by Anthony Enright
There is a warm feeling that comes over you after a fine meal with good friends, you push away from the table, step out into the night air with a sigh and all seems right with the world. It’s an alluring moment, and one that simply can’t be faked or bought, it’s an afterglow that comes from sharing in the hard work, talent and company of people who care enough to make dining into something more profound than just a meal. This dawned on me Saturday as we stepped away from one of the more unique and satisfying culinary experiences available in the Twin Cities, the charming monthly event Clandesdine. It’s a concept that sparkles with the unmistakable sheen of a real labor of love.
If you haven’t heard of Clandesdine, rest assured you are not alone. It’s relatively under the radar (in part by design) but is decidedly not intended to foster exclusivity. On the contrary, warm and engaging founders and hosts Elle Chrenka and Eli Edleston-Stein have developed a welcoming and inclusive format that truly makes guests feel as if they have been invited to a ridiculously accomplished dinner party that’s somehow also charmingly informal. Here’s the basic idea: host a monthly one-night-only dinner in a Twin Cities home, invite a talented local chef to imagine and cook a multi-course menu, and have it served by friendly volunteers whose goal is making the affair fun and unpretentious. The real brilliance of this plan is that is manages to strip away the artifice and snobbery that too often surrounds dining and distills the concept of a dinner party in ways that are really only apparent after you’ve finished the experience. At our dinner, chef Andrew J. Switzer (who inexplicably is not currently working in a local restaurant, someone needs to remedy that ASAP) was channeling his recent honeymoon in New York City, so there was a lot of love evident on the plates as well as in the dining room.
This whole idea is so earnest and sweet and egalitarian that you almost forget that somehow these few smiling young people have managed to rigorously recreate in someone’s home the ambiance and fine dining magic that usually takes months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to make happen in a restaurant setting. The very fact that people and events like this one exist tells you everything you need to know about why Minneapolis is such a great place to live. We’re a city that sees a group of people doing something they love and creating something unique and enjoyable and says, “How can we help; what can we do to support this?” Perhaps it’s this quality that makes the Midwest seem so hopelessly naive and quaint to cynics on the coasts. Yes, we know it’s not Le Bernardin, but as much as that kind of perfection is valuable, I think you get as much enjoyment out of a very fine dinner with good friends as you would dropping $200 a head to dine at one of the temples of fine gastronomy that receive Michelin stars, it’s all in your perspective.
Below is a quick overview of our experience at Clandesdine, but you absolutely need to check it out for yourself. Clandesdine provides a not to be missed moment of clarity that will definitely make your night and may just get you thinking the big thoughts about your life’s priorities and what’s really important.
Pre-Dinner Drinks / First Course:
We stepped into the candle filled stairway that led up to the top floor of a NE duplex and entered into what could easily have passed for a small bistro in Paris, candles flickered, lace tablecloths and flowers brightened the settings, and a large chalkboard announced the night’s menu. One of my dining companions, Elliot Manthey is a Northstar Bartender’s Guild member and mixologist (though he would probably hate that term) at Red Stag Supper Club. We were aware that he had brought the makings of a cocktail, but I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the level of seriousness he brings to his craft. As Elliot removed small bottles, glassware, free form ice and what appeared to be tinctures from a doctor’s bag, we knew something special was about to happen. We each received a Widow’s Kiss, a classic cocktail (the ingredients for which I shouldn’t give away) garnished with lemon zest and a brandied cherry and topped with a few drops of bitters. Not only was it wonderful, it managed to be a perfect accompaniment to the first course of house cured pastrami on rye with mustard ‘caviar’ (which was fortuitous as I’d had a difficult time deciding which wine to pair with this course).
A note here that Clandestine encourages BYOB and posts the menu in advance so you can select drink parings to customize your experience.
