Underground restaurants, or secret supper clubs, have continued to prosper (hey, even Des Moines has one), so much so that in New York City last year, five of them collaborated on a two-evening Thanksgiving dinner that attracted more than 150 guests a night. In Chicago, despite the scoffing of ornery food bloggers who will remain unnamed (whose bad moods may have been triggered by continuously needing to request seatbelt extenders on plane rides), there are probably more than half a dozen supper clubs tickling both the palates and the sense of cloak and dagger excitement of the city’s foodie community. As my devoted blog readers know, I am a big supporter of Sunday Dinner Club, and have attended their various dinners over the past year and a half, each time bringing with me new apostles to the underground dining concept. I have also gone to a couple more of the Chicago supper clubs, as well (and since I haven’t blogged about them or mentioned them by name, I probably wouldn’t be back). A lot of my friends have been drawn by the “underground” or “secret” part – there’s always a thrill to anything covert, anything promising the unexpected, anything that seems to have only an “in the know” few. But that’s only part of the equation – there’s that other word, you know, “restaurant”…and I think underground dining is so much more important to our contemporary food culture because of that: the Sunday Dinner Club chefs for one focus on seasonal, organic food and small-farm producer sourcing; they also build a community among their attendees, who come again and again. Plus the food is for the most part delicious. The new-ish Chicago underground supper club, X-Marx Chicago, in my opinion, though, takes the “restaurant” part of the phrase to an entirely new level – incorporating elements of finer dining into the underground. Last weekend, however, when it hosted a “wine dinner” with a mystery guest chef, and wine pairings thoughtfully selected by Craig Perman of the West Loop boutique wine store, Perman Wine Selections, it elevated the entire underground restaurant scene into transcendence.
BFF Debra and I first went a couple of weekends ago to X-Marx’s spring-focused dinner, and I was pretty impressed, not just with the quality of the ingredients, sourced locally and organically, but also with the conceptualization of the dishes and their plating. There was a level of refinement that you wouldn’t normally expect in an underground dinner – a salad with smoked papaya that tasted startlingly, incongruously like smoked salmon; a pasture-raised veal duet with fried sweetbreads on one side of the plate, and veal potstickers cradled on a bed of kimchi-style ramps on the other, a flavorful and creative dish which still demonstrated a delicate hand. Having perused their website prior to going to the dinner, I knew they were going to have a Southeast Asian-themed dinner the following week with a mystery guest chef and wine pairings, but I really didn’t feel the need to go to underground dinners two Saturdays in a row. So I blinked several times, nearly popping my eyeballs out, when I saw a tiny note on the blackboard (which listed the menu items for the night) by the 18 person communal table in the South Loop loft that X-Marx held its dinner at: “Jeff Pikus Southeast Asian dinner April 17/18″. Ok, wait a minute, Jeff Pikus, as in Grant Achatz’s former Chef de Cuisine in Alinea, who has been mentioned in almost every article about Grant’s battle with and recovery from tongue cancer, who basically partnered with Grant, acting as his taste buds during the difficult times, and helped keep Alinea’s standing as one of the best restaurants in the world? Wait, that Jeff Pikus? Yes, the X-Marx folks confirmed, that Jeff Pikus, who after leaving Alinea, soaked himself in the flavors and culture of Vietnam for several months and was now back in Chicago. Well, I decided, even if I had an organ transplant operation scheduled, I would totally re-jigger my calendar and attend the dinner. I was positive it was going to be a night to remember.
And it was. I’m still swooning, nearly a week after. Craig’s wine pairings were, to say the least, spectacular: on Saturday night, when I attended, he created eight wine pairings for the eleven course dinner from Australian wines (on Friday night, he drew on a variety of wines from around the world), many of them I have never heard of, all of them vibrant, complex, sophisticated. I’m always wary of wine pairings for Asian food, particularly Southeast Asian food, where the flavors are bold, eclectic, always executing a routine on the balance beam – delicate in one bite, high-kicking the next. So, I think it’s always hard to find wines that can stand up to Southeast Asian food’s demanding taste profile. And the dishes that Chef Pikus, and Chef Abe Conlon, X-Marx’s Grand Poobah, conjured up had quite the taste profile. Having grown-up and traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, I’m pretty particular about my Asian food, so I’m not normally impressed by anything that reinvents Asian dishes to suit Western ingredients, cooking techniques and palettes (hear that, Arun’s?). But this 11 course dinner was pretty impressive. One thing I liked about the dinner was the focus- it was Vietnamese (with a little bit of Thai and Cambodian thrown in) street food, reconceptualized at times, imaginatively enhanced at others, but always respectful of the original dish. There were no wild, wacky fusion hoohahs (hear that, Jean Georges Spice Market?). It was clear-eyed, firm-handed, refined cooking, and sexy too…well as sexy as banh mih overflowing with headcheese and porchetta could be! (but more on that later).
