Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Shed

I had a fairly weird experience last night. I paid money to go and eat a set dinner in a total stranger's house - with other strangers - and we sat and ate in their garden shed. That's right. In a garden shed. Ok, so it was a pretty large one, containing two round tables with checked tablecloth and chairs, a few fairy lights hanging here and there, but it was essentially a large potting shed with windows. Some people might think I'm mad...

'The Shed' is one of London's newish 'underground restaurants': basically, this is where you pay to have dinner in a total stranger's home. You pay a suggested 'donation' and the hosts get to play restaurant in their own home, without having to pay any of the associated overheads. About 10 or so of these underground places have sprung up all over London and many think this has emerged as a sort of 'two fingers' to the recession, and also a desire for diners to have a more homely and intimate experience without the starchiness of a posh restaurant. It's all organised through social networking sites such as Facebook, and news is also spread by word of mouth.

So why go? The plus sides are that you meet new people who you would never normally bump into and are encouraged to socialise, you get to nose around a total stranger's house (bliss for me since I'm VERY nosy) and you get to spend an evening doing something a little bit different. The downsides? You never know what you're going to get, or whether your hosts can cook for toffee! And you might get stuck sat next to a dullard. But we were excited since we'd had an excellent experience at The Saltoun Road Supperclub in Brixton (I'd recommend this place to anyone) and hoped for something equally fun and delicious at The Shed.

So, last night we trekked to the Newington Green area of East London and pressed the doorbell of a mysterious garden flat. A rather stressed young man answered the door and ushered us indoors, passing through a very narrow and messy kitchen, where his girlfriend was bent over making lots of meat skewers with a worried expression on her face. Oh dear - this was a sign of things to come, unfortunately. We were shown through a rather gloomy dark back garden to the aforementioned shed. We sat down with four other people and luckily conversation immediately sparked up. We cracked into our wine (it's BYO, of course) and waited for the food. And waited. And waited some more. Then the couple arrived looking incredibly harassed, all the while apologising as they set down some Malaysian chicken sate kebabs on the table. We assured them that we were having a fine old time and not to worry, since we were pretty drunk and chatting away furiously with our new-found friends.

The starters were cleared, with more apologising for things being late. After an hour, the main course arrived (a tasty beef rendang with egg fried rice), again with the same over-apologetic flourishes.

'We so very sorry this is late. Really really sorry. This isn't going how we wanted it to go...really sorry...'
'Seriously it's no problem - we're having lots of fun.'
'Sorry, though, it's unacceptable that you're having to wait so long. Really sorry...'
And so on.

I felt gloomy just watching these poor people (who seemed very nice) go about racked with stress and uber-apologising. It was almost cringeworthy. We all wanted them to stop apologising - chances are, had they just done it once to be polite, we wouldn't have noticed the food taking ages afterwards. Why on earth were they doing this? Feeding strangers in their home with a dodgy oven and grill that was on the blink, not to mention doing full time jobs? Plus, they'd cooked four massive dinner parties in their shed in the past 10 days. They looked as though they were on the brink of exhaustion.

Anyway. The food was fairly good, thankfully. We had chicken sate skewers to start, beef rendang curry and egg-fried rice for main course and a delicious mango fool accompanied with banana bread for dessert. All the plates were cleared, and people were happy with the food. But I really felt awful for the hosts, who seemed totally wrung out by the end of the evening. They said they wouldn't take the standard £16-per-head charge and instead would discount the meal to £10. I couldn't bear to do that, so paid full whack anyway. They'd suffered enough! But because they didn't enjoy themselves, I couldn't really see myself returning again. They certainly cooked fairly well, but the surroundings were a bit glum. (I was also a bit horrified by the skanky bathroom). One of the things I enjoyed so much about The Saltoun Road Supperclub was that the host (Arno) seemed to be having as much of a laugh as his guests. So I haven't been put off - I definitely will be trying out another supperclub soon - it's a totally unique experience. Plus think of the future dinner party anecdotes worth their weight in gold!

Anyone else out there been to any 'underground' supperclubs in the UK or abroad? I'd love to hear about your experiences, good and bad!


  1. Maaan, I love the whole 'take-turns cooking with your pals' thing, but have found that the only way to circumnavigate the night's cooking adventure is to drink at least as fast as your guests.

    Faster if deemed necessary by circumstance/timing/things-on-fire.

