When one is invited to a very exclusive underground dining club, one must carefully consider how to prepare. The invitation was electronic, polite and discreet. The address and menu of the event would be disclosed merely two hours beforehand. The hostess and founder of the group did not use a nom-de-plum but I’ll hereby refer to her as “Lady Eight.”
This was the first time I’d been invited to an “underground” dining club. Was it black tie? Were we all going to be wearing masks? What if the location was somewhere outside of Portland, that would be a major problem considering I don’t own a car, and could risk missing the reservation, a heinous insult to the Club, which I should mention at this point, is called the Cloak & Dagger Underground Dining Club. Who would insult a Club with a name like that?
When the word was sent, to my luck, it was on the peninsula. I decided since I was flying in blind to dress as keenly as possible, only one shot to make a first impression and so forth. I knew the hostess through a mutual friend, and she knew I was a writer and worked in a restaurant, hence the invitation. I also decided to arrive uncharacteristically on-time. I was not the only person to do this.
The apartment complex was tall and blue and appeared to connect several different buildings. Before I had to do any research to find the correct entrance, I overheard a conversation on the street. A tall man with glasses was asking some other fellows who were sitting at a bus stop how to properly find the apartment. I was a distance away and did not want to see creepy at all, so I patiently smoked a cigarette while the tall man finished the exchange and walked down the sidewalk. Unseen, I followed him.
We walked down a small staircase to a side enclave of the building, and he opened the door. I closed the distance and he held the door open for me. A friendly lean man with glasses, beard, smile dressed a tad snappy. I was also on the snappy side, so I waited till I was in the elevator to break the silence.
“Are you going to the secret underground dinner party?”
He said yes, but in retrospect how awesome would it have been if he was completely unaware of this event. That’s one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever remarked.
He introduced himself, some Greek name, I’m sticking with “Alexander.” He’d been to this event before, I mentioned I hadn’t, pleasant dude. We both made it to the door and Lady Eight greeted us.
A reeeeally nice little single bedroom, maybe a loft? I don’t know, I didnt see a ladder going to a mini-room over my head. I’m not really a real-estate minded fellow. But the kitchenette was covered with pans, utensils, ramekins, bowls, and cutting boards. It was open to where the dining table was set. A nice large dark wood table, with sixteen perfect plates all arranged with napkins and silverware and glassware. Privately, I patted my back with going snappy for this. I’m never truly “fancy” or “black tie” since all my threads came second hand but I at least put together a loveable hip mix of dress clothes that at the end of the night make me look like a old-timey tramp, and that’s exactly what I’m going for, okay, Invisible Hipster Panel of Judges. Jerks. Lady Eight had another chef also cooking. He was a short guy with an apron and a disposition that told you he knew more about knives than you knew about baseball. This fellow was very quiet for most of the evening, and stayed in the kitchen area.
Anyways, Lady Eight greeted us and made conversation as she finished prepping some of the courses. The others slowly arrived in kind, I was the first to take my seat, middle of the row, not at the head. Seating is a real “thing” if you believe it or not and thought must be applied. I was the unknown here, I had to play it neutral till I saw how the power balance would slide. I had my A game with me, so I did the whole stand-and-shake whenever a new guest was introduced.
So here’s how the crowd shaped out:
Alexander the Greek sat directly across from me.
To his right, my left, was a middle-aged couple, dressed smart.
At my far left, end of the table, or “power seats” cause they were facing the door or something I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on this, a slightly older couple, the man quiet, the lady spunky and full of polite energy.
Seated directly to my left was a red-headed lady in a bright red dress, older than me but no guesses as to age range because hey, you must be careful with that sort of thing.
Filling out the entire right hand side of the table were four absolutely gorgeous waitresses. My A-game took a dramatic shift, I had to recalibrate, like most dudes whether, visible or not, I am incredibly nervous when pretty girls watch me eat. Or do anything, really. I needed some confidence juice.
