcoming events.
But for those more budget-conscious or willing to work, Cuevas is holding two free cooking classes in November--on Mexican mole sauce and the infamous Turducken--where some free labor nets you some free culinary instruction. Clandestino cooking classes are also BYO.
The best way to find out about these and other volunteer opportunities (like serving at a sit-down dinner) is Facebook: facebook.com/goclandestino.
(Valerie Bolon of Top Chef: Season 4)
The donation for a 5-course meal is about $85.
sample menu from this Fall:
Seared skatewing, beet/apple gratin, roasted garlic herb vinaigrette Creamy onion and apple soup, mini emmanthaler grilled cheese Braised rabbit gnocchi, chick peas, kale, cherry butter Beef tenderloin, oxtail and white bean ragout, grilled asparagus puree Pumpkin cheesecake, toffee nut/ pepita seed brittle, cranberry compote sorbet and marshmallow fluff
Illiana Regan produces more modern, whimsical fare somewhere between X-Marx and the molecular gastronomy places in town like Alinea, Moto or Schwa. Her dinners are $90 plus gratuity (as, not to be mistaken, all underground dinners are), and feature 12-15 courses. The 10-12 person events can last upwards of three hours.
It's open to the public, so visit Regan's website to view dinner dates - about 5 are available a month. Then call or e-mail her to reserve a date, and she'll e-mail you back all the details you'd expect to need for a night out. You can bring cash or check, or pre-pay through her website via Paypal.