notes from the underground

Supper Clubs Getting Savvier

The main course at Apt4, a peripatetic new supper club.

The main course at Apt4, a peripatetic new supper club.Photo: Melissa Hom

Supper clubs are not exactly new: Grub Street has been chronicling the shadowy world of underground restaurants since at least 2006, and there's even been a book about them. Yet the trend has only seemed to get more popular. That the legality of under-the-radar eateries remains murky hasn't seemed to stop anyone, either: We spent an hour on the phone with the city Health Department trying to track down someone — anyone — who could comment on the matter. "We don't handle underground restaurants, only above-ground, like sidewalk cafés," one employee finally told us. With no one cracking down, the scene has flourished (this reporter even co-hosted a supper club called LES Salonnieres for six months last year), and yet as we've checked out the latest crop, there seems to be evidence of an evolution. While supper clubs have always varied hugely, the newer ones on our radar seem savvier and more professional than the loosey-goosey old guard (more expensive, too), and that, in turn, is attracting a more sophisticated crowd than the youngsters of supper clubs past. Read on for a look at some of the newbies.

"Every one of our events has sold out," says Dan Grossman, who co-founded Apt4 Food & Wine with a chef, Jay Chan (who has worked at Mas and Mile End) last summer having no idea supper clubs were a thing. The group hosts both six-person "chef's table" dinners, and 30- to 50-person passed-plates events, and each one includes a food-and-wine pairing courtesy Apt4 sommelier John Troutman. The happenings have popped up in places like a terrace in Chelsea, a walk-up in Clinton Hill, and a townhouse on the Upper West Side. Grossman says the diversity of the now-six organizers — who hail from PR, advertising, music, film, wine, and food industries — makes for a good mix of people, mainly from "entertainment, media, finance, and hospitality." At a recent chef's table dinner, the food surpassed anything we'd had at a supper club before: bright-red, feather-light beet gnudi we mistook for berries at first; a mound of stir-fried oyster and shiitake mushrooms surrounding an onion tart, on which we were invited to break a soft-boiled egg; a perfectly moist braised short rib with sauerkrautlike cabbage; and individual olive-oil cakes with a diced-pear topping — the whole thing better than most restaurant meals in recent memory, and at $75 for a five-course meal with wine pairings, a better deal.

Another 2010 newcomer is Worth Kitchen, which married couple Tamy and Felipe Donnelly founded for fun last March (like Apt4's founders, they weren't familiar with the concept of supper club). The couple began hosting dinner for friends in their apartment on Worth Street in the financial district every Thursday night. That soon expanded to friends of friends and eventually food-loving strangers they connected with on Twitter. They've never charged for the dinners in their apartment, but do ask guests to bring a bottle of wine from the pairings recommended by nearby Frankly Wines. Here, too, the food is more professional than at some of the old-guard supper clubs, carefully plated and vibrant in color, like a plate of flounder tiradito with blood oranges. With a real dining-room table and a six-guest limit, the whole thing feels like a grown-up dinner party. A few weeks ago, the couple held their first paid event, in a Soho penthouse, and Felipe tells us the 60-person, $90-a-head dinner sold out in a matter of days. While many of the guests were friends of the couple from the advertising industry, half were strangers who heard about the festivities online or through word of mouth. Felipe tells Grub Street he would like for the venture to "grow organically into a business" — maybe even a restaurant at some point.

Midnight Brunch is so new that it hasn't actually happened — the first late-night meal is tomorrow in a Bed-Stuy brownstone, and the spread will be West Indian themed, with complementary cocktails. It's the project of Emily Cavalier, who works at a corporate event firm and has deep food- and cocktail-scene connections. Cavalier will do the cooking herself with the help of sous-chefs from other supper clubs, including Kara Masi of Ted & Amy Supper Club and Sarah Simmons of City Grit. Two mixologists will shake up cocktails to go with courses like jerk-fried chicken accompanied by pineapple waffles with papaya syrup. While it isn't the first supper club with a booze focus (at the two-year-old Noble Rot, for instance, wine is the primary emphasis, and there's also Evoe, a cocktail club), it's the first we know of to mix serious cocktail culture with the underground dinner scene. When Cavalier put the $85 tickets on sale, they sold out in twenty minutes.

And it's not just the new supper clubs that are business-savvy; many founders of the older brigade have found ways to segue into other kinds of endeavors. The Ted & Amy Supper Club just launched a cooking-class series, the Noble Rot has done consulting at the Natural Wine Company and El Cobre, Michael Cirino of a razor, a shiny knife is opening a chocolate and rum factory, and another called Y-I-Eat-N has morphed from dinners only into a full-service food business that offers cooking classes and meal deliveries. What began as a truly underground trend has gone somewhat mainstream, and we'd argue that's not necessarily a bad thing — for the host or the guests.

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