  2. As the aforementioned young man in the above review I have to say I pretty much agree with everything in it (including my description)! I'd just like to give a bit of an explanation about why we were so stressed out that night.
    We had 13 people booked in 3 of which were vegeterian everyone was due to arrive at 8.00pm and we like to serve everyone at the same time.
    We had a few early guests and by 8.10 all the starters were ready to be grilled and we were waiting for 3 more guests to arrive. So far so good!
    8.20 still waiting
    8.30 still waiting
    8.40 only 2 guests arrive with no explanation of where the 3rd was
    So we sit them down and we find out 3 vegetarians have turned in to 4 vegeterians (Everyone was emailed before hand in regards to dietary requirements and their chosen choice of satay).
    By this point some people had already been waiting nearly an hour for something to eat and I've started to apologise to everyone..... then the grill starts playng up, instead of 15mins to grill all the starters it takes us about 25mins and I'm locked in to some kind of repetitive apology syndrome, spewing apologies all over guests.
    When my partner came back into the kitchen after serving the dessert I was hunched over the kitchen table drawing up a planned storyboard for the grand finale of my apologies which would have been delivered through the medium of interpretative dance.

    Luckily for everyone including myself she convinced me not to.

    The above review should be read more as a criticism of me rather than of the shed.
    My partner did an excellent job of cooking great food, under a huge amount of pressure, misbehaving cooking appliances, exceptionally late arrivals, changes in dietary requirements and a quite frankly useless boyfriend. Sorry girl.

    As soon as I started to read this review and realised it was the Malaysian night my heart sank. Every other night I think everyone has a had a great time (including us) the only night where I think people didn't you have just read about, which is why I was apologising so much!

  3. The only thing I don't agree with is the description of the Shed, yep it's basically a wooden cabin at the end of our garden but I genuinely think it makes a great place to have a relaxed enjoyable meal (we even have a huge painting of a dancing disco bat..... wearing speedos and if you don't like that I don't want to know you).

  4. Bit harsh Anne especially about the bathroom.
    Christ when you've travelled as much as I have, their bathroom was absolute luxury compared to some of the places I've been. It's all an adventure...
    I loved The Shed, brilliant home cooking, warm and inviting hosts.Maybe they had over-stretched themselves that night but I'm sure Arno has the odd hiccup too.
    Arno, from what I hear, is a professional, a general manager at a restaurant, (I don't know myself, never been, as he doesn't allow lone diners)so he's probably more used to dealing with the pressure.
    The Shed, enthusiastic young foodies, (yes so they have less money than some of the older hosts) also change their menu more frequently, showing off their large repertoire of dishes unlike some other supperclubs who stick to the same thing sometimes since the beginning. Which is fine, but as it's not exactly a money maker, personally I understand hosts that try to expand their cooking knowledge at the same time.
    I think it takes all sorts...I'm just as interested in going to a posh flat, a chateau, a council flat, a shed, a boat, a squat or an ordinary semi...all of it is great if you are naturally curious.
    And open minded curiosity is one of the most important qualities the diner needs to visit underground restaurants...

  5. Hi Anonymous: thanks for responding to this posting, you have very eloquently explained why things didn't go to plan that evening.You were both under an enormous amount of pressure on the night and you and your partner did produce a good meal - nowhere in this review do I critisise the food. I was just concerned that neither of you seemed to be enjoying the experience remotely and this rubbed off on the rest of us. I think you're both very brave to do this sort of thing - it's not for the faint hearted! Full credit to you for coming and explaining things on this blog. And I take my hat off to you and your partner for having balls of steel and continuing to run an underground restaurant - it's such a brave thing to do!

    Hi MsMarmiteLover: I think my comments are fair - I'm not writing about going to a mate's house and slagging off their dinner party, I'm a paying diner giving an account of a slightly-below-par eating out experience. I think most people (if paying) wouldn't be too impressed with a not-too-clean bathroom! But as I said before, the food was good. They certainly can cook, no doubt. They just need to iron out a few hiccups. And your comments about being upfront? Who in their right mind could do that (without having a heart of flint) to the hosts on the night, while they're having a hard enough time of things? I don't hesitate to speak my mind in a restaurant - but it's much more awkward to do in someone's home, especially if they're in the thick of a stressful dinner service. And Anonymous from The Shed has said that he agrees with most of what I wrote anyway. The beauty of this blog, for me, is that I can be honest about my eating experiences. I notice that you do that on your blog too, which I very much enjoy reading.

    I really admire people who run underground restaurants - it's not just anyone who could open up their home and let strangers come and dine. I think it's a brilliant new trend and long may it continue. And I will try to deliver what I consider to be fair reviews.