Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Saint's Alp/Clandestino Dinner
At some point during my perpetual quest to read about all things food, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune describing a local underground supper club that goes by the name of Clandestino. What is a supper club, you may ask? This is a fairly new (i.e., within the last 10 years) dining concept by which a chef (or group of chefs) cooks for patrons outside of the standard restaurant environment, usually in a private residence. Typically, you need to be on the club's email list in order to receive information about when/where the next event is being held, hence the "underground" label. The concept allows chefs without a restaurant to continue to hone their skills and try out new dishes, while allowing the diner to have a unique culinary experience.
Feeling intrigued and a bit adventurous, I signed Mrs. Hackknife and I up for the group's June dinner, which took place this past Saturday evening. After ponying up the fee ($125 each, not a paltry sum), I received an email 3 days beforehand listing the dinner's location (a loft near the intersection of Chinatown, Bridgeport, and Pilsen on the near southwest side of the city), menu (6 courses with a strawberry theme), and instructions on where to park, etc. Upon learning that we would be in the vicinity of Chinatown, what is the first thought that pops into my demented skull? Why, wouldn't it be lovely if we could stop in Chinatown for a brief snack prior to consuming a 6-course meal? I just happened to have in my possession a copy of the May 13, 2010 Tribune Play section containing the insider's guide to dining in Chinatown, being saved in the Hackknife archives for this very purpose.
With great gustatory anticipation, we rolled into Chinatown at around 6, leaving plenty of time before our Clandestino dinner at 7, located only about 10 blocks away. Our destination: Saint's Alp, a Hong Kong-based chain of Asian teahouses serving small plates of tasty food as well. My guide tells me to order deep-fried tako balls (octopus fritters); alas, they are out (no doubt picked clean en masse by intrepid Chicago foodies clued in by the Tribune article), so we settle for deep-fried shrimp balls and crispy-fried bead curd cubes instead, both of which are delicious. Wash everything down with the taro (a flavor not unlike coconut and buttered popcorn combined) bubble tea, says my guide, and I do, and it rocks, with chewy black tapioca pearls lining the bottom of the glass, adding a wicked texture (note to self: next time, order the jumbo, not the regular).
Feeling pretty happy and not the least bit gluttonous, we pulled up to the loft space for our underground dinner right before 7. Inside was a sparsely decorated room with bright geometric paintings lining the white walls (very much like an art gallery). It turns out that the space is owned and lived in by, surprise, an artist. Joining us at our table were, well, mostly artistic, creative types: a young stagehand and his wife (who manages a framing store), a 50-ish woman who performs in a band that plays children's music and her husband insurance executive (people in the insurance industry are drawn to Mrs. Hackknife like moths to a flame), and the young female artist whose paintings were being exhibited in the room (accompanied by a young hip beau who seemed mostly disinterested in the evening's hoopla). I can only hope that they were all pleased to have us polar opposite folks (mathematician/consultant and scientist/former consultant/homemaker) in their immediate presence to break up the conversation a bit. All in all, about 40-50 people total (mostly young, stylish, urbanites) were poised to enjoy an underground feast.
And feast away we did - bacon-wrapped strawberry for Course #1, a cured slice of lake trout perched on a tostada-like flatbread (my personal favorite of the evening's menu) paired with a rhubarb tequila shot for #2, a small plate of fettuccine noodles in a mild garlic pesto with vodka lemonade (#3), a spinach/strawberry salad with a bacon-thyme vinaigrette and a strawberry mint mimosa (#4), a grilled walleye fillet with pistachio-oregano butter, english peas, tendrils, grilled mashed potatoes, and a bottle of Two Brothers Domaine Du Page beer (see photo above of Course #5), and last, but not least, a strawberry shortcake ice cream sundae with homemade strawberry beer (think non-alcoholic, like root beer).
All sounds delicious, right? How was it? Well, good in my opinion, but I wouldn't call it great, at least not for what it cost. The pesto was a little on the bland side (granted we make our pesto supercharged here at the commissary), the walleye could have used more of the pistachio-oregano butter, and the strawberry mint mimosa had too much, let's call it particulate floating in the liquid. The quality of the ingredients appeared to be good (and we should know as the chef told everyone he gets much of his produce from Genesis Growers, who also provides us w/vegetables at home each week), the cooking techniques appeared to be sound, and certainly the amount of booze included was ample. This may simply be what to expect when skilled people are prepping dinner in a environment that lacks the quality control/support system of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. That being said, Mrs. Hackknife and I agreed that the experience was very worthwhile and we'd be interested in participating again at some point.