Hidden Kitchen

Corn soup with black bean salsa

Late last summer, a young chef from Seattle wrote to tell me about his underground restaurant project: Hidden Kitchen was to be set in an apartment somewhere in Paris, where he and his girlfriend would serve a tasting menu with matching wines to twelve diners each week. The price would be reasonable and chef friends visiting from out of town would be invited to cook there on occasion, too.

He had the vision, the name, the funding, the location, and the nifty cut-out cards, but he wanted to reach out and ask for a local’s thoughts.

And this local’s predominant thought was: yay! (I may have offered a bit more insight — I forget.)

The concept of an underground restaurant is common enough in some countries to be documented on Wikipedia and to have been written up in the press, but I have heard or read very little about similar initiatives in Paris — of course, they may be so underground as to fly below my radar –, so I was excited to learn about this one, and to be in the front row as it made its debut.

It took the team a few months to pull things together, renovate the apartment, set up the kitchen, and decorate the dining room, but the chef wrote again in the spring to announce that things were just about ready: the first official dinner would be held on June 24, but would Maxence and I like to come and lend our taste buds for a proof of concept dinner a couple of weeks before that?

My reply was: see above.

That dinner took place last weekend and, after admiring the rooftop view from the dining room window, oohing at the ornate (but closed off) chimney, aahing at the cool chandelier, and sipping on a white Lillet, all of us happy guests sat down to enjoy the meal, which, as documented on the moblog, unfolded as follows:

~ amuse: blt and gazpacho
~ corn soup with black bean salsa
~ fava beans two ways, soft cooked egg, green goddess dressing
~ chilled crab cake with layered avocado and spicy mayo
~ atlantic salmon over israeli couscous salas and cress
~ watermelon cleanser
~ balsamic marinated steak with spicy peaches
~ heirloom tomatoes over mozzarella fondue
~ cherry handpie and rootbeer float
~ petits fours
(You can watch a slideshow if you prefer.)

This was a highly promising dinner, each dish tastefully plated, well balanced, and clean-flavored, projecting an energy that, to me, epitomizes contemporary American cuisine, as recently tasted at Blue Hill, Schwa, or Nopa: a cuisine that focuses on the quality of the ingredients and the precision of the techniques, but also likes to play around with some of the best loved elements of the American food culture (here, the BLT, the crab cake, the steak and onion rings, the handpie and rootbeer float, or the petits fours).

It is a style of cuisine I thoroughly enjoy but that isn’t well represented in Paris, and I am convinced that it will find its public in no time at all. If anything, it may find too large a public for its capacity, as I and other diners/writers report back on their experience and whet their friends’ and readers’ appetite.

A large part of the charm of an underground restaurant is the fact that the guests are, to a certain extent, friends of friends of friends, recruited through word of mouth. But word of mouth travels at the speed of light in the Internet age — especially now, with optical fiber — and twelve seats fill up just as fast. This is a fantastic thing to get the word out, but in a sort of self-defeating prophecy, there is the risk of losing that “dining society” vibe, along with the likelihood of repeat customers.

This is where the reservation policy comes in and, in my opinion, makes or breaks the underground restaurant: if, as described on Hidden Kitchen’s website, only a portion of the seats are available for online reservation, while the others are given away to real life acquaintances shortly before the date of the dinner, a dose of spontaneity and chance can be reinjected in an otherwise locked system.

I would be interested to hear any thought or experience you might have on the subject and I will add, before we part, that I have secured the pastry chef’s recipe for those oreo cookies (thank you, Laura!) and will report back as soon as I get a chance to try it out. Stay tuned.

  • http://teach77.wordpress.com Wendy

    The whole experience sounds wonderful. I almost never wish I lived in a major city but hearing about this made me sigh slightly.

  • gingerpale

    Yikes, Clotilde, this post will be controversial! If you ask for money at a meal in your apartment or “underground” establishment, are you charging your friends for dinner, or running an illegal restaurant–?
    Both could describe it, I’ll be interested to read all of the comments.

  • Kristen Baumgartner

    YAY Braden and Laura!

    Hi Clotilde,
    I am SO thrilled that you were able to attend a preview night at Hidden Kitchen. Braden and Laura are close friends of mine from Seattle, and although the whole gang here was sad to see them leave for Paris, we knew they had a promising concept and that they would find success.

