The din of conversation is enough of an invitation to step inside.
We walk into the crowded kitchen and I try to introduce myself to Eric by sticking out my hand for a shake.
“Argh, sorry,” Eric smiles and nods at the three pints of beer he’s carrying. “Have a seat. I’ll bring you beers in a second.”
Neil Davidson, our head chef and formerly a chef de partie at Ad Hoc in Napa Valley, doubles as Eric’s roommate and fellow organizer. He deftly moves around the remaining space, prepping our first course.
This is, and is not, the normal kitchen of a dinner party: A basic dishwasher and a standard sink sit under wooden cabinetry. Yet a giant steel prep table, like the one you’d see on Top Chef, makes an L off the counters (Eric bought it from Tacolicious just before Gastroclub opened). Two fridges stand against the wall. The larger one sports a row of taps – a keggerator. Finally, and most importantly, two long tables populated by 14 strangers fill the rest of the room.
This is the Mission Gastroclub, an invite-only dining group that does you the delicious favor of pairing four creative courses with four select micro or home-brewed beers. Eric and Neil had once thought of opening a food truck centered around pork ribs, but the permitting process and the capital to get started was too much. They also had larger and more diverse menu aspirations. Finally a friend suggested, “Why not just host dinners at your place?”
About a year and a half after the profound question, Eric and Neil have gone through 54 different menus and served hundreds of satisfied guests – my girlfriend and I would soon join their happy customer list.
We find seats and are lucky enough to be across from Eric’s parents, coincidentally in town from Texas. Because of our celebrity guests, tonight’s preset menu will feature new takes on dishes Eric grew up with. His mom beams as he introduces the first course: egg in a basket with smoky peach chutney.
“I never made them like this ,” she says after the first bite, smiling.
“Live?” I ask stupidly.
“Yeah, out back.”
Sure enough, four chickens peck away happily in an earthy pen behind the apartment: Zuni, Pastor, Ad Hoc, and Popeye, all named for famous San Francisco chicken joints. Eric and Neil keep a chart on their fridge of each chicken’s egg production and food consumption. Unfortunately for Pastor, she has stopped producing eggs, which means she will likely be the main course at an upcoming Gastroclub meal.
When we return, Neil is about to plate our second course, a
squash quesadilla with black beans and a corn and tomato salsa.
(Although each course was phenomenal, at the end of the night, I’ll look
back on this as my favorite dish.) The Italians and the Spanish were
meant to collaborate in the quesadilla department a long time ago; Neil
could be the mediator.
Burrata is a substitution for Eric’s childhood cheese, but his dad can’t resist: “Eric, are we allowed to pick out the squash – like you used to?
For our main course, Eric pulls out the stops and serves a home-brewed beer, a rich Belgian brown with heavy toffee and caramel overtones.
“I stopped naming them a while ago,” he says. “Each batch is its own new experiment.” Upon tasting, one realizes Eric knows his science well.
Neil, with his silent-but-knowing chef’s presence, begins to plate our pan-seared salmon on a bed of creamy polenta and Romano beans. A few short hours prior, our dinner was an 11-pound, silver-sided beauty laying on the chopping block. We later learn she was line-caught by fisherman Keith Gilmore of Siren SeaSA (get it?) near Point Arena.
At first I’m skeptical that such a rich beer will pair well with the salmon, but I’m proven wrong after the first bite. Chalk up another victory for science.
As I chat with my fellow guests, I find that my rookie status is uncommon. Some of these folks have been to Eric and Neil’s kitchen a double-digit number of times.
“How do you guys choose who gets to come?” I ask Eric.
“We don’t,” he says. He had been frustrated by the lack of nuance in today’s online invite systems, like Evite and Punchbowl, particularly the waitlist functionality. “So I wrote a bunch of code for our website that randomly selects the 14 each time, to keep it fair.”
Though we had dined as if we’d spent the evening at a multi-starred restaurant, after dessert we turned our chairs out, loosened the belts, and enjoyed a relaxed post-dinner conversation only possible at a friend’s house. Eric poured a little more home brew and Neil finally had a chance to catch his breath and socialize. He was already dreaming up big plans for a halibut at the next Mission Gastroclub.
Finally, after the food comas completely took over, my girlfriend and I bid our hosts goodnight. And, of course, we showed ourselves out like it was no big deal.
You can put your name in the algorithmic hat to be a part of the next Mission Gastroclub by emailing your name and how you know about the gathering to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can go to the website and blog at www.missiongastroclub.org. Price is on a suggested donation basis and the suggestion is variable, but expect something in the $50 range.