Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Underground Restaurant

Well, what can I say? What an amazing evening...

You may have heard by now about the latest London phenomenon of the so called 'pop up' or 'underground' restaurants... They've been around for years in other parts of the world and so too here in London, but this year seems to have seen a proliferation of these 'secret' eating places, where home cooks open their doors to complete strangers and serve restaurant quality food in return for a 'contribution'. And everyone seems to be writing about them.

The Underground Restaurant is one such restaurant run by MsMarmiteLover. I say restaurant with some hesitation...technically speaking a restaurant is 'a public premises where meals or refreshments may be had' (which this is not). A more apt definition (even if it isn't endorsed by the Concise Oxford Dictionary...) might simply be 'an eating place'. Whatever it is, I wonder - is the Underground Restaurant a dinner party masquerading as restaurant or a restaurant masquerading as a dinner party...

We set off on the mighty trek from South East London to Kilburn a tad later than we'd hoped. There was no way I wanted to be late. I'd been looking forward to this all week. As is always the way in London, wherever you want to go at the weekend is usually the most difficult place to get to and yesterday was no exception thanks to the closure of the Jubilee Line. But, 2 trains, 2 buses, 1 tube, a bit of walking and nearly 2 hours later we were knocking on the door of the Underground Restaurant 5 minutes ahead of schedule. Our wonderful waitresses for the evening, Ali and Lenny, welcomed us in, fostered Kir Royales on us and left us to choose our seats at one of the pretty tables set up in what is usually MsMarmiteLover's living room.

It was a bit like being first to arrive at a party. I drank my drink too quickly and wandered to the kitchen to find out what was going on. I think I expected the kitchen to be a scene of carnage but in fact it was surprisingly calm. And tidy. I introduced myself to MsMarmiteLover and Shuna - guest chef for the evening - and tried not to get in the way (well, not too much). The kitchen with its wonderful aga was a hive of activity and it was great to have a first glimpse at what we were about to eat.

I wandered back to the 'dining room' and introduced myself to the other diners. It soon got to the point where we had to sit down - there just wasn't enough room to stand in and around the tables with 32 people (the most so far I think MsMarmiteLover said). We were joined on our table by the lovely Jo, Sarah, Becky and Kirstin who made excellent dinner mates for the evening. And that's the whole point of isn't just like going to eat in a restaurant with your husband, wife, friends, colleagues. It's like going to a great big dinner party where you don't know any of the other guests. You sit at a table with people you have never met before and that is a crucial part of the whole experience. It's refreshing.

To kick us off, Ali came round with a huge platter of parmesan and poppy seed biscuits. Small rounds of rich, buttery biscuits packed with parmesan which had been rolled in poppy seeds. A lovely accompaniment to our aperitifs and much needed to put me on until the starter was served.

With our kirs finished, a £10 raffle ticket 'won' us a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Not one we would have chosen ourselves, but a tasty wine that drank well...far too well!

The starter was something I'd never heard of let alone tried before - goat yogurt granite with caramelised pine nuts, preserved lemon and basil. Wow. Totally innovative and great to be served something different, something I'd never have thought of making. The cool, icy granite worked perfectly with the caramel flavours of the pine nuts and then, every so often, you'd come across a tiny piece of the preserved lemon or basil which was a little surprise on the tongue. It was served with seed crackers which, whilst lovely, weren't the perfect match for me - I think I would have gone for a plain cracker or a savoury biscuit.

The atmosphere was lively and friendly. The whole evening had a very 'communal' (if that's the right word) feel - I chatted to the girls on our table, the people on the table next to me, lots of people on the balcony and whoever I stumbled across on the way to and from the kitchen (where I couldn't resist disappearing every so often to see what was going on behind the scenes!). You wouldn't get anything approaching this sort of an atmosphere in a restaurant unless you booked the whole place out and filled it with your friends. Ten out of ten.

Next came a huge plate of salad - endive, wild asparagus and pea cress with a lemon and mustard dressing - from which we served ourselves. The bitterness of the endive (one of my favourite lettuces) contrasted well with the sweet wild asparagus, which was a simply lovely vegetable. I don't think any of us were particularly dainty in eating the long thin slippery stems!

Main course was Melanzane Parmigiana - melt in the mouth aubergines, a rich tomato sauce and a healthy portion of melted cheese. It's not the sort of dish you see on restaurant menus very often (although The Greenwich Union do a nice one) and by all accounts that's because of the labour intensive aubergine preparation involved (which judging by MsMarmiteLover's twittering the night before was a little wearing after batch three hundred and fifty nine...). It wasn't a particularly pretty dish but my word did it pack a punch. Aubergines are one of my favourite vegetables - so versatile for vegetarian cooking as they can form a centrepiece for those who miss the 'meat' element of a meal or, as they did here, blend perfectly with other ingredients. One of my dining companions had never eaten aubergines before but she loved the dish and will be going back to Scotland as an aubergine convert!

Finally, to round off the meal we were treated to Shuna's inventive dessert of Profiteroles with Bay Carnoli Rice and Strawberry Salad. What a treat! Light aga baked profiteroles filled with a creamy rice pudding flavoured with bay leaf piled on top of a salad of super fresh strawberries with herbs (there was definitely tarragon and rosemary in there). Goodness knows where Shuna's inspiration comes from but it works. I watched her lovingly chopping all of the strawberries by hand before adding her herb mix. This is the sort of dessert that I've never seen on a restaurant menu but would love to!

As the evening began to draw to a close, some diners drifted away and MsMarmiteLover came to sit with her guests for a good old chin wag. She has seemingly boundless energy - photographer, food blogger, mother, home cook, restaurateur, the list goes on... I wonder does she ever sleep?!

Before we knew it it was midnight and any chance of making it back south of the river by public transport long gone so we ordered ourselves a cab, said our farewells to our fellow diners, the lovely waitresses, our hostess and her guest chef and headed homeward feeling warm and fuzzy, well fed and thoroughly happy. How many places do you go out to eat where you kiss everyone goodbye before you leave...?

Damage: £25 contribution & Wine Raffle £10 per ticket

The Underground Restaurant


  1. Wow! Am definitely booking for the next one!


  2. Sounds like a wonderful night

  3. It was a fantastic evening - do go if you have the chance!

  4. I have been to one of the Paris Soirées in the link. I have to say it was a pretty chaotic affair compared to the evening you had. No tables, barely enough chairs/perching spaces. And all crammed into a hot, teeny apartment. The main event there is the speaker and sadly it shows. Great if the title of the talk appeals, but don't go expecting food good enough to blog about!

  5. That sounds like a nightmare amalissy! Not like this at all, where the food really was the main event. It's definitely worth a visit when you're next in London!

  6. Sounds much more relaxed than a traditional restaurant - what could be better!

  7. I had a great time there too, and had to properly leg it for the last train back to town as I live Saaaf of the river. I'm going to help out in the kitchen on Saturday, so I'm glad to hear it's not chaotic!

  8. this is such a brilliant write up, I've been meaning to go for ages and after reading this will definitely be booking a table!