Under Cover of the Night
I never would've thought gourmet dining would have much in common with punks and ravers. With the force of guerrilla eateries taking over San Francisco, though, that’s really changed. The music scene’s subversive streak of circumventing proper venues has caught on in the foodie world – you can now stuff your gut with fancy dishes in basements and warehouses. Of course, getting a six-course meal is gonna set you back much more than donating a couple dollars for beer and touring bands, no matter how lowbrow the setting. But there’s nothing like being part of an event that turns like-minded strangers into a random community to make you swear off traditional nightlife for a bit.
The connection between underground chefs and rockers was high in my mind as I scooped delicious bits of crudo off a CD at a recent dinner hosted by Noise Pop and graffEats. Their “Covers: A Culinary Tribute” feast brought the whole punk-the-dining-world full circle through creative interpretations of both familiar songs and dishes by famous chefs.
As with most underground dinners, the invitations worked like old rave invites – we had no idea where we’d be gathering until the day of the big event. I was stoked when Noise Pop revealed that we’d be meeting at Secret Alley, a space I recently fell in love with .
Forty-six of us were ushered in past the dining area where the chefs were prepping the goods.
Noise Pop’s Jesse Fox checked in guests before seating us around long, communal tables.
Jesse told me he and coworker Dawson Ludwig worked with graffEats chef Blair Warsham to develop the covers concept when Noise Pop created a pop-up shop in the Lower Haight a couple months back. They hosted two sold-out dinners there and decided to experiment with the concept for a second round. Lucky me. And it sounds like there might be another round of dinners for the Treasure Island Music Festival.
Music was top of mind from the moment we arrived. We were crowded together around place settings that stacked plates on top of vinyl on top of album covers. The records proved excellent conversation pieces, especially among the shier diners. I was with my friend and coworker Nicole Grant, and we hit it off with an awesome gal named Emily who works at Twitter (who had some juicy stories about the restaurant and tech industries). It was fun watching the typical dining norms – talk only with the people you came with, order the foods you’re familiar with, don’t share your wine with strangers – get left behind here.
Perhaps Nicole and I were slightly chattier than usual because we’d gotten the VIP package, which included a seemingly endless pour of delicious grape magic from The Winery SF, one of four wineries on Treasure Island. The varieties had very San Francisco (if a bit obvious) names like Flower Power. But I certainly appreciated what was inside the bottles.
OK, so how was the food? Plate-licking good. I’m salivating just remembering it. We started with a shot-sized margarita and a tartar of smoked and roasted arctic char with purple shiso sorbet. The fish melted on my tongue before it could melt into the CD it was served on (luckily).
Next up, a chilled snap pea soup with mint and avocado, my favorite course of the night because it tasted so farm fresh and summery. Blair and his team poured the tangy liquid over a pretty little herbal ensemble that rested at the bottom of the bowl.
Blair talked us through every course and acquainted us with the chefs who’d created the original dishes. The names – Justin North, Michael Tusk, Thomas Keller, Pierre Hermé – are foodie legends in cities around the world, collectively hailing from San Francisco, Paris, Toronto, New York, and beyond.
Each course was paired with a collection of songs whose mood fit the dish: Covers of Dylan, Sam Cooke, and other biggies played through the speakers as we ate. I’ll be honest, I’m much better at nerding out about names when we’re talking music. So while Toronto chef Susur Lee’s name didn’t mean anything to me, I loved the Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and Jeff Tweedy selections I heard during the night.
There was great simplicity in dishes like the ravioli, where the half-dozen pasta pillows stuffed with hedgehog mushrooms, peas, tarragon, and lemon ricotta were rich enough to push me into satiated territory without making me wish I’d arrived with drawstring pants.
A course featuring uni went outside my typical restaurant order. I’d never had sea urchin before. While my table buddies explained that it’s an acquired taste for some, I dug it. It reminded me of a vegan almond spread I used to eat in college (a kind of nutty taste). I also appreciated the fact that Blair removed the aged beef from my plate for this course. GraffEats is apparently accommodating to pescatarians like myself, which is good to know since it’s hard to tell which underground chefs are cool with alterations to their grand visions.
By the time we got to dessert, a sesame pâte sucrée topped with raspberry, red pepper, and parmesan Reggiano cream, I was ready to roll onto an imaginary beanbag and start the whole lounge-digestion process. (I firmly believe beanbag lounging should be an option at all fine-dining events in the city.)
But alas, although Secret Alley guests were now in full party mode, the chefs and hosts seemed a pretty tired, having presented close to 300 individual plates to our group in total. While they come down from the big event, I look forward to the next roving gourmet party that comes paired with such yummy ear candy.
Noise Pop and graffEats are planning to combine forces again in the future. To stay on top of their next offerings, sign up for Noise Pop’s newsletter . GraffEats hosts guerrilla dinners on its own as well, and a portion of every dinner goes to a charity. You can follow Blair’s latest culinary adventure at the graffEats website.