Sunday, November 19, 2006

Supperclub & SubCulture Dining: Mystery Meals

This week I was treated to dinner at both Supperclub and SubCulture Dining, two interesting and unusual dining experiences. Sometimes, though not always, the experience of dining out is about much more than just the food, it's about the environment, the service, the company and the "why" as opposed to the "what", and that's what both of my dinners highlighted.

Part 1: Supperclub
Supperclub is located in SOMA and consists of various environments. There is a bar, a lounge and main dining room. Each is beautifully lit and has a different theme and feeling to it. The bar is a vibrant red, the lounge an intimate and cozy space and the main "Salle Neige" in addition to being white, is cool and a bit of a blank canvas. Each of the spaces has a nightclub vibe. So why the mystery? Because in addition to not knowing the menu beforehand, you also won't know exactly what the evening entails and that is really the point.

In any case, there are some things I will share. At Supperclub, you eat dinner in bed. The main room is like a u-shaped day bed with small tables for resting your drinks. The most comfortable seats are definitely in corners where you can prop yourself up. The food is always some sort of tasting menu and takes place over several hours where performances of the mostly conceptual sort take place. The chef Jon Stevens does a fine job, but I can't say my meal was tremendously exciting. On the night I dined there the starter was easily the best dish of the evening. It was seared scallops served with a cool cilantro sauce and chunky avocado salsa. It was hot, cool, refreshing and herbal. Unfortunately the rest of the dishes weren't quite as enticing. We also had an almond soup, and because it was aphrodisiac week, men got a carrot soup instead. We enjoyed a hummus dip with toast, mozzarella and basil, a perfectly cooked steak with chocolate red wine sauce, and molten chocolate cake with an odd peanut sauce.

But a big part of the dining experience IS the experience and not just the food itself. I love the idea of Supperclub, and I bet some nights it is a brilliant experience, but like any performance it depends greatly not just on the audience but the performers. I enjoyed the tightrope walker the best, and our waiter was charming, but in general I felt everyone was trying too hard. The blank canvas format has great yet unrealized potential, for example, why not serve only finger food? Or at least skip anything that needs a knife. One of the performances featured acrobatics and utilized the stairs, the bar in the kitchen and even the ceiling and that was terrific. I think the more interactive the experience the better. For a special night out when you are looking for something "different" this could be the ticket. With the right group of friends you could have some fun here. Would I go again? I'm not sure.

Part 2: SubCulture Dining
The second dining experience took place in an unnamed location. Actually it was a bit cloak and dagger to gain entry. My dining companion found out about the dinners on the sly, and invited me to attend with a group of friends. After reservations were made, the directions were to meet at a street corner in Noe Valley, call a phone number and be escorted to the secret location. After being lead up a set of back stairs and through a kitchen we found ourselves in a lovely private home. There was a table for four in the kitchen and a large dining room table where three separate parties were seated for dinner.

I have read a lot about these underground dinners including a piece just recently in the LA Times. With so many great places to eat in San Francisco, why would you want to try something where the quality of the food and the experience is really a mystery? Well, I guess it's because some people thrive on the taboo nature or are fans of the chef or the concept. In the case of SubCulture Dining chef Russell Jackson's concept is described in a "creed of ethics" that includes a commitment to good food, community and sustainability for all. Call me curious.

So aside from the environment, how was the food? It was good. It reminded me of recent tasting menus I've had at Silks and Campton Place. Some dishes were outstanding, others just slightly missed the mark. Highlights were a fantastic Moroccan spiced venison with huckleberries and rapini. The meat was unbelievably tender and delicious and it was wonderfully paired with a Chinon that was also full of black fruit. The guinea hen roulade with persimmon and porcini and brussels sprouts was also noteworthy, as was the starter of King crab with a cube of trotter gelee and a cliantro and leek chiffonade.

As for the other courses, sous vide pork belly was served with a cider vinegar reduction and apples, the texture was good but it could have used some contrast both in texture and flavor. The presentation of the ricotta and cardoon mezzaluna with a chunk of oxtail in a parsley broth was lovely. But the elements did not come together. I didn't taste any cardoon in the ravioli, the oxtail was unctuous and rich but didn't help the pasta and the broth was cold and too mild. The pan seared salmon was perfectly cooked but the bitter greens were too old and bitter and needed more blanching. The cranberry ginger soup would have been better served as a sauce with ice cream, the double chocolate ice cream was fantastic but the brown butter marjolaine pastry with pears was a bit heavy and unrefined.

As for the service I won't go into details except to say that similar to the service at Supperclub, everyone was trying too hard and unfortunately that came across. Perhaps serving a chef (who was one of the guests) made the servers nervous, I don't know. All I can say is some mistakes were made. The dinner was smoothed over by the outstanding wines one of the guests brought and the equally wonderful company. Frankly, I look forward to hanging out at a taco truck with my dining companions in the near future. Because when you are striving to create something of very high value and quality, unless you can pull every element off without a hitch, sometimes simpler is just better.