The waitresses, low and behold, brought the confidence juice, a huge bottle of red they shared with everyone. Lady Eight mentioned there’d be a wine pairing with each course, but it was a light smooth red so that shouldn’t mess up our palates too bad. So we sipped away, and polite nondirect banter ensued.
Before this dinner gets underway I am obliged to point out two things. One, I am not a “foodie.” I don’t care for the word itself, but if you self-apply go right ahead. I’m not a “gourmet” or reasonable judge of the finer things. I’m just an open, honest critic of awesome things. But these folks, the majority of the older folks to my left, were definite food people. They compared famous places in New York, and made promises to get people in touch with chefs, services and even other private dining functions like this one. These guys were players. This was their game. And I had to hold my own on their turf.
To my right, the waitresses. The one I recognized, we’ll go with “Samantha” because that’s a hilarious name that’s not hers. I’d seen Samantha many a time out dancing. We had the same dancing place. I’d never spoken to her except once, and oh boy was it embarrassing. This is so seventh grade. My friend dared me to use a cheesy pick-up line on someone, anyone, and I chose her. It went, “Excuse me, but how much does a polar bear weigh? (Yup, this one) Enough to break the ice, Hi, I’m Travis.” Yup. I did that. She laughed at me then. My fingers were crossed under the nice tablecloth that she had forgotten this faux pas now.
Lady Eight made a quick pre-dinner speech, explaining the theme. Every course was one vegetable, prepared in different ways, to compliment every aspect of their flavor profile. Sounded sweet. Also, all local ingredients from the farmer’s market nearby.
OK, first course beverage pairing lands, it is a twist on the Hot Toddy. With a slightly spicy apple cider thing going on, and some garnish in the drink. Was it mint? It could have been mint.
First course was a light salad of Radishes. I’d plumb forgotten what a radish tastes like exactly, and oh hey, there it is, in a nice little salad. Like onions, it left my throat a little raw. How to handle that? Insert a hot savory alcohol cider. Boom.
Second course was Onions Six Ways. A tiny white bowl with a broth made with onions, with a variety of onions in it. Some were sweet and caramelized. I hate raw onions and this dish made me think about calling onions back and trying to see if we could take another shot at things. Wine helped, a nice deep red.
I just wrote Lady Eight for a list of every course, she said the third was “Soybean.” All apologies, I don’t remember this dish for the life of me.
Fourth though, fourth I got. Stuck right out in my mind. Cauliflower and mushroom. Roasted cauli is so good if you’ve never had it. If you were one of those kids who never liked cauli because it looked so much like its errant cousin broccoli, I implore you to reconsider this powerful flower. Another glass of wine reminded me I had now taken in five glasses of wine. Five. And it was starting to show.
The blond chick to my direct right had offhandedly mentioned Portsmouth, NH. My father lives there and I grew up in the area, so this became a fantastic talking point, asking about old places like bridges and parks, the other waitresses tagging in here and there. Five cups of wine gets people pretty warm and chiddy. I even spied some secret whispers behind wine glasses, flashes of eyes, and giggling. I told my inner-narcissist to shut the hell up, this was no time to be thinking these fine ladies were talking about me. There were five more glasses of wine in the future. Keep it together, Travy.
Luckily, Alexander across from me superbly canoed through conversation on either side of the table. He had enough in common with both sides, being of the restaurant industry, and if ever there was a lull or off moment, he would ask me a question, since we were clearly old buddies now with our First To Show Up badges. This prompting got the left side of the table more curious about me. The energetic lady at the head of the table even demanded my name and three things about me. My ego had to check itself before selecting appropriate answers. Instead of going the amature filmmaker-writer-actor route (always locked and loaded, ready to boast) I went a bit more honest. I’m a Segway tour guide. I also used to work at Otto Pizza, which everyone knew about. I can’t remember the third thing, I hope it wasn’t something like “And hey, I’m just an ordinary guy, you know?!”
