It sounds like the sort of thing that requires shadowy connections and cryptic codes. Whispered passwords, scribbled maps, secret signals. Clandestine meals in hidden locations. Like being in a culinary version of the Résistance, complete with fear of surprise raids from the Health Department.
As it turns out, this image is a little exaggerated. The reality involves far less subterfuge, and a little more struggling with the vagaries of the MBTA bus route. Or so I discovered when I attended a O.N.C.E. dinner this past Sunday.
Though the acronym might sound like we're still thinking espionage (as in SMERSH, SPECTRE, and all that old-school James Bond fun), O.N.C.E. stands for "One Night Culinary Event," and it's the brainchild of locavore personal chef JJ Gonson. Apparently she's been holding these events for a while, but I wasn't in the loop until I made the acquaintance of Jacqueline Church, the Leather District Gourmet. She mentioned O.N.C.E. on her blog and encouraged people to attend.
Which is how, come Sunday evening, I'm wandering about Union Square, and very, very lost. After two buses and considerable confusion, I'm cursing Google Maps and HopStop and thinking that Somerville probably does qualify as a clandestine location for a law student who spends most of her time in Allston. I have an address, but none of the streets have clear signs. In the end, I stumble across the given location - a restaurant that is closed on Sundays - entirely by accident.
Once I'm inside and confirm that yes, I am in the right place, my mood improves rapidly. I met up with Jacqueline, the aforementioned Leather District Gourmet, and Richard, The Passionate Foodie, both of whom I first met at the blogger dinner at Sandrine's a few weeks ago. I also make the acquaintance of Dale Cruse, of Drinks Are On Me.
We settle down at our table, and Richard and Dale reveal that they've brought a total of four bottles of wine between them - three reds and a rosé. (I'm suddenly glad that I finished my reading assignment before I left, because I have a feeling I'm not going to be doing much after dinner.) After we admire the bottles for a bit, Richard pours glasses of the rosé, a 2006 Domaine Tempier. It's light, subtle, and very drinkable.
Our first course (of ten!) arrives shortly after: savory profiteroles with duxelles (mushroom spread) and körözött, a kind of Hungarian dip made with anchovies and cream cheese. They're deliciously crispy and a little salty, and my only complaint is that there aren't more of them.
Conversation drifts from blog interviews back to wine, and I work up the nerve to confess that while I can taste a wine and have some idea of what to serve it with, I have no idea how to do things the other way around. My tablemates offer some helpful pointers, and then the next course, soup, appears.
JJ Gonson appears too, welcoming us to O.N.C.E. She explains that the soup before us is made with a three-seaweed broth, contains corn, zucchini and spinach, and is seasoned with epazote. It's very light and could perhaps use a little salt, but the seaweed broth is pleasantly umami, and the vegetables (locally grown, frozen during the summer) are full of flavor.
There's a sudden hush (at our table, at least) when a server comes out bearing a majestic pâté de campagne, wrapped in pastry crust and decorated with stars. We're told that it'll be the next course, served with liverwurst and grainy mustard. Richard takes this as a sign that we should start on the next bottle of wine, a red by a winemaker named Sean H. Thackery. It's called Pleaides, because he names all his wines for constellations, and this one contains seven different grape varietals. It's a little spicy and smells of berry fruit, and again, it's very drinkable.
The pâté de campagne arrives, and the table turns silent as we turn our attention to our plates. It's richly, satisfyingly porky with a touch of garlic, and it goes very nicely with the grainy mustard. The liverwurst is also delicious, and it prompts Jacqueline to recount how she brought liverwurst sandwiches to school as a child, and didn't realise that her classmates thought it was weird until they started trading lunches. I can sympathize: my classmates were horrified when my lunch contained sliced pigs' ears.
The conversation somehow turns to college, and it comes out that all of us had impractical liberal arts majors. (Which probably explains why three out of the four of us ended up going to law school.) There's a toast to useless fields of study, and then our server brings out the next course, a salad of pea tendrils, beets, and sunchoke with ume vinaigrette.
