Guerrilla Dining


Underground supper clubs. Pop-up restaurants. Gourmet food trucks. Get ready: Sacramento’srestaurant rebels want to change the way you eat out.

Jason Azevedo doesn’t look like an outlaw. With his cherubic face and sweet smile, he looks more like the shy guy you once went to high school with. But the 31-year-old chef does something that—strictly speaking—is illegal: He runs an underground supper club.

Azevedo is the executive chef at Stonehouse Bistro in Rancho Murieta—very much a legal enterprise. Every once in a while, however, he works up a menu, borrows a space (a friend’s backyard, say, or a local coffeehouse), broadcasts his plans via his Facebook page and—voilà—he’s in business for the night. As many as 40 people fork over $60 apiece for the pleasure of eating whatever Azevedo feels like making that night. It could be a four-course dinner, or maybe passed hors d’oeuvres and house-cured salumi (his specialty). It doesn’t matter. People come because the food rocks.

Azevedo is part of a small band of local food professionals who are redefining what it means to dine out in Sacramento. As the restaurant scene here grows bigger and more polished, chefs are looking for newer, rawer, more creative ways to feed people—ways that don’t require a bricks-and-mortar restaurant and all the accompanying headaches: staff, payroll, insurance, rent, equipment, licensing.

Kevin O’Connor, a 21-year-old line cook at downtown’s Ella Dining Room & Bar, started hosting an underground supper club at his midtown apartment a few months ago. Casual affairs held on occasional Sundays (his night off from Ella), they might start on his front stoop with a round of Stella Artois and raw peanuts from the farmers market, then move indoors for an hours-long meal.

Right before Christmas, I joined six other people at an underground dinner that blurred the line between restaurant dining and private dinner party. While we—all strangers—stood in O’Connor’s living room and made small talk, his mother poured Champagne and offered beet-and-chèvre canapés. Then we sat down at the dining room table for an ambitious seven-course dinner. It started with a tiny, lemony eggs Benedict—a single perfect bite. That was followed by foie gras in a pool of maple-scented persimmon coulis, then sturgeon fillet with Meyer lemon foam and a witty sauce that was a play on Lipton’s classic sour cream-and-onion dip.

The poultry course was a delicate roulade of pasture-raised chicken, served with silky celery-root velouté and caramelized baby vegetables from the farmers market. Dressed in a black chef’s jacket, O’Connor emerged from the kitchen to serve the next course: sliced ox heart with chimichurri, and beef tongue bordelaise with bone marrow sauce. E-mailed the menu beforehand, one of the guests had nervously googled ox heart. The heart, it turned out, tasted like steak, the tongue like pot roast.

To the sound of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen, we lingered around the table, talking long into the night: about sailing, school reform, snowboarding, China’s economy, cheese. The feeling was so homey, at one point I almost offered to clear the dishes. While we ate dessert (poached pear with warm streusel and vanilla ice cream), O’Connor sat down with us, joined by his mom, dad and brother, who’d helped him serve and clean up. No one, it seemed, wanted the evening to end. We all finally left at around midnight.

Sacramento didn’t invent underground supper clubs, of course. They’re happening all over the country, in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Portland. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, chefs have discovered they no longer need a traditional restaurant to attract customers. Tweet or post it and they will come.

You don’t need much money to start an underground supper club. It costs a cool half-million dollars just to open a basic, bare-bones restaurant, and up to $5 million for a high-end restaurant like Ella. But a cash-starved chef can go underground for the cost of a night’s ingredients—a few hundred bucks, tops.

What’s in it for the diner? First, there’s the sense of adventure that comes with eating off the grid. Generally, you’ll find yourself at a communal table, consuming who-knows-what with complete strangers. “You have no idea who you’ll be sitting next to or what you’re going to eat,” says O’Connor.