I managed to open all three wines I brought with me prior to the First Course to give them a little time to breathe. (I had purchased two of the wines for the occasion at Surdyks and the third was selected from my cellar, there was a handy corkscrew in the center of our table.) The second course was a creative take on the traditional bagels and lox NYC breakfast with house cured gravlax standing in for the lox, beautifully scrambled eggs (just on the edge of runny, which is the real test of a perfectly scrambled egg) and a home-made ‘everything’ bagel with herbed cream cheese. The eggs, gravlax and cream cheese were a superb combination, but the bagel (though mini) seemed out of proportion to the delicacy of the other elements. I had selected a 2009 German Auslese Riesling for this course, and though the wine was stellar on it’s own, with a meaty nose and smoky mineral flavor, it was pretty much obliterated by the gravlax and cream cheese and lost most of its complexity. Oh well, you can’t win them all, that’s part of the fun of blind wine paring. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty amazing wine, and I’ll likely buy it again to pair with a less rich dish.
The third course sounded the most enigmatic, calamari with pine nuts…what? I decided that since the description listed a tomato broth red wine would be appropriate and something light bodied would be in order. I was right on both counts, but it was really the dish that dazzled us. I’d like to think I could reproduce this at home, but who am I kidding…here we go: A rich thick and slightly spicy tomato broth ladled over perfectly cooked squid nestled next to silky Israeli cous cous that slid down your throat in the loveliest way imaginable. Currents and toasted pine nuts occupied the other edges of the bowl and the whole thing was garnished with a split caper berry. Our entire table swooned and could not get over the deliciousness of this dish. One dinner companion attempted to invent new ‘S’ words when savory, sweet, spicy, sour and silky seemed inadequate to describe the interplay of flavors. The wine I’d selected for this course was a 2009 Mercurey, a somewhat humble (or as humble as this region gets) Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region of France. On its own the wine was earthy and cherry scented with a great iron and underbrush element, but I feared it too would be obliterated by the spicy tomato sauce. My fears were misplaced, far from being obliterated the wine came alive with the food becoming more fruity and accessible while highlighting just how complex the dish really was. It was one of those perfect matches that seems wrong but ends up being oh-so-right. I’m pretty sure this course this is the moment we all gave ourselves over the the charms of Clandesdine and melted into little pools of satisfaction.
The fourth course was a “Brown Butter Steak and Foie Gras with an Apple Rhubarb Compote.” Since I love both foie gras and steak I selected the wine based on those two ingredients hoping the whole compote thing wouldn’t create too much of an obstacle. I picked a 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from my cellar, a very classic Grenache based blend from the Southern Rhône region of France. Châteauneuf-du-Pape tends to have earthy and even rustic elements along with a finesse and grip so I thought would work well with the steak. We were all very impressed with the balance in this dish, the steak was seared perfectly medium rare and the Foie Gras was shaved over the compote adding a deep richness to the barely sweet, lightly tart rhubarb and apple mix. The wine kept up nicely, evolving in the glass as we finished the main courses.
Fifth Course (dessert):
The dessert course was a “Vanilla Panna Cotta with Boozy Cherries and crushed Hazelnuts”. The panna cotta itself could have used some special extra element (our table though black pepper would have be interesting) but the two kinds of brandied cherries (sweet and tart) and the crunchy toasted hazelnuts made it a fitting ending to a very fine meal.
Clandesdine gives guests an exact tally of the food/supplies cost for the night (so each guest knows a minimum suggested donation), and provides two piggy banks for guests to contribute. Our total was $18.24 which seemed a little silly considering the exceptional quality of the food. We each stuffed at least double that in the piggy banks and still left feeling like we’d received a bargain.
If You Go:
1. Consider the menu ahead of time and bring appropriate beverages, it will make your experience even more special.
2. Plan far in advance. Space is limited and fills up months in advance…
3. Bring cash, those piggy banks don’t take credit.
4. Be respectful, you’re dining in someone else’s home and the people making this happen are volunteering their time. Appreciate how special that is.
5. Invite people you like, this may go without saying, but that warm glow does not just come from the food. Share the experience with people whose company you enjoy.
Visit www.clandesdinempls.com to book your reservations.