Opening the Door to Underground Dining
At the dead end of Royal Avenue near a metal scrap yard two stoplights from Frayser Boulevard, a moving truck blocks the road. It is getting dark. There are no signs anywhere. Abandoned commercial buildings line the North side. The opposite holds merely bones, old industry demolished to the slab. The only soul in sight is an armed guard posted near the back of the truck. It bears the same logo as the invitation that arrived two days before. Industrial cocktail attire. This must be the place.
The speakeasy kitchen concept evolved from traditional private supper clubs, where members chipped in for the ingredients of a themed meal prepared in the homes of alternating hosts. About a decade ago, the trend of unique pop-up gourmet dinners began to sprout in obscure venues across the country, from open fields to abandoned warehouses. Some are attempts to “play restaurant,” a trial run without the regulations and overhead of a brick and mortar operation. Others offer experienced chefs and rising stars a chance to experiment outside the constraints of everyday menu and location.
With limited seating, word about these “anti” restaurants spreads in foodie circles and on social media. The Underground Kitchen, a charitable effort featuring top chefs in cities across the Eastern U.S., has an online registry of more than 1,300 members, but there are only forty plates at any table. Once the date and hint of location is announced, tickets sell out within minutes. Much like The Four Coursemen in Athens, Georgia, a group of cooks with day jobs who don’t use recipes, they have developed somewhat of a cult following for the casual farm-to-table dinners they hold at an undisclosed cottage.
“You have to trust that this will turn out well,” says Dennis Whitehead Darling. He once boarded the back of a moving truck decorated like a white disco lounge and rode around the Memphis Zoo to the Zambezi exhibit where Erling Jensen was the guest chef. Erling created Gulf tilefish with kale and adobo. Dennis and his husband, Bryan, seek out unique dining experiences at home and abroad. “It’s a cool way of meeting people. You get more of a connection than just going out to dinner. It really is a communal experience.”
One Night Only
Upon rounding the back corner of the plain brick building, the loading dock has been transformed into an open-air bistro. Gentlemen dressed in sleek lines mingle with ladies punctuated with metallics. Soft lights strung overhead lead to a bar offering beer, wine, or a “Golden Pyramid” made of signature vodka, chartreuse, Cointreau, and burnt oranges.
The passed apps are experiential. What looks like plastic pouches filled with green liquid and sediment beg to be plucked from clothes pins on a wire hanger. When devoured whole, the delicate packets of melt-in-your-mouth cellulose reveal tobiko caviar, basil oil, and cracked pepper with the slight tart finish of lemon zest.
A roll-top door opens, and eighty adventurous diners enter a shipping operation where the makeshift kitchen bustles in the back near a working grist mill. Corn ground fine as sawdust gathers in the corner. Behind a black velvet curtain, the looming copper pipes of a two-story still gleam under factory fluorescence. Not moonshine. Vodka.
Back on the production floor, two forty-foot tables have been set with tungsten flatware and ornate silver candelabras. Four hundred stems of glass twinkle in the firelight. When everyone is seated, the bubbles come first. Brut champagne adds texture to the “pierogi” starter, a thin ravioli stuffed with potato and a Hillbilly Acres Farm egg, delicately poached so when cut open, the yolk breaks and becomes part of the sauce.
Guest chef Spencer McMillin, private chef for eight years to NBA stars and instructor at L’Ecole Culinaire, sees the Pyramid underground event as a challenge to cook outside his straight-forward, classic comfort zone with fancy plate design on the salmon course followed by the evening favorite. Duck, Duck, Duck…Root Beer offers a breast, leg, and fois gras with brandied cherries and a strip of gel made from organic root beer. After venison loin with rosemary-brûléed pears comes a white chocolate pyramid flavored with green tea and a glass of housemade limoncello. By the end of such a grand meal, some of the guests must be reminded about their personal bottles in the tasting room.
Trust and Adventure
It takes an open-mind, an adventurous palate and a heap load of trust to drop more than a Benjamin on a meal at some undisclosed spot in the city. Paradox Underground is one of the more exclusive dining societies, another venture by Chef Jimmy Gentry who owns Paradox Catering and Consulting. He and his team are also at the helm of Café at the Brooks and more recently Izakaya, at the old Nineteenth Century Club.
Libby Wunderlich heard about the February experience from her best friend who books events at the Cadre building. They had tasted Gentry’s catered hors d’oeuvres before and held high expectations for a coursed out dinner. They signed up through Eventbrite with only the promise of a distinctive evening, and a text came 48 hours prior with details on location and attire.
“It was in the basement of the old Candy Factory downtown, which made it feel sort of secretive.” With her husband Gary and a few other close couples, Libby ventured underground. “The rooms were smaller and dark, draped in hanging fabric which was more intimate. The food was beautiful and they used some surprising sauces. With all the roses and candlelight, it was like a Valentine’s dream.”
Underground dining is all about the mystery, a chance for curious food lovers to gather in secret for a meal that will never be created again.