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Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson
Last September, at a surprise birthday bash, several Seattle chefs and their cronies stayed up late, their talk turning to their favorite subjects: food and restaurants. Their conversation inspired by a case of Spanish rosado turned to a discussion of the "underground restaurants" cropping up in urban centers nationwide.
Unlike the well-advertised restaurants this group knew firsthand, these clandestine dining places resided in crowded apartments and private homes. They kept odd hours and flew under the radar of health- and fire-inspectors, the liquor-control board and the IRS. These restaurants opened without bank loans, lease agreements or ADA-accessible restrooms. They were, in a word, illegal.
On that night, drunk with wine and enthusiasm, the revelers had a revelation: Seattle needed its own underground restaurant. And seated in their midst were the perfect people to turn that late-night notion into a risky reality.
Surely these (otherwise) upstanding citizens were willing to flout the law in the name of fun and fine food? The gauntlet was thrown, plans were made, and after many months they ushered their first guests into Seattle's secret restaurant codename: Gypsy.
Curious? You're not the only one. Last week I got a call from one of the nation's leading food writers. "What do you know about this 'secret' restaurant?" he asked. "I've got a friend coming to Seattle, and he wants in."
"I'd tell you," I replied. "But then I'd have to kill you."
Of course, it's the idea of a restaurant killing you or otherwise making you ill that keeps governmental folks on the lookout for infractions. "We have a food code that we require restaurants to follow," says Hilary Karasz-Dominguez, spokeswoman for Public Health-Seattle and King County. "That code is in place to ensure people don't get sick in restaurants."
There are many things I can't divulge about Gypsy, where, to my great delight, I finally dined last month. This includes its location (in a quiet residential neighborhood), its ownership (their secret's safe with me) and who exactly was sharing my dinner table (no one I knew).
I can't tell you where the next dinner will be (it may or may not inhabit the same address) or who will head up the kitchen (Gypsy offers a growing roster of Big Name Chefs). Nor can I say how much it might cost to attend. The recommended "contribution" they can't legally charge a cent can be steep, but the membership fee to join this private supper club is a paltry five bucks.
Subscribers receive regular newsletters with invitations to upcoming dinners. These are held on Sunday nights when it's easier for the guest chefs to get out of their own restaurant kitchens.
You'll have to act fast to secure a seat: With only 20-some available, they fill up quickly. With exquisite timing, I happened to be online one recent evening when an incoming e-mail arrived from Gypsy bearing the words "last-minute cancellations." I hesitated for, oh, a minute, before replying.
Minutes later I received an acknowledgment, along with an address, a map and instructions. These details described procedures for payment (er, "contribution," preferably in cash), parking (as far from the house as possible), and how to deal with nosy neighbors (mum's the word). Two nights later, I was on my way to a rendezvous with who-knows-who.
Arriving 15 minutes early a no-no, according to my instructions I did a slow reconnaissance past the secret site, drove around the block and parked. Then I waited. As did the woman who pulled up in a Subaru and parked in front of me. I saw her staring into her rearview mirror, no doubt thinking what I was thinking: "Is she in on this?" She was.
As were the couples I spotted strolling past, the women's pocketbooks a dead give-away. (Who takes a purse on an evening walk?) Checking my lipstick and quietly berating myself for wearing jeans (underdressed!) I waited a discrete minute before heading out to join them.
Divine dinner party
Gypsy has all the hallmarks of a well-tuned dinner party. There's the host, waiting to welcome you and offer a glass of wine (for which, if you play by the rules, you'll pay an additional $7).
There are clutches of partygoers exchanging first names and how-do-you-know-the-hosts? while others swoon over the gorgeous gourmet kitchen (Who owns this place? I hate them!), admiring the spice collection, pawing the cookbook shelf and sneaking a peek to see what's bubbling on the multi-burner stove.
Clustered out on the deck, Gypsy-goers admire the view, deep in discussion of food-related Web sites, Vietnamese-cooking classes and favorite restaurants, before heeding the call to dinner. Retreating to elegantly outfitted tables, they find their place cards, take their seats and acquaint themselves with their neighbors.
If I had to liken this "restaurant" to any other, the Herbfarm comes to mind. As at that four-star culinary production catering to the feverishly food-focused, a Spanish guitarist plays quietly in a corner and our host takes the stage to introduce our chef: tonight a local sushi master of some renown.
The venerable chef, with the help of several cooks and a classy crew of black-clad servers, presented an eight-course dinner matched with a world of wines. The meal was, on every count, a virtuoso performance of Japanese genius.
It began with cool, slippery, somen noodles, soft tofu and pickled plums dancing in dashi and paired with Ichinokura sake. It moved on to a textured crunch of seaweed, carrot, burdock root and pink peppercorns a salad as marvelous as it was medicinal.
Manzanilla sherry, with its delicate hint of salt, was a surprisingly well-chosen accompaniment for a trio of sashimi, offered with fresh-grated wasabi: salmon bites housed in an heirloom-tomato tureen; baby Japanese octopus afloat in a cucumber canoe; and tuna tossed with mountain potato and pine nuts.
Seared hamachi (yellowtail) draped with tiny-tendriled pea vines was followed by a dramatic presentation of tarako spaghetti. The pasta, garnished with shiso leaf and salmon roe, swam in a buttery broth with petite mussels, gently scored squid and slices of surf clam. This was perfectly partnered with Chateau de Varennes Savennieres, a golden shellfish-friendly chenin blanc.
By the time the braised oxtail arrived I couldn't possible eat another bite. But since when has that ever stopped me? Ruddy, meaty chunks of oxtail sat on a broad circle of Korean daikon, the spongy root closely resembling a dahlia. Delicious. Next came suimono a clear broth powerfully flavored with hamachi-kama (yellowtail collar). I picked up my bowl and sipped, slowly, till it was empty. For dessert: lychee sorbet served with cold, cloudy, lychee-infused sake.
Throughout the meal, exotic teas were poured, courses were cleared, conversation abounded and in what seemed like no time at all though by the clock three and a half hours had passed the time had come to make our suggested contribution ($85 for food, $25 for wine), tip our servers, our musician and our hats, then slip quietly into the night.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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