“I manage to keep my gun out of the water…” The evening begins with lively conversation the likes of which you won’t find at any traditional dinner party. At least not one I’ve recently attended.
I’m at Hidden Kitchen, run by Dennis and Mary Kercher. They offer gourmet dinners from their home kitchen, seating no more than 10 folks at once. The couple got the idea from an article about local foodies running “Ghetto Gourmet” “pirate restaurants” in their basement. Instead of going to a traditional restaurant, costumers come to the owners’ home. There, up to 40 diners seated on pillows cram into the chef’s personal living quarters for a taste of true epicurean fare.
Dennis, whose father was a baker, loves to cook. He and Mary signed up for a meal with the Ghetto Gourmet, and with the twist of a fork, their lives were transformed. They now operate a similar model in their own home, minus the “ghetto.” Their meals begin with a complimentary champagne toast in their Land Park home. The evening truly begins as guests converse over fine food, seated at a regal dining room table complete with wooden chairs (no pillows on the floor for this crowd!). There’s absolutely nothing “ghetto” about the formal Hidden Kitchen experience, (and at a recommended $75 per person, I should expect not!).
I recently dined with one of the most interesting groups in town: fellow food bloggers. The gathering was put in motion by the ever-lively Garrett. Joining us were Elise, Hank & Holly, Ann Rolke and husband, Ashley, Kira O’Donnell, and fellow foodie, Lori. I had already been an armchair fan of each of these writers. Having the opportunity to sit across the table, sharing food tales with them was like sending Cinderella to the gastronomic ball. I learned from Hank & Holly that old squirrels really aren’t very tasty, while Elise informed me that morel mushrooms really can be found in Northern California’s wilds. I learned that Kira’s husband is now employed at the nonprofit I recently called home. The table was brimming with amazing conversation that was just as satisfying and original as the food.
Have I forgotten to mention the food?!
Dennis, poised elegantly in his black chef’s jacket, started the evening with my second favorite element of good food: story. (My first favorite being the eating, of course.) He shared adventures in eating at Le Cirque in New York. He had recreated one of their signature dishes, and we would later have the joy of eating it in his very own kitchen. He talked of the basil he plucked from his front yard garden, and of the button mushrooms he found on sale at a local farmers’ stand. He delighted us with anecdotes from his favorite TV show: Top Chef. He promised he had reinvented their winning dishes to woo us that night.
Poised with notebook in one hand, fork in the other, I set out to capture every food memory from the evening. We started with two paired goat cheese crostini, each smooth, creamy, and mouth-watering. One was smeared with homemade garden pesto, the other nestled beneath a luscious, slow-roasted tomato that left flavor notes dancing vividly from tongue to throat as I chewed. These toasts were paired with a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, compliments of Rail Bridge Cellars. The highly drinkable white met with compliments across the table.
Next course: a roasted vegetable ratatouille terrine, which was an artwork in both presentation and flavor. The zucchini, eggplant, and bell pepper each held a crisp bite, while resting graciously within a zippy tomato gelatin.
One of my favorite courses of the evening was the fennel and green apple slaw, served on top of a breaded pumpkin wedge over powerful gorgonzola fonduta. This dish stood out for its ability to capture everything a mouth craves in one bite: smooth, chewy, crunchy, and crisp, but also sweet, tart, bitter, and meaty.
We also enjoyed a rich, earthy mushroom broth that was served with the next two courses: foraged porcini ravioli and black cod wrapped in crispy potato over braised leeks. The cod was so moist it nearly melted in my mouth as though it were a mashed potato itself. These were paired with a bright, light Rail Bridge red called “Lattice 2004.” The hearty mushroom musk created deep flavors whose broad strokes filled my mouth, but which were light on the stomach.
Dessert landed on our plates like a poached egg on toast. This delightful play on the eye was actually an anise cake topped with lemon pudding and lemon curd. I preferred to enjoy each taste separately in order to prevent the anise from overpowering the lemon. The winner of my private contest was the happy lemon curd, skipping yellow and delight in a citrus swirl around my mouth.
The dinner was not over yet! Next, we savored donut-like bites of fried, moist ricotta that eased the palette with a hint of sugar, lemon, and nutmeg. This was accompanied by Dennis’s homemade cream liquors. I tried the almond, which I swore was made of chocolate. The roasted nuts and rich cream sent my mind back to chocolate milk shakes at the local diner.
I’m not sure which was most memorable: the food or the conversation. I still savor both. Dennis’s and Mary’s ability to create an atmosphere where each is a highlight of the meal is testament to their winning idea. This is an experience worth repeating.
Photo by Elise Bauer.