The events of the week of Sept. 19, 1886, included, as per The New York Times, “the opening of another dining club, the Exchange Club, on New-street, and it is rumored that a coterie of dry goods merchants in the neighborhood of Twenty-third-street will soon organize a similar establishment up town.” (As regards the Union Club, the Times noted, “There is no truth to the rumor in club circles that a coterie is forming to introduce card playing in the club.”)
New Yorkers’ primal obsession with exclusive settings—such as consuming one’s food in a place where no one else, or only a precious few, are allowed to enter—is not a new development. It could even, perhaps, be said to be in our city’s DNA, and therefore the founding of such establishments as the Soho House not an occasion for lamentation but rather, nostalgia. (Its current membership, however, might be occasion for some degree of despair.)
As it did in the 19th century, the intersection of food and exclusivity is one that continues to beguile. And so as the murmurs in the past few months about the increasing number of secret dining clubs in the city—this one for Williamsburg residents, that one for gourmands who feed their children unpasteurized milk—grew louder, you could almost hear the flatware clanking against the vintage Limoges china.
It was thus that, two or so weeks ago, The Observer took the elevator to the eighth floor of a dingy office building near Herald Square—the kind of building, one thinks, where a phone sex operation would set up shop—and, through a window, handed an envelope with $150 in twenties and tens (receipts were not available) to a receptionist. The cash represented a 50 percent deposit to reserve two spaces at a dinner for thirty to be held by the NY Bite Club, a members-only dining club started last year by two enterprising young chefs that, despite its secrecy and dubious legality, nonetheless has a Web site and an e-mail listserv.
Then, last Saturday evening, a journey to a commercial loft building in the West 20’s. “8pm SHARP,” read the e-mail received two days prior. Other instructions: “Upon stepping off the elevator turn right. One of your waitresses for the night will greet you at the door and take you down a long hallway. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT that silence be maintained while walking through this hallway. All noise can be heard by neighbors and that can bring a lot of attention to our operation, which isn’t going to be acceptable.”
Silence was maintained.
The door opened into a tiny kitchen, where the two chefs in dark blue chef’s uniforms were hunched over a conventional four-burner stove. They appeared to be in their mid-20’s, a baby-faced fellow named Daniel and a woman, Alicia, with long brown hair. Though they were the hosts and, along with a woman named Liz, who was one of our waitresses, the masterminds of NY Bite Club, they would not be seen except for brief bursts during the evening.
A curtain separated the kitchen from the dining room, where six tables (five with diners, one for bartender Joaquin Simo, who was from the secretive Lower East Side bar Death & Co.; he would be doing a cocktail pairing with each course) were crammed into a high-ceilinged space. We were led to a table by the window, where we soon met our fellow diners: a doctor there without his wife (“She wouldn’t want to come anywhere you couldn’t get stuff on the side”); a woman who worked as a producer for a food television show; another young couple.
Awkward banter ensued, mostly queries about whether anyone had been before, and whether they had gone to other dining clubs, such as Whisk and Ladle or Peerless Tables or Ghetto Gourmet.
There was talk of the cocktails to come that evening: “We tried going to Death & Co., but they wouldn’t let us in,” said the young woman across the table, who had long red hair and was wearing a black dress. She was an attorney who wished to be a literary agent.
The diners at the other tables all seemed to know each other.
The first cocktails—a champagne drink in classic and anise flavors—were downed quickly, and soon replaced by the first course’s paired cocktail: a Tappan Zee Sidecar, which was described on the menu as a “riff on the classic Sidecar.” These were to be drunk with two pieces of bone marrow, served with parsley shallot salad, garlic jam and toast. In this case, one inserts the knife into the bone and scrapes out the fatty marrow, spreads it on toast and adds jam, and considers that one’s dog would be quite interested in this course.
The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” came on the stereo; the TV producer took out her camera and took several photographs of the first course. “I asked them if I could take pictures,” she said, somewhat apologetically. “I keep meaning to start a food blog!”
Second course: quail and waffles, the quail being from the Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton, N.J., the waffle being of unknown provenance, but coming out cold. The drink, an Upper West Side Express, was described thusly on the menu: “When I crave chicken n’ waffles, the only thing I want next to my place is a nice cuppa joe.” The appropriation of comfort food by the locavorian elite is, of course, nothing new; the sting of paying $150 a head was mitigated slightly when, in the line for the bathroom (past the kitchen, on the left), the chef offered those waiting a drumstick of extra quail.
At one point, it became clear that the toilet was not flushing. “When a lot of people use it, that happens,” one of the chefs said. “But thanks for letting us know.”
Upon return to the table, there was a Whisky, Tea & Me beverage (Yunan Province Pu-erh tea, Rittenhouse Rye, Keo St. John Commandaria, Fee Bros. Whiskey-Barrel Aged Bitters) waiting. Unlike the waffles, this cocktail was served warm, with a dish (the Morning Egg) of poached duck egg and shiitake mushrooms in a mushroom broth. The table gave its fourth toast of the evening; the young man at the head of the table was discussing with his companion their plans for later in the week, which included a dinner with Tamsin Lonsdale’s Supper Club. Meanwhile the TV producer noted that she had been to a private dining club in Seattle.
By this point in a dinner with wine pairings, one might start to feel drowsy, but the immediate benefit of doing a cocktail pairing is that one feels remarkably awake, and rather drunk (the cons of this approach become, however, ever more evident in the middle of the night). But before the arrival of the Pork ‘n Beans (five-spice caramelized pork belly, cranberry bean purée, pomegranate reduction) and the Connie Appleseed, a warning from the bartender: “This drink comes with half the glass dipped in the spice used to rub the pork belly. Do not drink from this side of the glass.” The red-haired woman removed all the fat on her pork belly, protesting that otherwise she might get sick. Also, it soon became clear that her young boyfriend was very, very rich. And Lily Allen came on the stereo.
By the time the
dessert course arrived—Rose Tres Leches—it was nearly midnight, and even though the gin fizzy drink that accompanied it was made with a brand of gin described on its Web site as having “evolved from a friendship and mutual passion for the culinary artistry found within the realm of spirits and cocktails,” a couple of them were left half-finished. Then the presentation of personalized bills to each diner or couple (balance: $150); quick rustling and whispering as cash was extracted and gratuities discussed; and a flurry for the coats and thanks all around, and The Observer, mindful of the e-mailed instructions to “not talk about the food, fellow diners, etc. until you have left the building,” walked silently through the hallway and took the elevator down to the deserted street.