“Mung bean”, I whisper to the boy in square hipster glasses dressed all in black and hugging an iPad.
“This way”, he says as he checks me off the guest list and leads me to the elevator and an upstairs apartment in a non-descript corporate-looking building in Saigon.
The door opens to a minimalist space, two tables pushed together with settings for 12 dominating the living room. A sofa and a few end tables round out the look.
I am in a Secret Supper Club.
I had heard of these things, sometimes called culinary speakeasies, underground restaurants, guerrilla dining or clandestine kitchens. The concept is simple – people serving a meal inside the home for pay, making it like a home restaurant but usually with very small numbers, creating an atmosphere more akin to a dinner party.
I first heard of them in Hong Kong, a way by which some chefs sought to practice their skills but in a less formal atmosphere. Others simply wanted to open a restaurant without the hassle of rent, paperwork and the “business” side of things. Whichever the reason, the tiny number of diners lends an exclusive air to them, binding diners with a shared love for food and secrecy.
Back in high school, I was kind of a nerd. My lunch table consisted of a guy who walked pigeon-toed, one who always wore the same grey Members Only jacket and sounded like what I would imagine, oh, say, Benjamin Franklin would sound like, a gangly Indian guy and a math geek who actually SKIPPED Calculus.
And since I went to a magnet school for science and technology, routinely rated the best public school in the US, we actually pulled off the difficult Nerds Amongst Nerds combo. Seriously, though, those guys are probably all gazillionaires by now.
My after school clubs consisted of: Honor Society (but practically everyone was in that), French Club, It’s Academic! (a trivia group where one guy actually went on to win Junior Jeopardy!) and tennis (but I’m Asian, so even tennis didn’t really count as a ‘sport’ per se, more like a birth right).
So when I heard of Saigon’s first Supper Club, a chance to get in with the kewl crowd, I knew I had to go.
Run by best friends, Chad Kubanoff and Fredrick Wilson, both previous attendees of The Culinary Institute of America, the supper club aims to bring 12 strangers together over a shared love of good food.
“That’s one of the things I love about living here,” says Fredrick. “We’re talking to people who are doing unique things with food, like French-style oysters in Nha Trang, 4P’s making mozzarella, some Dalat guys making everything from jalapeños. I love the idea of a farmer coming to the back door of a restaurant in muddy boots, with a basket of things that he grew.”
The night started off with a Roasted Butter Nut Squash with Soy Sauce Cured Pork Belly, put together by the guys in the small open kitchen. It’s almost miraculous what they can turn out with only two burners, a largish toaster oven and a few appliances.
The second course was Crispy Chicken Thigh confit in an onion soup. But what wakened my taste buds were two very strong and unexpected flavors: a tart vinegar gel and herby rau ram (a Vietnamese leafy herb) bubbles.
A quick look around the apartment and you soon notice that something’s a bit off. There’s an extra full-sized fridge in the living room, a knife rack with more knives than any one family would need, and a cabinet full of canisters neatly stacked and filled with powders used for molecular gastronomy.
Over the third course, a crab croquette with Dijon leather (dehydrated dijon mustard) and a dollop of braised pickled mustard seeds, I learn that Chad has been in Vietnam for five years and together with his Vietnamese wife, runs Back of the Bike Tours which specialize in introducing tourists to street food. His background is French cuisine, but his passion is finding the best local products which make up almost all of the night’s meal.
“We’re looking for people doing things well and highlighting their product. I don’t care if it’s just a carrot or whatever. We’d love to work with local farmers. I’m tired of going to the market and trying to figure out whether this product came from China or Vietnam.”
Part of the allure of supper clubs is sitting and eating with people you normally wouldn’t share a table with. Tonight’s diners include a real estate investor, a bakery owner, an IT guru, an environmental worker and an architect. The table is a bit too big to converse with everyone, but the atmosphere is convivial. A gamut of emotions are unleashed when the main course is announced. We’re having tongue.
Well, actually braised pork tongue with homemade scrapple, cabbage and apple salad, fried sage and apple chips, but still tongue.
I remember my mom trying to get us to taste weird Vietnamese foods as a kid like tongue and brain. After she saw our much too Americanized reactions, that was the end of that.
But I’ll have to admit, this tongue was very good. Not to the point that I’d order it if I came across it again, but I’m glad that I tried it.
The kumquat sorbet went a long way in restoring order before the final dessert came out – a take on the ubiquitous and addictive Vietnamese iced coffee, but in the form of coffee custard with a spiced biscotti, shaved chocolate and sweetened condensed milk ice cream.
The evening was almost like our private Top Chef competition, with Chad and Fredrick churning out innovative food in a new setting.
“I think this style of dining appeals to people who are hungry for good food,” says Fredrick. . “I love the Italian phrase, ‘You never get old at the table.’ When you get everyone lined up at a table, good things are going to happen.”
* The supper club usually happens on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and can be booked here.
To read my article which appears in Oi Vietnam, click on the image below.
What about you? What’s the strangest food you never thought you’d ever eat?