    I have been a fan of your blog for almost a year now (thanks to Braden actually), and I think it is so wonderful of you with all of your success to help out with another chef’s beginnings in Paris.

    Cheers to you! Cheers to Laura and Braden!

  • http://serriste.de/foodblog Anne

    There’s a similar restaurant called La Cena in Cologne, only it’s not actually hidden. The concept there is that you get a fixed seven course menu each day with a selection three main courses to choose from. Everything else is the same for everyone and you don’t know what you’re getting in advance. The price for such a dinner is very reasonably set at 35 Euro and when we were there one night it was excellent.

  • swan

    it sounds a bit like what we in Holland call a ‘huiskamer restaurant’, -> ‘living room restaurant’, allthough that comes in a lot of varieties, from being open once a month or once a week, the cooking done by very good home cooks, to the more professional ones as this one seems.
    Sounds really good!
    I like the concept of the friend-of-friend-of-friend thing….

  • http://mise-en-space.blogspot.com Leigh

    This sounds absolutely phenomenal. Maybe someday I’ll start one here in D.C. (Someone probably already has…)

    This is my first stop on my next trip to Paris! Hmmmm…Do you think I can make it an excuse *for* a next trip to Paris?

  • http://www.ceresandbacchus.com Mary

    I think this concept is a great one and I’m hoping that it will catch on. As for the naysayers, I think that the paying for it issue is resolved by asking guests to make a “donation” towards the cost of the meal. I’m so glad you’ve written about this Clotilde, the moblog photos really piqued my interest.

  • Dan Dx

    What a great picture! Really beautiful! Congratulations!

  • http://juliettesclog.blogspot.com Juliette

    Awesome! I have always been extremely interested in these “supper clubs,” but info can be elusive. Can’t wait to get back to Paris and try it! There was a good article on Aux Chiens Lunatiques in the Saveur (USA) a few years back, another such club in Paris; I played email tag for months with them trying to get a reservation, but then never happened. They are both from Chez Panisse. Also: check out The Kitchen Sisters on NPR… they published a cool book called Hidden Kitchens: a book that “explores the world of street-corner cooking, below-the radar, unexpected,hidden kitchens, legendary meals and eating traditions — how communities come together through food.”

  • http://kellytheculinarian.blogspot.com Kelly Mahoney

    I’ve heard there’s an establishment like this in Chicago, but you have to be in the know to be a part of it. The location changes for each meal because of the laws regulating food service in Illinois.

  • Katie

    I went to a fantastic hidden restaurant in Buenos Aires. The food was amazing and so creative!! If anyone is ever down there they should check it out: http://www.diegofelix.com

  • hachee

    I think it’s a bit dodgy, because those restaurants are not ‘official’ restaurants. They are not checked by health inspectors and they don’t pay taxes (hence the low priced meals). I’m sure it’s a nice experience, but altogether visitors are taking a risk.

  • Hilda

    There is a concept like this in London except it’s much more vast in that the meal occurs in several different homes at the same time; a number of the seats are open to strangers on reservation. I participated one time while I was over there and it was a great deal of fun to meet people I didn’t know at all, but who obviously shared an interest in good food.

  • http://www.mangoandlime.net Paula

    That sounds wonderful and delicious. I went to a Ghetto Gourmet (www.theghet.com) dinner in Miami earlier this year and I loved the concept of underground dining. Plus, you meet interesting people along the way!

  • Debjani

    Come to Berlin, we have quite a few of them here!

  • caroline

    Leigh, I’m from DC. If you find one, please tell me!

  • http://www.cforcooking.com Jeff

    Underground restaurants…how punk!

  • Mmmm

    There is a fantastic underground resto in NYC called Coach Peaches, try it if you can find it. Also, sometime in the past few years there was also an an article in the food section of the NYTimes that highlighted several similar restaurants in NYC and SF…

  • http://www.eclecdish.com Chef Jeff

    I have been following this blog for about 6 months now and was very happy to see this post about a hidden kitchen dinner. I first learned about hidden kitchen dinners last year and hosted my own last month near San Francisco. It will be great when these dinners happen all over the world.
    http://www.eclecdish.com/weblog/2007/05/saturday_in_san.html

  • http://metroatlantafoodie.blogspot.com Robert Noles

    Clotilde,

    Congratulations on the book and this site. Amazing stuff. This story of the Hidden Restaurant is amazing. I’d often gathered such things existed but had never heard of them definitively until now. You make food sound so wonderful – it’s motivating me to redouble my work in the kitchen. Thanks so much!

