I can think of a few reasons to be knocking on an unfamiliar door in Brixton after dark on a Saturday, but fine dining wouldn’t normally be one of them.
Still, there I was, five expectant friends in tow, stomach rumbling as I pressed the buzzer for Number Six and my first secret supper, courtesy of the Salad Club. I know, I know, it sounds like a WeightWatchers’ franchise. But don’t be fooled.
Apparently, if you’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s latest series (which I have not), then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m on about. A secret supper is what happens when somebody turns their living room into a “pop-up” restaurant for the evening. People book tables via friends, or friends of friends, or – far more modern – by keeping track of the appropriate blogs, such as saladclub.wordpress.com. There are pop-up bars, pop-up shops and pop-up galleries, too.
You’ve probably read about pop-up already, since it’s one of those phenomena, like Y2K or The Wire, that journalists get terribly excited by – out of all proportion to its real-world impact. Salad Club has already earned a mention in two other national newspapers, one now-defunct London freesheet and Grazia magazine. The first people to greet us after the waitress (a pal of the cooks) were a crew from a German TV channel. The girls in my party frantically applied lipstick as the camera glided in our general direction.
Rosie and Ellie, two charming young media professionals who just bloody love cooking, and aren’t too bothered by 16 near-strangers invading their house on a Saturday night, have been cultivating Salad Club like a prize vegetable since spring. The blog gives diners a behind-the-counter look at the evening’s preparation: a few days after dinner the pair wrote a post about their stressful night of knife cuts, meat juice spillages and Ramsay-worthy swearathons, none of which translated into our food.
A fennel and olive bruschetta – which, according to the blog, took a few goes to get right without burning it – was followed by spectacular spiced pumpkin and ginger soup; an autumnal, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb with onion gratin and a minted pea-and-barley salad (serve me a fresh garden pea or two and I’ll be yours forever, by the way); and a garden plum and almond tart with crème fraiche, featuring fruit from Rosie’s allotment. We were replete. Weight Watchers would be outraged.
As Salad Club takes place in someone’s living room, and you have to bring your own booze, it feels halfway to being a mate’s dinner party. Indeed, the cooks joined us after coffee for a drink and a smoke. It should, therefore, be considerably more relaxed than a real restaurant, but a secret supper also involves a whole new set of meta-etiquette dilemmas.
Should one engage the “staff” in friendly banter? Should one engage one’s fellow diners in friendly banter? Should one write about the surroundings as well as the food when recounting the experience in print? Well, screw it, I’m going to: if you didn’t know it was the home of someone with impeccable taste buds, you could probably deduce as much from the abstract expressionism on the walls, the big Bauhaus book on the coffee table, the copy of Barthes’ Image Music Text on the bookshelf and the DVD of – ahem – The Wire’s first series resting casually on the windowsill of the “smoking area” (which is in fact some poor unfortunate’s bedroom, destined to be choked with the stench of Golden Virginia for weeks to come).
The washing up was being done in the bath, which meant we had to wait for a lull in the flow of dirty dishes before popping to the loo. This, like the freshly cut flowers on each table, was a delightful quirk rather than an irritation. The friendliness of the occasion and the hosts was infectious; we discovered that it was the fellow at the next table’s birthday so, feeling incredibly magnanimous, we sent over a bottle of our £3.75 Merlot to him and his friend/girlfriend/wife as if we were characters in a Rat Pack movie.
As for the bill, each diner left their “suggested donation” of £25 or thereabouts in a tobacco tin. There’s been speculation that the boom in pop-up dining is some sort of credit-crunch trend, but it’s not exactly a budget dining experience. Dinner at Strada would’ve been cheaper; it just wouldn’t have been nearly as tasty, or as fun. On the bus home, my friends and I mulled the the possibility of establishing our own BYOB pop-up pub, before deciding that this would actually just be a house party.