Secrecy and exclusivity are another part of the appeal. Underground chefs don’t advertise. There’s no sign. You can’t just walk in off the street and order a meal. To get invited, you have to know somebody, or be a restaurant insider yourself. For early adopters and people who like to be on the leading edge of every trend, scoring an invite is a foodie badge of honor.
And, of course, there’s the thrill that comes from doing something that feels a little, well, illicit. At an underground supper club, you eat at your own risk; there are no health inspections, no liability insurance. In reality, while the city probably doesn’t like the idea of underground supper clubs, it also doesn’t do much to stop them. (A couple of years ago, the city did shut down Hidden Kitchen, a well-publicized underground restaurant in Land Park, after neighbors complained.)

Azevedo doesn’t worry about breaking the law, or the possible consequences. “They’d have to catch me in the act,” he says with a shrug. “If I worried about it, I wouldn’t do it.” O’Connor, on the other hand, is a little more cautious. Hoping to stay on the right side of the law, he doesn’t charge for his dinners, instead suggesting a “donation” to cover his food and wine costs. At $70 for a seven-course meal with wine pairings, it’s a fraction of what the same meal would cost in a restaurant.

There’s a new wrinkle on the underground supper club: the pop-up restaurant. Pop-ups are run out of licensed kitchens by chefs looking to express themselves creatively for a night or two or three. Unlike underground supper clubs, pop-ups are legal. But they share the same scrappy, here-today, gone-tomorrow DNA.

Pajo Bruich and Mark Liberman are two of Sacramento’s best practitioners of the pop-up. Bruich is a super-high-end caterer who specializes in molecular gastronomy. Liberman has worked at some of the finest restaurants in the West—La Folie in San Francisco, Daniel Boulud Brasserie and Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas—and has competed in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or, the culinary equivalent of the Olympics. This past November, the pair teamed up for a three-night pop-up at Steel Magnolia Kitchen, a commercial kitchen on 16th Street.

Fourteen of us sat on folding chairs and sipped flutes of Champagne while Bruich demonstrated some of his molecular tricks, turning heirloom tomatoes into creamy sorbet, basil oil into powder and maple syrup into something that resembled shaving cream. For an on-the-spot amuse bouche, he mixed apple purée with xanthan gum and calcium lactate, then dribbled bits of the mixture into a sodium alginate bath to create quivering spheres with the look and feel of raw egg yolks. Each of us got a spoon holding a juice sphere, along with a minute sprig of microcelery, a tiny dollop of horseradish-and-white-chocolate ganache and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt. I popped it into my mouth and got a gush of sweet juice, plus the crunch from the celery, the burn from the horseradish and the soft sensation of dissolving salt. It was a clever, playful, provocative bite designed, as Bruich explained, “to challenge your brain.”

The seven-course meal that followed was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten in Sacramento. We started with something called Fruits of the Soil: tiny beets nestled into crushed walnut “soil,” served with beet sorbet and orange-peel custard. After that came lightly smoked hamachi with maitake mushroom and local seaweed, brought to the table in a bowl topped with a clear glass cloche to trap a cloud of visible smoke that wafted into our nostrils when we removed our cloches. The next course was Alaskan halibut with onion liquid “gel” and lemongrass custard, followed by fillet of veal roasted in charcoal ash. (The ash, rubbed on the outside of the meat, was surprisingly delicious.) The meal ended with tiny artisanal chocolates, deconstructed apple pie, and steamed kabocha squash cake with whole-wheat ice cream, bourbon gel and a tobacco panna cotta that was oddly tasty. Dish after dish, it was a bravura performance. At the end of the nearly five-hour meal, we all gave Bruich and Liberman a standing ovation.

Both chefs want to open their own restaurants—real ones. In the meantime, they do the pop-up thing to hone their craft and get their names in front of the restaurant-going public. “It’s a great opportunity to share my vision and establish a reputation,” says the 31-year-old Bruich, who taught himself to cook using cookbooks from The French Laundry, Alinea, The Fat Duck and El Bulli.