The salad is one of the prettiest I've seen in a while: bright green pea tendrils, with thin slices of red beet, golden beet, and yellow sunchoke. The ume vinaigrette has a haunting, sweet-sour flavor, and it goes nicely with the freshness of the vegetables.
(For photos, try the behind-the-scenes writeup over at Cake and Commerce.)
Rumor has it that the next course involves lobster. I never actually read the posted menu, so I'm very excited when the next round of plates starts appearing: lobster ravioli with vanilla butternut squash puree. One bite in, I'm already trying to figure out how soon I can replicate the dish at home. I wouldn't think to combine lobster and squash, but it's a very effective pairing: the sweetness of squash plays up the lobster, and the vanilla's an interesting touch.
Next, we have a palate cleanser of grapefruit segments with vanilla sugar and mint. It's so simple, it's genius. The grapefruit is very refreshing, very effective, and a lot more appealing than sorbet. Someone needs to get this idea out to all those fine dining establishments that insist on serving lumps of crushed ice mid-meal.
The table starts on a third bottle of wine, another Domaine Tempier, but red. It's smooth and fruity and a little spicy, and the conversation turns to grape varietals. Dale tells us that he's just become a member of the "Wine Century Club," a group for people who have tried a hundred or more different grape varieties. He was also at a wine tasting at which he sampled wines from India. (Apparently, there was one wine that had a smoky aroma, like that of a car on fire. This is, as you might guess, not a good thing.)
The next round of plates starts to come out of the kitchen: lamb rack in pistachio-pepita crust, served with beach plum and Grand Marnier sauce and a sunchoke and celery root risotto. The lamb is from Stillman's Farm in Hardwick, and it's fantastic, all sweet and pink and tender. The sauce is subtle and sweet, and the risotto is pleasantly creamy. I am sorely tempted to duck into the kitchen and plead with the chef for another helping.
The table begins on its fourth and final bottle of wine: an Eileen Hardy Shiraz from 1998. It's complex, bold and a little tannic, but not over-the-top. (Bear with me. I am fully expecting Dale and Richard to provide the intelligent commentary.)
I'm trying to get the last little scraps of lamb off the bone using my knife and fork, when Jacqueline remarks that she'd really like to pick up the bone and just gnaw on it. I've been thinking the exact same thing, so I pick up my lamb bone and dare her to do the same, as Richard and Dale look on in amusement. (I think Richard may even have photos.) It's hardly fine manners, but it's very satisfying.
Our next course is vegetables: sauteed sweet potatoes with Mexican chili, and a salad of jasmine blanched kale and pecans. The sweet potatoes are pleasantly spicy, and the pecans add a satisfying crunch to the kale. There is some joking about not getting dessert if we don't finish this course, but I don't think we're in any danger of that.
JJ Gonson reappears from the kitchen, and checks in to make sure that everyone's still up for the two remaining courses. The crowd responds enthusiastically, and soon the servers are passing out plates of mac & cheese, made with local cheese and seasoned with truffle oil and smoked paprika.
My favorite course so far has been the lamb, hands down, but the mac & cheese appears to be the crowd favorite. I can understand why. It's rich and creamy, and the truffle oil is satisfyingly pungent. I wouldn't refuse if, by some miracle, there was more in the kitchen.
Our final course is dessert: warm apple cranberry crumble with candied ginger and cardamom, served with vanilla ice-cream from Shaw's Farm. The crumble is fruity and spicy and not too sweet, and it goes perfectly with the ice-cream.
We linger for a little while longer after the dessert plates are cleared. Once the restaurant has mostly emptied, we get the chance to talk to JJ Gonson. Much to my delight, she gives me a brief rundown on how to prepare the lamb.
It's snowing as we leave the restaurant, and I am not looking forward to wandering about Union Square again, trying to find the right bus stop. Dale kindly offers me a lift, however, and I am spared that particular struggle.
It's been an excellent evening. I think I'd like to do this underground dining thing again.