This isn't a typical restaurant review. I can't tell you the address of 12b or provide a phone number for reservations. (Hint: Search the Internet and you may find a contact of some sort.) My invitation to this underground supper club came through a friend of a friend of the owner, a professional chef who cooks in his private residence for pre-arranged groups of up to 12 at a time.
Although initially sworn to secrecy, I wheedled, pleaded and waxed so rhapsodic about chef Todd's revelatory dilled carrots and light hand with saucing that he eventually granted me permission to write this article. (The ego is a very effective bargaining tool.) Underground dinner parties are hardly new or novel. But you do have to admit that in these straitened financial times, there's something all the more appealing about paying $50 a person (as chef Todd requests, "by donation") for a gourmet six-course meal that would easily cost twice as much in a regular restaurant.
And then there's the wonderfully wallet-soothing luxury of being able to bring your own wine.
"I call red, for course four or five," Brendon jumps in, as soon as the pre-dinner beverage debates open up via e-mail. (Keep in mind that at this point we still have no idea what we'll be eating.) "Do we need some proper stems?" Colin asks. (Chef Todd only provides mason jars.) "Nah, we'll just pass the bottles clockwise, swigging as they go," Brendon shoots back.
"A bottle of wine each on a school night!" Brian pipes up, already sounding nervous.
"Jesus," our organizing host interjects. "No commentary about dinner, but the minute the booze chat starts, the switchboard lights up like a bunch of smokers."
Yes, well, speaking of smoking. This is another regulation-free benefit of private supper clubs, if the owner allows it and you happen to indulge.
The minute we're buzzed into 12b - after whispering the secret password - nearly everyone makes a beeline for the living room and fires up their cigarettes with wanton abandon. It's funny how all the smokers I know are either avid foodies or restaurant workers.
Ah, isn't this funky. The lower east side apartment is an industrial conversion, conveniently divided into small rooms all plastered with eclectic artwork that we are free to roam while chef Todd finishes prepping.
The dining room is fashionably rustic, furnished with wood benches, odd chairs and two long narrow tables that have been configured into an L-shape and set with jars of mismatched cutlery.
A few of us pile into the kitchen to admire the chef's vintage enamel iron gas range. The room is spotless (and remains so for the rest of the evening). Hard to imagine how he manages this, without any help or even a dishwasher.
"It can be difficult when people show up early and try to snoop through my spice cupboards," the chef later jokes.
"But once everything's set up and dialled in, I love it that people can wander in and smoke whatever they want in my kitchen. Unless it was Anthony Bourdain's place, where else would you be able to do that?"
Chef Todd, who declines to give his last name, launched 12b about a year and a half ago as a way to feed his friends and do what he loves to do. Like most underground supper clubs, its reputation spread by word of mouth.
"Why do I do this?" he says. "Mostly because I get to cook whatever I want all the time. If you're working in a restaurant, you only have the specials to liven up the day and that kind of blows."
The superb meal he proceeds to unravel, after gently wrangling us into the dining room like a herd of kittens, certainly blows all the other underground Vancouver restaurants our group has visited out of the water.
We start off with a Niçoise salad composed of barely seared albacore tuna, quail egg, green beans, black olives and confit potatoes drizzled with a lemony birch syrup vinaigrette.
After uncorking two new bottles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, we're onto some luscious halibut that has been roasted to the perfect point of flakiness. The moist slabs of fish are served with Puy lentils and torched grapefruit segments, then finished with a nicely rounded Espelette butter sauce and topped with salty globules of trout caviar. It's one of the best, tightly balanced fish dishes I've been served in a very long while.
Seared duck breast doesn't sound like the freshest flavour for a muggy summer night. But the way chef Todd prepares it - with pesto, peaches macerated in basil-infused grappa, crisp watercress and a light peach jus - this succulent Fraser Valley bird tastes like sunshine on a plate.
Tender pink loins of Berkshire pork are rubbed with chipotle, charred on the barbecue and finished in the oven with a tart crab-apple-cinnamon jelly. The curly garlic scapes are fabulous and so are the apple-sage roasted fingerlings, but the dilled baby carrots are by far the best side of the night. It's such a natural combination, I can't believe I've never thought of it before.
The chef keeps the palate bright right up until the end with bison rib eye, grilled green tomatoes, tequila-lime hominy and a loose chimichurri demi.
The food is all excellent (except for the overworked lavender-milk ice cream), but so is the louche ambience. We would never jabber so jovially, laugh quite this loudly and linger so late in a conventional restaurant.
And that's the main draw of an underground supper club. It's the perfect private dinner party where everyone is able to fully relax - without having to cook or clean.