Liberman, 32, likes the pop-up model because it allows him to cook the food he wants to cook. Liberman’s pop-up dinners center around meat and sometimes involve a hands-on butchery class in the kitchen, with diners helping to break down a whole suckling pig or lamb. It’s not for everyone, he says: “This is for open-minded people who want to try new things.”

Even established restraurateurs like Patrick Mulvaney are getting in on the act. Once or twice a month, Mulvaney runs what is essentially a pop-up (though he doesn’t call it that) in the catering space next door to his midtown restaurant, Mulvaney’s Building & Loan. Sometimes he brings in a guest chef, somebody whose career could use a publicity boost and a sprinkling of Mulvaney fairy dust. One month, it was Aimal Formoli, owner of tiny Formoli’s Bistro in East Sac. Another time, it was Adam Schulze, a former Mulvaney employee who now works at The Waterboy. Every time, the featured chef got to do his thing for 150 or so of Mulvaney’s most loyal customers. (The $35 dinners, wildly popular, sell out within hours.)

Sacramento is starting to see some new twists on the pop-up concept. Late last year, Kelly McCown of Ella held a “Sacramento chefs” dinner at The Kitchen. Nine biggies, including McCown, Mulvaney, Grange’s Michael Tuohy and Kru’s Billy Ngo, prepared an elaborate eight-course, $125-a-head meal, with the proceeds going to charity. And in October, McCown teamed up with Passmore Ranch, a sustainable fish farm in Sloughhouse, for a “pond to table” dinner. It was like the fish version of Outstanding in the Field, a network of pop-ups held in organic farm fields across the country.

When it comes to another dining innovation—the gourmet food trucks that are a staple of street life in L.A., San Francisco and Portland—Sacramento is still on the launch pad.

In 2008, the Sacramento City Council passed ordinances essentially outlawing food trucks. Sure, a few “roach coaches” and old-school taco trucks were grandfathered in. But Sacramento has nothing like LudoTruck, which serves exquisite Provençal fried chicken to the masses on the streets of Los Angeles. Or like L.A.’s Kogi Korean BBQ, whose owner, Roy Choi, was named one of the 10 best new chefs of 2010 by Food and Wine magazine.

City councilmember Steve Cohn would like to see an end to the ban on food trucks. With several new members on the council, he’s hoping the city will revisit the issue in 2011. “Times have changed,” he says. “We need to be more creative and take some risks to allow entrepreneurs to operate.”

Mai Pham, owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant, agrees. “Why not?” asks Pham, an innovative presence on the Sacramento dining scene for 30 years. “I’d love to think that we could be culinarily as vibrant as cities like L.A., Portland and Seattle.” Later this year, she’ll have a food truck of her own on the UC Davis campus, inspired by L.A.’s Kogi.

Diners are starting to agitate for food trucks as well. A grass-roots group will hold a food truck festival at midtown’s Fremont Park April 30. There’ll be more than a dozen trucks, including some from the Bay Area. “We want to let the city council see what they’re missing,” says local food blogger Sarah Singleton.

So are pop-ups and underground dinners here to stay?

Pajo Bruich thinks they are. “People are looking for a different experience,” he says. “They want something more intimate, more personal.”

He could be talking about Lori Saper, an East Sac resident who attended Kevin O’Connor’s underground dinner in December. Saper has lived in Europe and eaten at restaurants all over the world. But she loved sitting in a cozy dining room in midtown with a bunch of strangers, and she was completely taken with the way O’Connor poured his heart into the meal he cooked for us.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Sacramento will end up with a restaurant like L.A.’s innovative Test Kitchen. For a few months last year, it was the ultimate pop-up, a place where guest chefs could try out dishes before they opened their own restaurants, or to cook while in between restaurant gigs. Why not do the same thing here? Patrick Mulvaney could run it. He has a great tradition of nurturing young talent, and his Pig on the Corner catering space would make a fine Test Kitchen for Sacramento.

Are you listening, Patrick?