  • http://franziskasblog.blogspot.com/ Franziska

    You can work around the “business” problem by asking for a donation, Mary is right. I would love to do that again here in England. I used to cook six or eight course menus for my friends and their friends on several occasions, either at my home or I would bring everything with me to their house.

  • http://www.wordydiva.com Lisa B-K

    Oooh, I love it. But then I like guerilla anything – eating, gardening, advertising, rocks shows, radio, etc.

    Maybe I shyould get one going in my unassuming-looking college town. I can, without trying too hard, think of several people who’d be waaay into it.

  • http://chewonthat.blogspot.com Hillary

    Do these people change their menu every time? Do they share their recipes? I’m curious how it works or if it just similar to inviting friends over to dinner but in a more formal and regular function.

  • http://www.lindamathieu.com Linda Mathieu

    I’ve never heard of this. Interesting concept. I am always amazed at the creativity of people who go outside the lines

  • orangeblossom

    This sounds very much like the “private kitchen” (“see fong choi” in Cantonese) concept in Hong Kong, which has been in operation for several years now. It started out literally as a home restaurant where the chef-owner would cook for a small number of paying guests. There’s usually no menu as the chef would use only the freshest ingredients from the market that day. As there was no overheads costs (no rent or staff costs), it was a good way for good cooks (be they the busy working professional or recently unemployed etc) to practise their skills and/or earn a simple living. Today, private kitchens are a popular alternative to mainstream restaurants and menus vary widely from home-style cooking to haute cuisine.

    It’s interesting to hear that the concept is taking off in Europe and the US :)

  • http://original-indonesian-recipe.blogspot.com Juandy

    Great great… I really want to go to Paris, but I couldn’t afford it right now…

    It’s such a nice business concept, It triggers one’s curiosity, especially those who loves to do food adventure… :)

    I’m not good in European dishes, I’m running a blog about my collection of Indonesian recipes…

  • http://www.sagecatcuisine.com Chef Tori

    I actually dream of having such a place. Maybe with a small Inn. Kind of “come for dinner, spend the night”.

  • http://almostvegetarian.blogspot.com almost vegetarian

    Fascinating stuff. Isn’t this how Alice Waters of Chez Pannise fame started? Only it was serving French food in her Berkelely apartment, not serving … erm … whatever your associate is serving in France. It worked well for her. Clearly.

    Cheers!

  • http://mysweetolive.blogspot.com Lindsay

    There was a cooler than cool guerilla restaurant open for one month in London last Christmas in the Truman Brewery. It was called The Reindeer.

  • http://nylondiner.blogspot.com Joanna

    Thanks for the info everyone! I blogged about my Ghetto Gourmet experience in New York a couple of months ago (it was great.)

    Though I know of a couple underground dining spots in NYC, it’s great to find out about so many more! I am particularly interested in London and New York, but would also really like to try Outstanding in the Field in California, where meals are set in the fields of farms where the produce was grown.

  • http://nookandpantry.blogspot.com/ Amy

    We have something very similiar in Seattle. It’s code name is “Gypsy”. It’s very, very exclusive and hard to get into. Anthony Bourdain did a show about it when he came to the Pacific Northwest. Apparently one of the chefs smuggled some unpastureized cheese in his baby’s diaper! :P

  • fran

    best underground restaurant in paris? well, i like the lower end of the scale. la rotisserie is a community resto where community groups cook each night. my favorite was always queer food for love, a vegetarian night — 8 euros for a 3 course meal. rue ste. marthe, 10e. i hear it may be shut down, but it’s great while it lasts!

  • http://www.alwaysace-thelatebloomer.blogspot.com Alice

    What an intriguing concept! I had never heard of these before either, but I would definitely be interested in trying it out, if I ever had the chance.

    You always seem to have your finger on the pulse of all the great Paris food happenings, Clotilde — thanks for sharing all of this with us!

    P.S. ~ I was so happy to have seen you and to have you sign my book a few weeks ago, but I wasn’t totally myself that night… (I actually wasn’t feeling very well…) In any case, I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you again.

