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The first official gathering of the HUSH supper club went to the dogs. The table decorations for that October dinner included square bowls filled with water, goldfish, and floating candles. Some of the scaly creatures didn’t make it through the meal; they floated to the surface, deader than Dixie democrats. The hosts seized the opportunity and fed the fallen fish to the dogs, a sort of canine amuse bouche.
The symbolism of the moment is too rich to ignore: Underground supper clubs such as HUSH are perilous propositions. While they don’t usually lead to death, these enterprises operate outside the system that licenses, regulates, and taxes restaurants. The organizers risk more than the scorn of a dissatisfied diner; they risk stiff fines.
“If [diners] have to pay, then that’s a business, and it needs a business license,” says Leila Abrar, spokesperson for D.C.’s Department of Health. The business also, she says, needs to be zoned for a restaurant, needs to pay taxes, and needs to pass health inspections. Sidestepping any of these requirements results in a $500 fine, which doubles on every subsequent offense. “It appears to me that this [club] is an attempt to skirt all of these laws,” she adds.
Of course it is. That’s why the organizers have requested anonymity. They’ve asked that we not publish their names, the address of their supper club, nor the places where they work. Here’s what I can say: The chef for HUSH toils on the line at a celebrated downtown restaurant; the pastry chef helps create sweets for some powerful people; and the logistics man “works on the Hill.” About once a month, they combine talents to serve dinner for 16 folks lucky enough to snag a seat in the living room of a home shared by the chef, the logistics man, and three others.
Despite the health department’s concerns, HUSH is hardly a (non)license to print money. The organizers basically broke even on their first dinner, and they charge a relative pittance for a meal that would cost two or three times more at a real restaurant. “This is a chance to experiment with different food,” the chef says, “and see how people react to it.”
With two bottles of wine in hand for the March gathering, I enter the cozy house in the Eastern Market area where HUSH is held and head almost immediately to the postage-stamp-sized kitchen. I expect to find clutter, chaos, and maybe cussing. What I find instead are the two chefs calmly chatting with friends, as if they’re preparing to eat dinner on the town, not about to prepare a seven-course feast.
Out in the “dining room,” one of the house’s tenants is passing out pre-dinner cocktails, a drink made with oatmeal-infused vodka, honey, and apples. The cinnamon-dusted concoction is liquid Quaker oats, with all the warm wintry associations that implies, but the drink also serves as a social lubricant in this dimly lit room crowded with people who typically bond over their pooches, not plates of food. Many of the diners here know one another from walking their canines at a nearby cemetery that doubles as a dog park.
If such a cliquish setting poses risks for social-phobes, then the menu is a control-freak’s nightmare. If you’re selected to dine with HUSH—you must first join the e-mail list and then hope you pass the screening process for the dinner—you agree to put yourself at their mercy. That means you agree to pay without any sense of what’s on the menu.
When I finally do scan the menu on the table, I’m pleased with the risks the chef’s taking later in the meal, even if her first three courses lean toward Fine Dining 101: a tuna tartare amuse with a smart, contrasting crunch of fried rice; a livery take on sliders with a creamy round of foie gras slid between a toasted brioche bun smeared with a honey-fig spread; and a butternut-squash soup with a surprising kick of spice. (The soup appears to be a reprise dish, though slightly modified, from the October dinner.)
The next two courses are the chef’s swan dives off the cliff. She calls the fourth course a deconstructed BLT, but it’s really a complete re-imagining of the dish. The bread and greens have been reconstituted as rounds of ravioli stuffed with a purée of lettuce and ricotta; the pockets sit in a light, sun-dried tomato sauce and are topped with crispy pancetta. It’s brilliant and looks beautiful. It also barely registers on my palate, which sabotages my expectations of a BLT. Likewise, her beef tenderloin, with vanilla-scented parsnips and chocolate bordelaise sauce, challenges my expectations of a savory meat course. While novel, her approach doesn’t work; the sweetness and aromatics all but drown out the beef.
The final two courses, the pastry chef’s handiwork, achieve what the previous two couldn’t: They push the conceptual boundaries without losing sight of flavor. The simple “cleanse” course is anything but, a shotgun marriage of sweet (tangerine gelee, lime sorbet) and savory (carrot shavings) that somehow manage to share the same space. The finale, a deconstructed banana split with chocolate streusel and a tissue-thin piece of fried banana paper crumpled up on a scoop of banana ice cream, leaves me spewing superlatives to the table.
The last surprise comes with the bill. The housemate/waitress leaves a white envelope on the table with the requested amount: $40. Hell, I’ve paid more for less at a number of restaurants, including the one where the chef spends her working hours.
To sign up for the Hush Supper Club, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.