Fifth course lands. Squash. Some summer squash, maybe a butternut. Coming at me in about four different incarnations of the produce, one a mashy Thanksgiving staple style, another slivered and panfried. There was also a large plain slab of it. This was the only version I didn’t salivate over, up until this point all the food had been epic mind-blowing lessons in the power of vegetables. Conversation turned to the butternut squash pizza at Otto. I found myself center table, at the center of attention again, wine drunk, full of myself. Luckily, I noticed, and passed the topic of conversation down to the foodie couples who had been far and abroad and asked them about NYC pies they liked.
I break to note: I’ve become increasingly suspicious Samantha, the dancer I tried to pick up, does in fact remember me. My nature is straight up ask the blunt honest potentially awkward question, but this was not my dinner party. So I put a lid on it.
That’s when I felt it. Two gentle presses on my toes, with a distinct pause between. The pause said, this was premeditated. No one was accidentally playing footsies here. My heart leapt three beats and the temperature of the room increased to 170 degrees. I let nothing show on my face, or focused so hard on not noticing it could have looked like I definitely noticed. I took a sip. And slowly scanned the eyes of the beautiful ladies, waiting for the eyebrow to slightly raise, just like the stakes. It wasn’t Portsmouth, or Samantha, or the other two (sure we all get codenames, I’ll go with Veronica and Helvetica). Nope. Nothing. No eyelashes batted, no winks, giggles or tell-tale body language whatsoever. Then I looked at Alexander.
He had his hands crossed over his plate, against his chin. His gaze through his lenses was cool, low and right at me.
This is when the Lady in Red comes in. She nudged me with her arm and asked in a large bold voice.
“Well Travis, you’re a young good looking man, do you have a girlfriend?”
Cue waitresses giggling. Probably embarrassed for me.
“Nope, I don’t.”
And seamlessly conversation around the whole table resumed. I did look back to Alexander once or twice, afraid I’d insulted him. Somehow clove cigarettes came up. My first cigarette had been a clove (theatre major) and Alexander was a huge fan of them. He mentioned since they’d been outlawed in the states he would travel abroad. I mentioned the potential for a black market on them. He suggested he surreptitiously send them to me and I peddle them among my peers. I made a spot-on flawless Breaking Bad reference, the whole table laughed, everything was awesome. Friends.
The next course was beets. My last girlfriend was all about beets, so this was a lovely nostalgic treat. More wine. All this alcohol was really taking my tastebuds out of the picture, but I did my best to compliment out loud at least one spectacular trait about both the dish and the wine. Maybe this was obvious. Maybe I was oblivious. Those two words are very similar.
Social Travis was in full control now. No more self-conscious ego checks. I regaled the left side with the trials and tribulations of teaching tourists to ride Segways, which flowed right into my Portland history, which they quizzed me on. I’d drop in on the right side to check in with the waitresses. They were all friends and chatting away with that happy wine energy. I’d tag onto a sentence about local bars or something happening in the music scene like a total tool. I think I even forced in that I was a local actor. Who does that? Thank the Gods one of them knew an actress I knew and worked with, so that saved face some. Halfway through a sentence I felt another tap on my foot, with a pause, then another tap. Without stumble or stutter, I finished the thought and followed up asking a pretty girl an unimportant question, just to get the flow of convo back.
Seventh course: Pumpkin. Pumpkin is near holy in my Church. I don’t know how you mess up something pumpkin flavored. I was paying too much attention to the social dynamics of the table, so I can’t remember how Lady Eight prepared it. Trust me, knocked my socks off.
The Lady in Red started really warming up to me. When she wasn’t peppering me with stories or questions, I would take a moment of silence to decide given the choice which waitress I would take out to the movies, and the quiet part of your mind we all possess even started making secret plans to get one of their numbers (which particular one is private information to protect the innocent, namely me).