The evening started with passed hors d’oeuvres: pork skin cracklings infused with chili and vinegar, served at room temperature, and a re-invention of the Vietnamese crispy pancake snack banh dap, in which Chef Pikus placed a piece of homemade lardo (a type of Italian salume) and shredded vegetables on top of a prawn cracker, to be eaten in one bite. I thought the cracklings were extremely addictive, and were served at the temperature they normally were in Asia; although I love The Publican’s pork rinds, their hot, fresh off the fryer nature was not what I was used to growing up. I was fine with the banh dap, and thought it was a good one-bite appetizer but not gasp-inducing. Craig’s 2004 Clover Hill Brut, though, which he served with the appetizers, was – refreshingly buoyant; it helped balance the triple-threat richness of the fried pork skin, the fried prawn cracker, and the lardo.
The seated portion of the dinner began with another re-imagining of a Vietnamese snack food. Banh bao is a dumpling stuffed with pork or chicken and vegetables; in Jeff’s hands it became an open faced sandwich made up of a homemade bun with a tempura-fried oyster in it. I wasn’t crazy about the bun (I thought it had great dough texture but was a little too cooled-off for my taste), but the oyster was perfection. When I bit into that oyster, crunchy, sweet, meaty, I thought someone grabbed me and hung me upside down on a zipline. It was the most perfect piece of breaded oyster I have ever had.
Then Chef Conlon came out with his version of Northern Thailand garlic sausages. You can find these sausages, made of pork, served crispy and always packing a punch due to its heavy garlic flavor in some of the best storefront Thai restaurants in the city. Abe’s version was made with duck, but the flavor components were kept the same. So the sausages were pungent and garlicky still, but not fatty. What elevated the dish too was the addition of green mango juliennes, fleshy bits of longan, a lichee-like fruit common in Vietnam, and two puddles of green curry on the plate. I thought the curry was the perfect complement to the duck, but it was the sweet, fleshy longan which gave the dish a refreshing kick. I thought the portion size was also perfect for a transition between appetizer-type courses and the rest of the meal.
Then a Cambodian salad, from Chef Conlon, made of juicy, tangy pomelo slices on lettuce leaves with a very spicy chili dressing, and a fried anchovy (or a fried anchovy relative, since the fish looked a lot bigger than the anchovies I was used to having) came next. I was ambivalent on the dressing, I thought it was a little too amped-up, spice-wise for me, especially coming after the more laidback (but still flavor-filled) dishes. I thought that Craig sagely paired such an attention-grabbing dish with the more subtle, very light and summer-like 2005 Redbank Sauvignon Blanc.
A Vietnamese clam soup was Chef Pikus’ next offering. It was a hearty soup, full of mesmerizing flavors from the seafood stock, coriander, chilies, and fish paste that he used. But what I though pushed it into the land of the absurdly good was the sprinkling of cashews in the dish. I would never have thought to pair clams with cashews, but this mismatched duo worked, with the cashews’ nutty sweetness interacting beautifully with the clams’ bitter-sweet-salty flavor. I threw out all my Westernized inhibitions and slurped the wonderfully bracing stock after all the clams were gone. I was not totally sold on the 2004 Pikes Riesling pairing, which had a slightly jarring sandy floorboards feel to it (in Craig’s words, it tasted “flinty”), I would have preferred a sweetish wine with this fiercely complex dish.
