Wednesday, 7 October 2009
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!