|The giant squirrel sign post.|
The directions to the dinner party said to STOP when I saw the giant squirrel. I had imagined an oversized concrete statue or maybe even a weirdo in a squirrel costume, but if I had known more about East London, I would have known that I was looking for graffiti. Still, it was no less dramatic. I continued on from the giant squirrel, excited at who I might meet at the other end of my journey. These directions felt a little bit like the commands Alice received when she fell through the looking glass, but instead of a mad Queen of Hearts I was met by a lovely lady who immediately said I was much more glamorous than she ever thought I’d be after reading my blog. With her bright red lipstick, scarf in her hair and dancing blue eyes, I had just been greeted by our hostess for the New Friends Table, one of the more than 200 secret dining clubs that have popped up here in London.
When I read about the New Friends Table and its recent expansion across the Channel from Paris, I knew I had to apply. I was actually on the bus and laboriously poked out a full-scale letter on my iPhone, hoping to make a good impression on those who would pick who to invite – or perhaps more correctly, the right impression:Upon reflection, it was a terrible plea, but it worked (along with a link to my blog) and I was asked to join for a secret dinner last Friday.
As I entered the small private home that was our dining room for the evening, I was introduced to some fellow guests, offered a parmesan poppy seed cracker (my husband’s crack) and a glass of champagne. The room was serene after my trek from the tube station through East London. The hipster crowd at the Owl & the Pussycat pub down the street had spilled out onto the lane in the early warm weather. I’m not at all cool enough for this neighborhood! Candlelight in the dining room made us all look gorgeous, twinkling as it bounced off all of the vintage glassware and mismatched plates arranged on the table. Bunches of daffodils littered every antique linen cloth-covered surface.
For my £80 I was promised a seven course dinner with unlimited paired wines to match each dish. The cost is at the high end of the secret dining clubs, but there was something in the tone of this particular club that appealed to me. Turns out, this is all down to the founder and our hostess (who will remain nameless as these clubs aren’t really supposed to be happening for Health & Safety reasons). She is a wife and mother of two grown children, has had many and varied careers and is now exploring the culinary scenes in Paris and London – channeling her own love of people and pouring that love into her food.
As the eight of us sat for diner, we quickly summed ourselves up and got on with the deeper getting to know you chit chat. First dish to the table was a duo of French Bordier butters on sourdough bread. One square on the plate had been mixed with seaweed, the other with smoked sea salt. They melted in my mouth. Half of our group at the table were friends already, involved in PR, events, and headhunting. Their ease with one another lent a general ease to the entire group, the wine flowed easily and the room was full of laughter.
Next, served family style, was a white crab and red grapefruit salad with radicchio and a little Heston Blumenthally touch – grapefruit jelly cubes (that’s jello to you and me). Our hostess deposited one platter at each end of the table, obviously pleased with the result, and she should have been. I love jello with crab (particularly an avocado one) and the grapefruit was a terrific combo. Slowly our leading lady divulged in fits and spurts how she had come to start this dining club, her previous career incarnations (including an antiques dealer at Camden Market 30 years ago), and her passion for food and bringing people together.
For the third course I was presented with a little china tea cup emitting waves of heady basil – a satisfying broth with leeks, new potatoes and basil oil. As our hostess continued her story, talking about how she loved to cook for her kids and friends, I was reminded of how I have often felt since I started cooking for a living. I always pour my heart into my cooking and when I can’t bring that love to my dishes, you can absolutely taste the difference (well, maybe not everyone can, but I certainly do). She scurried down the steep stairs to the kitchen to put her love into course four.
Number four was my favorite dish of the night (well, we will get to dessert soon) and not one I’m normally fond of. It was a confit of black pudding, sourced from a special shop in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris (I must find out where), drizzled with a Beaune mustard dressing served on wilted bitter greens. The texture of the black pudding was yielding, the taste sharply salty and yet somehow simultaneously sweet. The greens were simple and the mustard brought an acidity to the whole dish that kept it from being too rich. I loved it!
I was seated between two terrific characters (like recovering addicts, no names here) who obviously knew a lot about food and appreciated the kitchen’s efforts on this night. And my friend on my left was incredibly adept with his silver service skills! I can be shy and have been accused of being aloof (yes, really), but part of the charm of the New Friends Table is the effort the hostess goes to to make certain the group will click. Now how she does it from banal missives like mine, I do not know, but ours was a winning combination of people, including a young Irishman looking for a girlfriend – an astronaut preferably, and a beautiful French girl who works in finance.
The main course was a Daube de Boeuf, Parisienne Style – or a beef stew. This one was cooked in white wine, not the typical red, with a somewhat Provencal twist that included tomatoes, cumin and orange peel, all served over polenta squares. At this point a young man in a Breton striped top emerged with our hostess from the kitchen in the basement. This was our bread and pastry chef for the evening – from Sweden originally, he came to the UK to study graphic design and figured out pretty quickly that design wasn’t his true calling. Now he’s opening a bakery in East London, much like the many that have bloomed all over Stockholm, and in the meantime he helps the hostess prepare all of the bread and pastry from scratch for the London New Friends dinners. I led the round of applause for him.
A wheel of Mont d’Or cheese from France’s Comte region came next (yes, it was endless and worth every calorie). This is a cheese wrapped in spruce and available only from November to May. Apparently the cows are brought into the barns during this period and are fed on hay which can then be tasted in the gooey washed rind cheese. The hostess passed it around with a spoon so you could dig out your portion and lovely homemade sourdough bread that the Swedish baker had made earlier that day. I would have been happy with just the spoon and the cheese in front of me for the rest of time – greedy girl that I am.
Finally, (sort of) an enormous glass dish with a chocolate tart was put in the center of the table. It was heaven – a salted chocolate tart with cognac cream served with a Cuvee de Loop red wine. I tried a sip of the wine before the accompanying tart and on it’s own it had a vaguely chocolaty taste. The sea salt on the tart just lifted the taste that little bit to make it truly special. All combined was bliss.
|Hard to see, but the glass dish holds the magic salted chocolate tart.|
Now, five hours into conversation and a lovely French style meal (somehow I never feel stuffed after I eat this way), it was time to call for a car and leave the glow of the room and my new friends. We exchanged contact information and I told them to watch for this post about our night together. One poor guest, due to fly to Zurich early the next morning, was nodding off on his girlfriend’s shoulder. The group of four friends had at least one more social event on their evening’s calendar – where they got the energy I don’t know.
As a final flourish our delightful hostess presented a small plate of cocoa dusted lime and campari truffles. Sinful. And when she showed me to the door, lime zest still bursting in my mouth, she pulled out a basked of old random black and white photos. She says she chooses one for each of us after the night is over. I was handed a photo of a woman posing for an admirer in her 50s bikini at the seaside. She looks happy, free, and confident and that’s exactly how I felt as I left the embrace of these new friends, full of delicious food, good conversation and optimism.