Food feature: Eating underground

SV Underground holds monthly dinners in secret locations

It's underground, secretive, clandestine.

A group of strangers are sent locations just days before they're supposed to meet -- and eat.

They'll gather once a month to dine on themed menu items. Last month, Julia Child was celebrated with a bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise and beef bourguignon served next to a deconstructed herbed potato gratin. This month, it's "Night of the Living Fed" with devils on horseback, maple-lacquered duck breast with a blood orange sauce and death by white chocolate mousse.

These are SV Underground dinners: themed multi-course pop-up meals put on once a month at different locations in Silicon Valley. Each dinner is devised and executed by Gale Tan, a California transplant from the Philippines who's really, really into food.

Tan, born in Manila, has been cooking since she was 8 years old, when she learned how to make paella -- her grandfather loved Spanish food. She came to the United States in the early 1990s and ended up at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where she learned how to cook everything from Italian to French to African cuisine.

She went on to get her hands dirty at various levels of the industry -- washing dishes, serving, teaching culinary school at the Art Institute of California in Sunnyvale, catering and working retail as culinary manager at Sur La Table in Palo Alto -- but grew disillusioned with the lack of creativity involved with the latter two.

"How it all started was, I did a lot of catering but got really bored with the menu," she said. "It was time for an evolution and time for something new. I've always wanted to try different dishes out on people -- something constantly changing from month to month, would that be something interesting?"

So she went for it, launching her first dinner in 2012.

"The first dinner was everything I just wanted to make, that I'd been dying (to make)," she said.

Twelve diners, mostly past Sur La Table customers or friends, met at a home in Los Altos Hills for an international affair, dining on truffle mac and cheese, Japanese egg custard, paella and more. Since then, she's hosted six dinners in the Peninsula area.

Diners can purchase tickets online or via phone (the price varies, but it's usually around $100 per person). They'll know the theme and menu, but won't know where they're eating until they receive an email about four days beforehand. The dinners always include multiple appetizers and a choice of entrees and dessert, all made from seasonal, local, sustainable ingredients and prepared in a Health Department-inspected and -licensed commercial kitchen that Tan rents. The dinners are B.Y.O.B., as Tan serves only non-alcoholic drinks.

George Brandetsas and his wife, Karen Learn, went to their first SV Underground dinner two years ago. Brandetsas said his wife heard about the dinners from one of the many local restaurant and chef blogs she follows.

"It was fantastic," he said, recalling that diners made their own pizzas and baked them in a wood-fired oven on site.

He and his vegetarian wife, who live in Sunnyvale, also attended the September Julia Child dinner (their third).

"The food was unique," he said. Other menu items included a double-baked cheese soufflé with parmesan cream, topped with greens (foraged by Tan in undisclosed local places) and edible flowers; and individual Queen of Sheba chocolate cakes, topped with seasonal fruit and vanilla creme.

"Obviously there are some things you don't like because your tastes don't run that way but overall the food was terrific," Brandetsas said. "I think the bouillabaisse was the best I ever had."

One of Tan's past culinary students, Shari Levin, also attended the September dinner, which was her first. She said she loved the polenta, one that Tan chose for its rarity. The heirloom Floriani red flint corn was once a staple crop in northern Italy but died out about 250 years ago. The grain, recently brought back and grown in the United States, is earthier, nuttier than typical polenta.

"It's just not the usual thing," Tan said of the food she serves.

Past dinner themes have included A5 wagyu beef (A5 being the highest meat grade), Don Quixote (Spanish cuisine) and a "Spring Forager's Feast."

At the dinners, all of the diners -- most of whom don't know each other -- are seated together at community tables. Tan walks them through the menu and answers any questions they might have. Previous culinary students and her two daughters often help out behind the scenes.

"One of the fun things about that is you meet a lot of people," Brandetsas said. "You're at a community table, you have a good time, everybody brings their own wine, (we) did some wine tasting with some of the other folks' wine that they brought."

Tan is looking forward to the October dinner's Halloween theme, so she can serve "all the crazy stuff" she likes (braised ox tongue, for instance) but also plenty of easy-to-stomach dishes (creepy creamy carrot, chestnut and butternut squash soup; poached franken fish; blood-curdling midnight risotto).

The next dinner will be on Saturday, Oct. 26, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $114; a cheaper-priced ticket has already sold out.

November's dinner, "The Hunger Games: Tributes Feast at the Capitol," is inspired by the science-fiction series and shaped by seasonal fall ingredients. There will be lamb stew (sourced from a New Zealand ranch), Dungeness crab salad, wild mushroom soup and apple cinnamon tartlettes with lavender, honey and goat cheese.

Though ticket prices are high and many menu items high-end, neither Tan nor SV Underground are highfalutin'. The dinners are meant to be casual, bringing together those who love food the most and launching them on monthly underground gastronomical adventures.

Info: The next SV Underground dinner, called "Halloween: Night of the Living Fed," is scheduled for Oct. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. at a still-undisclosed location in Palo Alto. Go to svunderground.com.


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