  • kerrizor

    To be honest, while the idea sounds awesome, it irks me a little because I’ll never be invited to such an exclusive event – I’m not physically attractive or trendy enough to know the right people.. why would I want to read about people who get to enjoy wonderous food creations just because they’re In The Know?

    It just doesn’t feel right to me, somehow.

  • http://thehungerseattle.blogspot.com Stephen

    That’s such a cool idea. It’s too bad this Seattle chef didn’t do this idea in Seattle! I would definitely love to check it out.

  • Lilia

    Clotilde,

    Thank you for this post. It is such a pleasure to hear that it is going on in Paris. The pictures are marvelous but all your pictures always turn out so well.

    About a year or so ago, there was an article in our local paper (San Francisco area) about these hidden restaurants in the East Bay – Emeryville to be exact (a town next to Berkeley) with several young chefs serving dinners at apartments and homes. Word of mouth is how you get in. A real great concept especially for the younger set – they get to enjoy a delicious dinner and get to meet new people at the same time.

    More power to your Seattle friends. Maybe I’ll try it the next time I am in Paris.

    -Lilia

    P.S. I am enjoying your book – I even made my own Ras el Hanout mix. The lamb tagine recipe was fantastic! Most of all, I am so delighted to have finally met you. Thank you again.

  • Braden

    Here is a good article from the Wall Street Journal. It lists a bunch of underground restaurants. There is one in Chicago for you Kelly. There is also One Pot in Seattle in addition to Gypsy (one pot is easier to get into). Sorry Stephen, I wanted to start HK in Seattle, but I was full time at SU and working for Tom on the weekends.

    p.s. Stephen your posting on Paseo made me salivate. You bring a midnight cuban and a Tatsrami to Paris and I’ll cook for free :)

  • http://www.lauraflorand.com Laura Florand

    Totally off topic, I have just returned from traveling and been catching up on the tales of your book tour. Can I just say, Congratulations!! I love it when I see much success coming to people who have earned it. It all sounds wonderful.

  • joanna

    hello everyone and Clotilde,

    i read your blog but never wrote any comments. i really like it and especially the last post about hidden kitchen ;-) i’m a food journalist from warsaw/poland and since 4 months also a restaurant owner! (www.esencjasmaku.pl english version available soon!) my restaurant is not hidden but i’m thinking about opening such one in warsaw. there is already one, which is rather some kind of home cooking experience than the kind of the hidden kitchen, but what we would like to do is more exclusive. our young and creative chef has great ideas and i would like to give him the opportunity to show more off than what we do in the restaurant. hidden kitchen is an inspiration and impulse i maybe needed ;-)

  • http://www.carablack.com Cara

    I don’t know if this classifies but it was definitely an under-the-radar type of place, more like a community kitchen. It was on rue des Haies in Belleville, in a squat and on certain nights the squatters, all artists, combined talents and cooked. We paid 12 or 15 Euros and were served family style at long wooden tables, some of them just wooden doors on trestles and passed the wine and shared conversation. I remember a wonderful steamed fish on a platter
    and my friend murmuring that these meals were a way for the squatters to show their art and raise money.

  • http://www.hungrymag.com Mike Nagrant

    I actually just wrote an article on Chicago’s Sunday Dinner Club…I kind of see underground dining as the antidote to how dining has become too serious and expensive…

    Chicago’s Underground Dining

  • Leslie

    Good grief! What about the health department? I know France well (had a flat in Paris for years) and the local restaurants will soon shut this down. Not a good idea at all.

  • http://thehungerseattle.blogspot.com Stephen

    Hey Braden. Thanks for the info. Oh, and you’ve got yourself a deal!

  • Zeva

    I just wanted to thank the extremely talented and charming couple behind Hidden Kitchen for an unforgettable experience last night at their inaugural dinner. Every detail of the meal was thought through to perfection — from the gorgeous menu graphics and hip musical selection to the enthralling food/wine paring, excellent company and perfect pacing. A wonderful culinary concept that is destined for success. Congratulations and looking forward to more meals chez vous.

    PS. Thank you so much Clotilde for sharing this great find with us!

  • http://www.eyepreferparis.com richard

    This sounds great and I have already asked for reservations and will cover this for my insiders blog http://www.eyepreferparis.com.
    Clothilde, I love your photos.Can you tell me what camera you use? thanks.