Another salad came next: Chefs Pikus’ and Conlon’s collaborative vision of a green papaya salad, and boy, the dinner just soared from this point on, and never came down, stranding everyone ecstatically hundreds of miles above the stratosphere. This green papaya salad had just the right balance of zest and sourness, sweetness and herbness, and then was just pushed over the edge by the addition of tender home-made beef jerky and, especially, underneath all the julienned papaya slices, smoked mackerel that was bold, audacious, masculine. It was almost like finding Vin Diesel hiding underneath a goosedown duvet- a much welcome surprise! The 2005 Carlei Pinot Gris that was paired with it was perfectly subtle, a little bit more relaxed (sort of like having Paul Walker next to Vin!), a really nice accompaniment to the dish.
Then the heavy-hitters came out one after the other. The aforementioned banh mih, from Chef Conlon, used La Pattiserie P’s (one of my favorite Argyle St. stops) wonderfully crusty baguette and stuffed it with homemade headcheese, porchetta, daikon, chilies, and avocado, and topped it with a perfectly fried quail egg. This version of the famous Vietnamese sandwich still had its messy, chaotic, sock-it-to-your-gut deliciousness of the best Asian street food, but with the addition of unexpected ingredients such as the avocado and particularly the quail egg, the dish just transcended its roots and became almost otherworldly! I was still upside-down on the zipline, people, but I was now undulating! The lovely, mellow 2004 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz was like a relaxing foot massage compared to the exhausting-in-a-good-way impact of the revamped banh mih.
When you think the dinner couldn’t get any better, it did. Abe followed up with an enhanced version of the dish ca kho to, traditionally, a braised fish served in a claypot. He served the fresh catfish (which was still swimming in its aquarium at the Asian store five hours prior to the dinner) with a caramel glaze on a bed of jasmine rice with beansprouts and fried noodles on it, and with, this was the kicker, a couple of pieces of amazingly cooked pork belly resting beside it. The combination of the bitchslapping fatty goodness of the pork belly and the caressing tender sweetness of the catfish was just awe-inspiring. Awe-inspiring as well was what Craig paired with this dish – a limited production 2005 Grosset pinot noir which felt like a deep, plush cushion to sink yourself in after the trance-inducing bites.
Of course, Chef Pikus delivered the coup de grace – a phenomenal version of the Vietnamese noodle soup, bun bo hue, gracious in its nod to the original dish, but with a firm, complicated identity all its own. Bun bo hue is a more robust and rugged sibling of the popular pho noodle soup and Jeff’s version knocked me out – from the tenderness of the beef slices to the unimprovable al-dente texture of the rice noodles to the delightfully surprising use of meat products that were more refined and elegant than the original ingredients (veal tail instead of plain oxtail, boudin sausage instead of congealed blood patties, pork rillettes instead of just plain pork) to the intricate, heady, indecipherable lushness of the stock, comprised of all kinds of meat bones, shrimp paste, chilies, and coriander among those I could identify. I had another slurpfest with this one, but hey, I was ready to give up my name, my car, my bank account, after tasting those amazing flavors. And the wine pairing stood toe to toe with this amazing dish – a 2005 Cullen Mangan, a blend of malbec, petit verdot, and merlot, which was rich but not overwhelming, zesty but not competitively spicy, sleek and smooth.
Then dessert came, and blew me away and deposited me somewhere north of Tasmania. Jeff and Abe’s version of bubble tea used jackfruit, the sumo wrestlers of tropical fruits, massively proportioned, absolutely unbeatable, powerfully tasty and unapologetically pungent, with chicory flavored tapioca balls. It was a brilliant idea, the blending and breaking down of the jackfruit bringing out even more strongly it’s unique flavor. The bubble tea was accompanied by a sesame doughnut (ok) and a chili and salt dusted fresh pineapply slice (heavenly) as well as a 2005 De Bortoli Semillion, which was sweet, not cloying, light, but not dismissable.
This was quite the night of fine food and conversation, lasting close to four and a half hours, and many special kudos to Chefs Pikus and Conlon and the entire X-Marx group. If this was underground dining, who would ever want to come up for air?
Here’s the highlight of my evening – the Bun Bo Hoe being plated:
Here’s the sublime pork belly and catfish dish:
Here is the re-invented green papaya salad with the Vin Diesel-like mackarel:
All photos courtesy of X-Marx’s affable host Matthew, whose professional-level camera clearly dwarfed my digital camera. Look for upcoming dinners on X-Marx’s website: www.xmarxchicago.com.