Nick & Choose 2: Secret Dinner Club

Published Aug. 13, 2008

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Sneaky Supper
Dinner done “Underground”

“We have had our eye on you,” the letter said. “Due to your history of good taste and bold nature, you have been selected by the conspirators as a potential guest.” Sure, the note wasn’t addressed to me, but my editor could read between the lines. Valued as the guy who tries the offal or polishes off last week’s sushi from the office fridge, I was dispatched to a clandestine dinner presented by “The Underground.”

Secret supper clubs are sprouting up nationwide. The reason for the cloak-and-dagger routine is it’s illegal to charge for food from an uninsured, uninspected kitchen. As we’ve established, I’m not a real germaphobe, and I assumed someone at the party knew the Heimlich, so that just left me to RSVP and agree to the $100 admission fee. Soon after, I received a call informing me of the rendezvous point and dress code—”somewhere between James Bond and rock ‘n’ roll.”

On the assigned day, I walked to the BPL wearing a stylish suit and a concealed Beretta. Using her keen eye for detail, my dining companion, photo editor Katie Noble, spotted our fellow guests: a small huddle dressed for hipster prom. The first person I met introduced himself as “Blade.” I was sure I’d misheard. Clearly this fellow with the pocket-square hadn’t named himself after a deadly weapon. I checked by introducing him to Katie. To my delight, I’d heard right, and as they conversed, I smiled at the auspicious start to the night’s entertainment.

Shuttled out to Newton, we gathered in the backyard of some well-to-dos and mingled over oysters. There were chefs, financiers, bar owners and a couple of young students agonizing over the gravity of their love lives. Thankfully, there was also a bar stocked with enough booze to intoxicate a T-Rex, and it was somewhere between Katie’s second caipirinha and me daring her to climb into the tree house that word got round that our hosts were of the unwitting variety. Seems they’d run off to Asia, and their housesitter had fallen for the chef’s powers of persuasion.

He’s a young guy, and even after 25 straight hours of prep, he exhibited the kind of boundless energy that makes you want to nap. The former sous chef, now a full-time musician, cofounded the Washburn Underground in 2005, because, as he says, “I come up with these ideas, and I can make it happen, so I feel a duty.” It’s an endearing idealism, which miraculously doesn’t make you want to throttle him.

In the dining room, I sat next to an amicable cattle farmer who went to culinary school in Bilbao. Katie sat next to Blade. (Yea!) The six-course meal began with a spring-roll salad and then presented a choice of “Rosas del Diablo” (a roulade of chicken, rasher and capicola) and “Les Ailes de Cieux” (deboned chicken wings stuffed with Dijon-Marsala mascarpone). I went for the wings: Tasty but topped with flakes of flavorless gold, they demonstrated how the chefs had exceeded the budget. Understaffed, the dishes came sporadically, but the beverages flowed with regularity. After the Southwest ravioli, the waitress whispered to me, “People are really getting toasted.”

“I know,” I responded, before ordering another glass of Rioja.

I won’t say things devolved, but after we played a round of word games and a mute teenager banged out the Zelda theme on the piano, it became apparent that we’d gone down the rabbit hole. I’d been expecting a grown-up dinner party. What I got was adults playing dress up. The dishes were good, not gourmet, but playful—which was really the point. More than an ego stroke of ingredients and technique, the supper club offers a dining experience. This is Boston. Our restaurant meals don’t end stumbling home at 4 am. For that you’ve got to go underground—off the puritanical radar for something both indulgent and genuine. It’s a choice worth making.

Nick & Choose 1: Durian

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Published July 9, 2008 in The Improper Bostonian.

The Magic Fruit
Adventures in durian tasting

Because I either have adventurous tastes or watch too much Travel Channel, durian has always intrigued me. It’s known as the “King of Fruits,” probably for its resemblance to a spiked bowling ball. (Had Isaac Newton been sitting under a durian tree, we’d still be living in a world without the concept of gravity.)

There’s also the stench, which has gotten durian banned from hotels and public transport all over Southeast Asia. On an episode of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern ate a still-beating heart and a stir-fried bat, but he couldn’t choke down some fetid durian. The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote that durian consumption is “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” Dessert and scatological humor? Sounds delicious.

With that in mind, I decided to find the best durian shake in Boston—one that encapsulates the horrors durian wages upon the wimpy Western palate, but in a cutesier form. Needing to discover what durian actually tastes like, I bought frozen segments at a Super 88. Back at the office, even through the plastic casing and shrink-wrap, the thawing flesh emitted a distinct funk. Said one office mate, “I’m going to start farting in here to take away the smell.” After being cursed for merely pretending to open the packaging, I stayed late with the only coworker brave enough to eat it with me.

She described the flavor as “a cross between a lychee and a sweet onion.” That’s fairly accurate, and actually sounds somewhat tasty, but it doesn’t begin to describe the impact of that flesh first hitting my virgin taste buds. My synapses fired in alternating bouts—my tongue telling my brain and nose, “It’s not so bad,” and my esophagus shouting back, “Screw you guys, I’m not swallowing.” Then there was the smell, a bouquet we broke down as cheese, fecal matter and natural gas. The reek of Nstar was so strong, it prompted a colleague to leap from her office 30 feet down the hall and shout, “Do you guys smell gas? I’ve gotta get out of here!”

Enlightened and armed with a list of seven durian-dishing venues, I set off for Chinatown. My first stop was Penang, where $4 got what amounted to a durian icy. “You can put the sugar, but it’s sweet already,” the waiter advised. Walking out, I realized that the best thing about durian shakes is the lid, which caps the funk like a manhole cover. The blend had a milky, rotten banana flavor, and when it came through the straw icy, it wasn’t half bad. The occasional warmed patches, however, were like pulls from a colostomy bag.

At Saigon Sandwich, a durian shake ($3) included tapioca bubbles, condensed milk “and sugar, don’t forget the sugar,” the counterwoman said. Words to live by, should you take this journey yourself. Thanks to the bubbles, there was a wider straw that fired durian slush like a waste pipe, but the sweetener took the edge off. It was like spoiled milk after a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

Fear struck my heart when I ordered a second bubble shake from Xinh Xinh ($3.70) and smelled the fruit 20 feet from the blender. Ignoring the muffled weeping of my stomach, I forged ahead to find the best durian iteration yet. Fresh and pungent, all the shock value was there, but given the Dunkin Donuts treatment, there was enough sugar and half-and-half to ease the finish. This one’s a great rookie introduction to durian, and a friend may even take a second sip before wondering why the hang out with you.

For the actual durian enthusiast, there’s Pho Soa. Their shake ($2.75) was strong and, being extra thick, allowed for strict portion control, so I took four delicate sips before chucking it. I was done, palate-fatigued, milkshake-sick and about to barf all over Chinatown. I had three places left, but I’d tackled the stink head-on and ingested enough durian to choke a flock of fruit bats. Eat it, Zimmern.