  • http://fancyglass.blogspot.com lshannon

    Thanks for this perfect post. You brought back so many memories for me and my husband! both blogged about this story and our own hidden kitchen today…

  • kreategirl

    I’m a huge fan of these underground restaurants, tablefor20 in Sydney has literally become my local!

  • hungry girl

    This post had me DROOLING and so I’ve booked two places at one of hidden kitchens dinners! Can’t wait! Thanks for the tip! xx

  • http://www.beaulotus.blogspot.com beaulotus

    Chubby Hubby blogged about a pair of brothers in Singapore offering private dinners on Sundays. A work of love and culinary art, it seems. Hope to find an occasion to try out Hidden Kitchen the next time we return to Paris. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.robinoriginals.com/eats.html Robin

    Not exactly the same kind of hidden kitchen,
    but I just read about “dining in the dark”…
    check this out.

  • Daniel

    Just saw this post while googling Hidden Kitchen. I’m going there on Friday night. Can’t wait!

  • Alex

    Clotilde,
    I came across this entry while planning my trip to Paris and had to make a reservation — fortunately they had room for me. I just got back to the States and I must say – what a great meal and a great experience!!
    I was travelling by myself and made the reservation for one. Typically eating alone in a restaurant doesn’t bother me (I travel a lot for work) but sitting at a table for twelve would be, I knew, possibly more uncomfortable. Instead, everyone was so nice and interesting and added to the quality of the meal.
    Braden and Laura are absouletly sweet and seem to be doing very well in this venture. They serve only two dinners a week (!) and have hired a chef to help with the work. This fall they are moving into a larger apartment to expand the size of the dinners.
    When in Paris, I recommend everyone try it out.

  • rc

    would like to know if there are any underground rest. in the southwest area…az never been to one and would really like the experience…after all, food is an experience to be savored. thanks

  • http://www.bibliocook.com Caroline@Bibliocook

    Anybody know anything about hidden or underground kitchens in Berlin?

  • maharbbal

    I took my girlfriend to the HK, it was set to be the culinary highlight of her trip to Paris and I was pretty excited myself.

    “Disappointed” doesn’t quite describe our feelings: we were outraged. Almost everything that could be bad was. That kitchen’d better stay hidden… out of shame.

    Granted, the concept is about as cool as it gets. But beyond that? The service was mediocre. The setting was pretentious and unpleasant.

    All that could be forgotten had the food been excellent. Well, it wasn’t. Far from it. Technically it was extremely basic, the quality of the ingredients was barely decent and worse of all the cook lacked anything approaching imagination.

    I left the place angry and with the acute sentiment of having been cheated out of 80 euros.

    As a normal restaurant, the Hidden Kitchen would not last long. But in this case, as most patrons are tourists, they don’t care about returning customers, they don’t need a good local reputation, they just need to sound cool to unsuspecting US tourists.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Maharbbal – I’m sorry to hear you and your girlfriend were disappointed. I know for a fact that the people behind Hidden Kitchen are sincere in their approach and that they try their best to please their guests. I’m sure they would welcome constructive criticism, so I recommend you contact them directly to express your grievances.

  • http://oldworldoldschool.blogspot.com Joe

    As much as I wanted to enjoy the meal, and as nice as Laura and Braden were, there seemed to be something lacking in both the experience and the meal itself. I was disappointed to be dining with exclusively Americans; from what I had heard the crowd would be more mixed (a few other nationalities, Parisians). As for the food, it was competently prepared modern American food, though far from the best examples of the style I have eaten. And the wines were uniformly unexciting, reaching a low point with an Argentinean Malbec paired with dessert – a really unexpected, and awful pairing here in a country where such a diversity of good sweet wines would have made for a much better match.

    Maybe I caught HK on an off night, or perhaps I’m a bit jaded. Either way, for people looking for memorable food experiences in Paris I cannot say that I’d recommend HK, based on my experience.

  • LA

    Clotilde,
    I took your recommendation and visited Hidden Kitchen when I was in Paris earlier this month. My boyfriend and I had an amazing time and it was probably one of the highlights of our trip (close tie with the Catacombs;)
    Braden and Laura (and Tatie!) are so incredibly talented and you really do feel as though you’re having dinner with friends by the 3rd or 4th course. They are very warm and gracious and I was so happy to see my country – America – being so beautifully represented in Paris.

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