We’ve just attended our first “underground dinner” in Los Angeles (as non-paying guests): we had a general idea of what we’d be eating, but until the 11th hour, no idea where we’d be eating.
The event was big, raucous, delicious and exciting — and part of a movement that’s happening all over the world.
Sparked by the popularity of Cuban paladares (small private restaurants), underground dinners are private event productions: paying dinner parties that bypass local zoning and regulations to create a sense of community. To score an invite, you often have to know someone with the inside scoop to get your name on an email list or find a website.
Amy’s Culinary Adventures — run by creative chef Amy Jurist, whose skill and passion have recently inspired three cooking show productions to come a-courtin’ — puts on an underground dinner somewhere around Los Angeles a couple of times a month. Jurist has been staging her “food raves” for the past five years, always in a different location (a huge Art Deco penthouse in West Hollywood, a Culver City gallery, etc.) and always with a different theme (The Bacon Affair; La Nuit de Paris; Cheese, Please; and more).
This past Saturday, our dinner, Journey to the Far East, featured recipes from across Asia. (In L.A., a large pan-Asian population and a thriving farmers’ market scene make it easy to find authentic ingredients.) The event was held in the backyard of a big movie studio exec’s modern-tacular house in the Pacific Palisades with a great big lawn and a brushed concrete pool, where everything that isn’t a window bears a piece of art.
Cocktail hour featured a parade of passed appetizers, like a light, crispy ahi tuna tartare with avocado and wasabi tobiko (flying fish caviar), and the gorgeous “Chiller From Manila,” an addictive martini with calamansi, a citrus fruit from the Phillippines (and/or chef Amy’s backyard tree). Happily, there was plenty of time to mill and mingle; these are good events for meeting other couples, checking out plastic surgery indiscretions, talking politics and local food, or even finding a nice someone for a single friend.
However, we were surprised to find there were a whopping 68 other diners at this shindig; it seemed a great big group for something that’s supposed to be, well, a secret. It took two loooong dining tables to hold us all, laid out like an Asian rainbow with mum bouquets in satin-wrapped take-out boxes and custom-made foam fortune cookies studded with Gerbera daisies.
Chef Amy, no wallflower, called dinner to order with a clarion cry — and we were off on a three-hour culinary journey. Aside from a thin Malaysian laksa and meh Pinots from Santa Barbara-area winery La Fenêtre, every element was something I’d happily try again: a light, bright crab and shiitake dumpling; tender Peking duck in a green tea-sesame crepe; miso-glazed black cod and fresh Chinese veggies; and a brown-sugar-sticky Filipino banana-jackfruit springroll called a turon saba. Later on, away from onlookers, we snarfed the take-home gift in the car: buttery almond and fortune cookies homemade by Amy.
The main challenge of the sit-down portion of the evening was service, which ranged from staggered to endless; though kind and professional, the kitchen seemed overwhelmed by a meal with 12 separate pieces for 70 human beings. While it’s exciting that the dinners are so popular, the intimacy and flow of such a unique, private experience could benefit from the invitation of fewer guests.
That said, we were surrounded by repeat customers, so it’s clear that the concept and cooking inspire loyalty. And truth be told, I can see us suiting up and attending another, too: I think it’s a cool idea to see unusual locations I’d otherwise miss, and would like to taste what else Chef Amy can cook on a theme. A girl can always dream of a party…of 40 or less.
Underground Dinners from Amy’s Culinary Adventures are held bi-monthly around Los Angeles and cost between $105-125 per person, including alcohol. Sign up for her email list to find out the next dinner’s when and what; the where will come a day or so before.
Over the last few years, the underground dinner concept has spread across the world: