I don't usually do internet memes. To be honest, I never quite understood why LOLcats became so popular. But when an e-mail announcing O.N.C.E. LOL (Lots O' Lobster) arrived in my inbox last week, the first thing that came to mind was that someone needed to create a LOL-lobster. (LOL-ster?)
(Above image pulled from Wikimedia Commons, and run through a LOLcat generator.)
Of course, the second thought - "I need to make a reservation!" - rapidly followed.
And so it is that when Friday evening rolls around, I find myself in a repeat of last winter's comedy of errors, trying to find a street near Union Square that seems to be missing a sign. Eventually, a helpful cashier at a pizza place points me in the right direction, and I'm only twenty minutes late when I arrive at the right address.
Once I'm inside, and up the stairs, I find myself in a high-ceilinged space that looks a little like a living room, and a little like a funky cafe. (I later learn that it's part of a community center.) There are several tables clustered together to create a dining room, but as I said, I've arrived late, and there isn't an open seat at any of them. Instead, I end up sitting in a sort of lounge area where couches and armchairs are arranged in a circle, paired with fold-out tray tables. It's off to the side, but it's right next to the open kitchen, so I have an excellent view of the action.
(No photos, as per my usual policy when dining out. But JJ has a few over on her blog.)
I settle in and make myself comfortable. My immediate neighbors have already struck up a conversation, so it's easy to join in. I make the acquaintance of JJ Gonson's mother, Dorothy, and chat a little with Annabelle, a nutrition student who also blogs (she's the mind behind Wholesome Cuisine.) Another of the guests seated at our "table" opens a bottle of cava, and offers everyone a glass. I gladly accept. I've brought a bottle of Vouvray, and I'll share later.
A few more latecomers trickle in, and then one of the servers starts to bring around platters of the "world's tiniest surf-and-turf:" toothpick skewers with cubes of garlic scape-marinated steak, and morsels of lobster with butter and lemon. They're just enough to whet our appetites, a promise of more good things to come.
Conversation revolves around - what else? - food. We discuss cookbooks and CSAs, and I admit that while it sometimes frustrates me that I can't find CSA boxes for one, I'm also relieved that I don't have to figure out what to do with mountains of squash and kale when fall gets underway.
Speaking of squash, the servers start to come around with big bowls of something that is probably pumpkin risotto, if the menu on the blackboard in the corner is anything to go by. We're served generous ladlefuls, and I eagerly set to work with my fork. The risotto is pleasantly creamy and faintly garlicky, with just a little bite left in the cubes of sugar pumpkin. When JJ (cheerfully clad in a bright pink apron with cartoon cat appliqué) comes around with another big bowl and offers us seconds, I eagerly accept.
We've been advised that it's going to be a long, leisurely meal, and so we settle back on the couches, relaxing before the next course arrives. When it does, however, we're all quick to sit up, attention fully seized by the sight of panko-crusted fried green tomato rounds topped with lobster salad. The combination is inspired: warm, soft, faintly sweet tomato in a crunchy coating, contrasted with cold creamy salad full of generous chunks of lobster. I hear one of my tablemates say that she's stealing the idea. I think I wouldn't mind stealing it myself.
We have lobster ravioli coming up next, and the conversation turns to pasta. I describe my own adventures in ravioli-making, and Dorothy asks me if I know anything about preparing Chinese dumplings. The answer is decidedly "Not much," though I know plenty about eating them. I tell her about xiaolongbao, and promise to get back to her with the name of a restaurant that serves them in Boston.
JJ appears once again with a big bowl, and carefully spoons lobster ravioli with vanilla butternut squash puree onto our plates. This is a dish I remember from the winter O.N.C.E. dinner, and I'm glad to see it making a reappearance. There's not quite as much lobster in the ravioli this time around, but the squash puree is excellent - sweet with vanilla, and wonderfully silky.
We settle back on the couches again, and at least one member of the table curls up for a brief power nap. It's starting to get late, but we've still got three courses to go.
Next up: we have to eat our vegetables if we want dessert. JJ has decided that our vegetable tonight will be a wilted arugula salad with apples softened in bacon fat, lightly seasoned with cinnamon and dressed with vinegar and olive oil. One of the servers calls it "apple pie salad," which isn't a bad description. It is a little odd, but I rather like the sweet-sour effect of the apples with the bitterness of the arugula.
A new arrival shows up in the lounge area after the salad. Apparently one of the tables in the dining area was set up for a solo diner, and he decided he wanted more in the way of dinner conversation. He's brought local wine to match the local food - a chardonnay from Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln, MA - and offers it around the table. The Vouvray I came with has worked well enough with all the dishes so far, but I'm curious to try more local wine, and so I suggest that we switch bottles for a glass. It's a good move - the wine is faintly spicy, a little minerally, and when the Goan lobster curry shows up, it makes for a rather effective pairing.
The Goan lobster curry is the work of a guest chef, Arun, and it's the show-stealing dish of the evening. It's tomato-based with hints of coconut, assertively spicy, wonderfully complex, and completely unlike any curry I've ever eaten before. Odd as it might sound, the closest comparison I can think of is crab gumbo. I am regretful but unsurprised to hear that there will not be any seconds.
To cool things down after the curry, we have lychee ice-cream with fresh yellow watermelon for dessert. The lychees, explains JJ, are definitely not local, but they're a generous gift from a tiny grove in Florida. Lychees usually fall somewhere towards the bottom of my list of tasty fruit (too much unmitigated sweetness), but the ice-cream is lovely and subtle, with faintly floral overtones. The watermelon is also excellent, sweet and juicy.
It's now definitely late, and people start to call it a night. I'm not quite ready to leave yet, however, so I wander over to the kitchen area to see if any of the O.N.C.E. team would like a glass of Vouvray, and fall into a conversation with the crew. I learn how and why they each got involved with O.N.C.E, and I discover that the recipe for Arun's lobster curry, while not a secret, does call for a lot of spices that are difficult to find in this corner of the country. (Alas.)
It turns out that the pace of the post-dinner cleanup is largely limited by the dishwasher cycle, and so the crew moves over to the lounge area to put up their feet. The conversation continues as JJ does the books for the evening, and when the cleanup resumes, it only seems natural for me to stay and lend a hand.
I collect dirty silverware and used napkins, stack empty wine bottles in the recycling, and tackle some of the dishes. There's weird music on the stereo, and everyone's exhausted, but the mood in the kitchen is cheerful, even celebratory. I am crashing the O.N.C.E. afterparty, and having a blast doing so.
By the time midnight rolls around, I'm trying not to curse out the hot water supply, which has been on and off and frustrating my ability to clean the big stack of dirty pots and pans in the sink. (It's ultimately declared a lost cause, and JJ takes them home to be washed.) But I've heard JJ tell some of the stories behind the items on the menu, and I've even managed to snag a container of leftover uncooked panko-crusted green tomatoes to take home.
I can only conclude that while dining at a O.N.C.E. dinner is fun, being behind the scenes at a O.N.C.E. dinner is even better.