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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.16.09

Checking Out Clandestino

Restaurant Reviews


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As I went to the ladies’ room, I really felt like I should pick up a dish towel.

That’s what I do when I pass through my friends’ kitchen. I stop and wash a few dishes with them, amid protests that I’m a guest and should relax. I scrub a baking sheet, throw a few things in the dishwasher, then continue on to the ladies’ room, or to the deck to hang with the smokers, or to the counter to throw back more wine and figs and Gouda. They throw one helluva elegant dinner party. I want to come back. I pick up a dish towel.

So why not dry at Clandestino, the underground supper club artfully and laboriously constructed by Chef Efrain Cuevas in secret spaces around Chicago once a month or so? I was clearly hanging with friends. They threw quite the dinner party. I want to come back.

It goes down like that at Clandestino. Guests are not buying butternut ravioli and sitting in their favorite leather banquette. They are buying whatever Efrain—an engineer by degree, a chef self-taught and schooled by friends—decides to make that evening, served in a space of his choosing. Guests commit their $75 before knowing the menu or the venue; they find out one or two days before. Sure, allergens and religions can be accommodated, but picky eaters should take their credit cards to Applebee’s.

Yes, you say, my friends don’t offer me a menu with seven entrée choices, but they don’t charge me to come over, either. So, I say, are your friends serving you appetizers on Saran-clad naked models?

Chef Efrain Cuevas

Efrain did once, an idea he imported from Ghetto Gourmet, the underground club where he first volunteered in Oakland, Calif. I’ve eaten off more uncertain surfaces, though I admit that gracefully plucking food from certain spaces might be difficult logistically. With Clandestino, the dinner always includes an experience. Themes from that night’s artists, performers or dining space often are translated into the menu in unique ways. Our own experience was less flesh, more sugar: Chocolate truck centerpieces carrying yellow roses reflected the trucks that bounced around on the canvases in the artist’s studio in which we dined.

This does not mean that only men wearing meggings and women in metallic blush are admitted. Guests are greeted and made to feel at home right at the unmarked door. Their bottles—it’s BYOB—are opened quickly. No need for the pocket corkscrew. Casual servers in T’s and jeans roam with appetizers—in our case a crispy wafer of grated Grana Padano filled with goat cheese mousse and chives, aka extra-rich chips and dip. The wait staff doesn’t whisper in hushed tones; guests are privy to the need for more spoons or chairs.

Of course, just as at any dinner party, guests loiter near the kitchen, sneaking peeks at the food as the staff works in a corner of the large studio. Hipsters, average Joes and someone’s grandparents checked out the artist’s canvases and the tools of his trade, including a Craftsman table saw. (Sadly, not used for any slicing of pork or bread.)

We could smell dinner: an antipasto of fresh bass, frisée, Tuscano beans and caper mustardo; an insalata of fresh greens, that Grana Padano again and vinaigrette; a primi of papardelle with a rabbit and wild mushroom ragu and bitter greens; a secondi of lonza al latte con finnochio (milk-braised pork shoulder with fennel gratin, on crostini); and the dolce, a beautiful cassata Italienne.

And we could see the team sweating. The hustle and heat was in plain view, especially to anyone who first wedged her way past the evening’s guest chef, Michael Goss (executive chef at the Zodiac Room in Neiman Marcus), plating dishes on a folding table, then squeezed between the young girls working the stove in the galley kitchen and a nice guy washing dishes to get to the ladies’ room. I felt guilty as I passed the dish towel.

At Clandestino, courses come when they are ready. Efrain welcomed the group, and the artist discussed his work. There was plenty of time to polish off everyone’s bottle of wine. No waste at our table.

Maybe it was seeing the staff—some volunteers—doing their feverish dance with hot plates in tight spaces that led guests to overlook any foibles that might raise eyebrows at a white-cloth establishment. Maybe it was the comfortable, humble warmth with which Efrain and crew treated everyone that put even the most skittish diner at ease. Maybe it was because Efrain’s food training came from family and friends. Maybe it was the secret-handshake atmosphere, the dark corner outside and the last-minute directions that led to instant bonding among guests.

Whatever it was, something superseded even the simple but delicious food. Something led guests to threaten to lick their dessert plates and to snap apart the trucks and devour hunks of molded chocolate with abandon, to lean back in their chairs until Efrain had to pack the seats up. It wasn’t just the wine….not entirely, anyway.

At the end of the night, while Efrain loaded tables into a minivan and the dishwasher did his last dish, guests loitered, making plans for the evening’s next stop or wrapping up conversations about Italian dipping sauces or the hazards of dining with young children. If we had been made to feel any more at home, Efrain would have had to find pillows for a big slumber party and serve brunch in the morning.

Perhaps an underground B&B, Efrain? I’ll dry dishes for great French toast.

One Comment on "Checking Out Clandestino"

art

Sounds like a food rave!

I’d love to go to one of these events.



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