This is when it gets a bit interesting. While I’m having these indecent promiscuous thoughts, the Lady in Red taps my shoulder three times. She leans a little bit, as if to say something just between me and her, but the table at this point was roaring with commotion, so she had to speak up.
“Travis. There are four beautiful ladies to your right, which one of them do you fancy?”
Everyone heard it. In my personal fable, the record skipped and all eyes were on me, but that’s not what happened. Conversation never ceased. I closed my eyes, feeling redness swell up into my face like the burner on a stove. A couple of the more inebriated girls laughed out loud. Resilient, I tilted my head down and three degrees towards the Lady in Red.
“I’m not going to say. I’m pretty certain they can all hear you.” I calmly, quietly stated.
Alexander pressed on my foot again. This time both feet. Involuntarily, I snapped a glance to him. Same folded hands, same low gaze.
The Lady in Red continued, getting closer to my face.
“Come on, Travis, they are beautiful girls you surely must like one of them, you’re young, handsome, single…”
Her voice was drowned out by the rushing sound of blood in my ears. I actually started sweating. I found solace in my seventh glass of wine. Cleared my throat. And did a weird silent treatment / cold shoulder thing that could have been rude in a more personal setting, but this did not send any signals to the lady in red, Alexander, or the pretty girls. I exhaled and casually stared at the ceiling. Straight up. No eye contact. Another explosion of giggling as I studied the ceiling tiles.
The eighth and ninth courses were Potato and then Apple-Celeriac. I was finally feeling full. The portions were all petite and excellent, but the starch of the potato took a toll. The air of recline spread up and down the table, people pushing their chairs back, spreading their legs, getting comfy. Waving wine glasses back and forth with sweeping hand movements to punctuate conversations. I had my best “I’m Totally Sober” face on, which probably looks ridiculous, I’ve never seen it. I just knew if I so much as even slurred one word, it’d be the straw of shame to break the camel’s back and I’d jettison myself out a window.
Luckily, this slanted, I’m very flirty, and equalled distributed flirty remarks between the waitresses and the lady in red and even the woman at the far end, who reminded me of a TV personality with her gold hoop earrings. The foodie men were pressing me for secrets to Otto’s recipes and ignoring their wives. Alexander explained how despite Portland was such a Restaurant City there still was a distinct void in good Chinese food. All agreed.
We made toasts to Lady Eight, for organizing the evening. I almost made a joke about secret underground dining club Secret Handshakes or Blood Oaths, but refrained. Some other toasts were made, I think, I remember everyone raising their glasses more than once. But the hour was closing on midnight and I had to get the crap out of there before I made a proper fool of myself. Who knows. People started standing and leaving.
The lady in red insisted on hugging me, then planting a huge kiss on my cheek, but you can tell she wanted it to be discreet. It wasn’t. I shook Alexander’s hand, saying it was nice meeting him etc, deftly sweeping away any of the under-the-table activity into the rivers of time. The waitresses and I remained, as Lady Eight finally took off her apron, got a glass of wine and started socializing. So did the other chef, he was Nick or something, and we struck up conversation as the only two men left in the room do.
I think we smoked cigarettes indoors. Lady Eight called me out on the red lady kissing my face and I blushed for the seventeenth time that night. Nick made chummy remarks, teasing me for not taking her home. I even recounted the red lady’s bold assertions towards myself and the waitresses, this made them blush, and it felt like justice. My ego was soaring, and I felt like an actual gentlemen. I thanked everyone profusely and made my way out.
Somehow I rode my bike home.
Two days later, riding my bike again, I saw the lady in red. She waved and blushed. I haven’t seen any of the others since then, except the waitresses, who go dancing. I want to mention the dinner, but then I recall, it was a secret underground dining party. Even though it’s openly broadcast on the Internet, it still only seems right you keep some things unspoken. The evening had been exciting, eventful, maybe even magical. And the more you talk about something, the more the memory’s luster fades. I shouldn’t have even written this. Ah, damn it.