Finally, an email arrives. The directions are vague enough to scare off those with weaker dispositions, but the promise of six wine-paired courses from a chef who has worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant ensures I’ll be showing up. Plus, one of the dishes being served is bacon-wrapped pork shoulder. I have a weakness for anything of the porcine persuasion.
Soon it's 7 o'clock sharp and my boyfriend and I are standing in front of a red building with a black door that can't possibly host a dinner. It looks like a misplaced barn and there are no windows to be seen. And yet, there is a gorgeous scent wafting out from God knows where. The door opens and we're waved in.
We walk into some sort of warehouse and I see a crowd pulsating eagerly around a bar. The butterflies return when I think about dining with strangers over the next several hours. I pat my hair into place and notice how handsome my date looks in his gingham shirt – at least if we don’t make any new friends we’ll know we looked our best.
A bartender is ladling some miraculous tasting Pisco concoction out of a punch bowl, and we gratefully clutch our full glasses before guzzling them down and – hurrah! I see a familiar face, Jacob, whom I had met at a pirate Korean dinner. He introduces us to some new folks and my nerves are finally under control. Thank heavens for liquid courage.
We become acquainted with a smiling gentleman named Matthew Homyak – one of the Stags. I ask him about the name Stag Dining Group, and he explains that the animal stands for purity in the outdoors, which speaks to their commitment to use only the most pure ingredients for their dinners. And conveniently, the five men involved in the venture are also single.
Tonight is Stag Dining’s Early Spring Dinner, inspired by the “cyclical grace of nature.” Chefs Ted Fleury and Jordan Grosser are presumably in the back kitchen, readying the dishes to be imminently served. They used to be co-chefs at The Alembic (Ted is still there), and Jordan has been cooking for forageSF’s Wild Kitchen series of late. They have been friends with their Stag co-conspirators (Anil Margsahayam, Emory Al-Imam, and Matthew) for 15 years.
Matthew bounds off, and we decide to take a proper look around. Lights are strung from the tall ceiling beams and a rotating disco ball shines its sparkly lights down on the crowd. Colorful artworks by Kasia Severaid (some made specifically for tonight’s event, I learn later), line the walls. There’s an obscenely large shag-covered circular bed in the corner.
Just what sort of place is this? We ask around and learn that we're in Chicken John's lair. Who? That quirky Burning Man character-slash-genius mechanic who ran for mayor of San Francisco. Oh, right. Suddenly I feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole.
Matthew steps up onto a chair, and with fork to glass, asks us all to take our seats and ready ourselves for a feast. Slightly buzzed after indulging in the Pisco Punch, we make our way to a long banquet table laid out with creative flower arrangements and gleaming silverware.
With a gaggle of gals to our left, a couple sitting across from us, and a big group of couples to our right, I don’t expect our dinner conversation to be dull. We fawn collectively over the menu, waiting for the first course to show up.
The amuse-bouche arrives! It goes down like oysters often do – easily, with a touch of apple and fennel and a hint of spring. It’s the next course that wakes up my senses though. The spring onion vichyssoise (a cold soup) is topped with bites of cured Sakai salmon, rye croutons, dill, and the unmistakable brightness of Meyer lemon.
The menu shows the third course to be rabbit terrine, en escabeche, and I’m slightly doubting I’ll enjoy this one. A dish has to be damn fine in my book to justify the killing of a bunny. Once it’s set in front of me though, I forget about my hang-ups. It’s beautifully presented, and I enjoy destroying its artful construction with my fork.
The fourth course, morcilla-stuffed squid, also pushes my culinary boundaries. Stuffed with garlic, Romesco, and asparagus, it’s not the dish itself that has me running scared in my mind – it’s the pork blood the chef has so proudly touted as one of its main ingredients. Proving myself wrong once again, it sings with a flavor all of its own.
As I start to feel the effects of my third glass of wine (lovingly paired by Two Mile Wines, a Berkeley establishment), my dinner mates seem all the more friendly. There’s a notable absence of pretension in the room, and frankly, I’m surprised, having born witness to more than a few uptight foodies in my time.
I notice Matthew is pulling people in one by one to check out the kitchen, and soon it’s my turn. I step into the real underground of the underground dinner. The servers seem to be having a grand time, some holding cans of PBR and others just shooting the breeze. Jordan, one of the chefs, is at the helm like the captain of a party boat, giddy as he works the kitchen.
Suddenly, the atmosphere becomes tense, and all hands are on deck. Servers pour in from the main room and everyone falls into an assembly line to get the main entree onto 60 plates. They work quickly and confidently, adding elaborate touches to each dish, which will soon be carried to the main room for devouring.
I return to my seat just in time for the bacon-wrapped pork shoulder to arrive. One juicy bite reveals divine inspiration, and its tenderness imparts that it’s been brining for quite some time. It’s a pretty dish as well, dressed with crushed peas, hedgehog mushrooms, and green pea tendrils.
It’s the cheese course, though, that steals the show: a simple, perfect cow’s milk from Nicasio Valley Cheese Company that becomes tangy when paired with the blackberry notes of the Blacksmith Cellars Late Harvest Syrah. It almost makes the olive oil cake with poached strawberries, tarragon ice cream, and pistachio pale in comparison. Almost.
As the evening winds down and our dinner mates say their good-byes
before drifting into the chilly night, we realize we’re too tipsy
full and tired to stay much longer. We make our way towards the door and I remember
Matthew had said to me earlier. When we go to an underground dinner,
take a risk. We become stags, walking out into the woods, not sure
Had someone told me I could enjoy myself in a Burner's den partaking of pork's blood I never would have believed it. But it's a night I'll never forget. It's a good reminder that some risks are worth taking. Especially when they involve going Stag.
Want to experience the Stag's Clandestine Dining Series yourself? These epicurean events occur monthly, and the next one is a Brewmaster’s Dinner on April 9 and 10. Tickets are $80 a person, and it will explore Progressive American Fare and microbrews paired by Dave McLean of Magnolia Pub & Brewing. You can keep up with all of Stag's upcoming events on Facebook or @stagdining.