food monthly: Reading's secret supper clubBy Caroline Cook
February 03, 2011
Supper clubs thrive in the US and are burgeoning over here.
Caroline Cook reveals (some) of the secrets behind Reading’s first
Tucked away in a corner of Reading there is a secret bubbling away in a saucepan.
Hungry diners walk past town centre restaurants and bars, ignoring the pizza places they have been to a hundred times before and knocking on the door of a tall town house just outside of the centre which has windows glowing with warmth.
Slightly unsure of what they will find on the other side and resisting the temptation to whisper a secret password, guests cross the threshold of an ordinary looking home and as they are led downstairs they become a part of the best kept secret in town – Reading’s first underground supper club.
A phenomenon which began in the cosmopolitan city of New York, the underground supper club has since travelled to Britain with restaurants popping up in London, Cardiff and now Reading. The concept is a unique one and begins with a post on the internet, advertising a date and inviting people to sign up for tickets.
Guests are then emailed the location just a few days before the night and arrive, unsure exactly of who they will be dining with or what they will be eating.
The brainchild of Reading couple Agustina, 32, and Ross, 39, the Reading supper club is a dining experience like no other and as word spreads around Reading like a game of Chinese whispers the restaurant is becoming the place to go on a Friday night.
The couple, who are also assisted by friend Jenny, 35, and choose to keep their surnames secret as the mystery is all part of the experience, began their underground restaurant in October after being inspired by TV chef Jamie Oliver.
Agustina said: “I have been a lover of food for a very long time and I have always dreamed of having my own restaurant or something similar. When I saw Jamie Oliver’s programme where he was in the states and exploring underground supper clubs in New York I thought that looks like a great idea, I wonder if you can do it here.
“I thought perhaps the trend is still not here and wondered what people would think but my mother in law said she had heard of it in England. She looked on the internet and found them all over the country but we realised there were not any in Reading.”
As I knocked on the door one icy Friday in December I was both nervous and excited as the mystery element of the supper club means you are not sure what will be on the other side. But the warm reception, complete with a glass of festive mulled wine, allayed any doubts and soon the dining room was filled with guests from all walks of life.
And that is the beauty of the supper club. It draws together people who would never meet in their daily lives and as I sat around the charmingly decorated table, sharing food with a Spanish mother who had just had her first child, and a Peruvian woman who told me the tale of how she met her husband on an aeroplane, I felt part of something rather special.
Agustina said: “We want to surprise people who come and make them feel this wonderful experience. We want them to feel special and be wondering what the next dish is going to be. Sometimes it will be Italian or American or to a theme and we want to create simple, homemade food, nothing too pretentious.”
And with its homemade feel and unique menu, the food is sensational. Our plates were set out with tiny savoury biscuits, tied with ribbon, which whet the appetite before the starter, cider beetroot soup, arrived. The soup was filled with the hearty beetroot flavour, topped with a swirl of sour cream and caramelised shallots which really sparked the taste buds.
Agustina, who is from Argentina, prepares all the food from scratch with Jenny, from Bolivia, and the women meet days before the event to discuss their menu and come up with their ideas.
Agustina said: “In Argentina I had always been surrounded by food and my grandmother and mother were always cooking. When I was about five they would put me next to them to peel the potatoes and eventually as I grew older I took over the kitchen from my mother.
“The inspiration for the dishes comes when Jenny and I start to research and we have ideas about what tastes will go well. It’s like magic when we are thinking and coming up with creations.”
The menu varies each week and on our night the soup was followed by a gorgeous roasted potato salad topped with smoked salmon and packed with the sweet taste of delicate onions and capers.
But it was the main course which really created a buzz around the table with a homemade feast of oven-roasted pulled pork cooked to perfection in a barbeque sauce, caramelised pear and cheese crumble, and a medley of fresh, crisp asparagus and mangetout.
The homely feel of the supper club is perfectly balanced with food which would not be out of place in the highest quality restaurant in town, but the ambiance and setting keep you away from the hustle and bustle and create a relaxed dinner party feel to the night.
For pudding guests were treated to a light and tasty banana cheesecake, juxtaposed by a rich and creamy tiramisu which finished off the meal nicely.
In the tradition of the supper club guests are asked to give a donation to the meal to recognise the hard work of the chefs who have prepared nothing short of a feast.
As word-of-mouth spreads the supper club is growing in popularity and Ross says the trio have plans for a variety of nights including different table arrangements to allow smaller parties to have more private evenings while others dine at a larger table.
He said: “It’s quite a little set-up at the moment and I think it would be great for people in Reading to know about it.
“We are Reading’s first underground restaurant and it’s a challenge but a nice challenge. At the end of the evening you get the smiles on people’s faces and you know they’ve had a really unique experience.”
As couples and individuals go out into the night, ready to tell their friends and colleagues about their special dining experience the magic of the Reading supper club spreads around the town and Agustina says the real food lovers will be able to track down the key to the door.
She said: “There are clues which are there for the food lovers who really want to find us.
“It will be the people who really want the unique experience who will find out about us and come along.”