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Dolinsky on Underground Dinners: Buyer Beware

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 7, 2010 9:30PM

Chocolate cake with cascabel chile and raspberry basil sorbet from a Clandestino Supper Club dinner.

ABC 7/Vocalo food critic Steve Dolinsky recently rolled snake eyes with his dinner experience from underground supper club The Rabbit Hole. RSVP'ing to a Rabbit Hole dinner based on a review from Time Out Chicago's Heather Shouse that Dolinsky said "pretty much meant a slam-dunk," the hole that Dolinsky, his wife and the other assembled guests fell into resembled not so much a Lewis Carroll fairy tale than the basement pit from "Silence of the Lambs." Dolinsky details the buyers remorse one can feel from attending one of these underground dinners that isn't on the mark:

"Our third course, a homemade pappardelle with fresh ricotta was just plain boring. It needed lemon juice to brighten it up, as well as salt and pepper; there was allegedly some marrow in the sauce, but we couldn’t detect any; the pasta - while clearly hand-formed - was gummy and not exceptionally pleasing."

Food critic that he is, Dolinsky did the noble thing and spoke truthfully when asked if he liked his $85 dinner while his dining companions stayed silent; "they just said they didn’t want to make waves," Dolinsky recounted while noting that for the $200 he shelled for the Rabbit Hole experience he and his wife could have gone to any number of restaurants and had a much more enjoyable experience.

That's the rub of the underground dinner experience in a nutshell. There's a demand for these dinners because of the "double secret" nature of the dinner. Although most of the established traveling supper clubs have been doing this for so long that they aren't really a secret. We've been to our fair share of underground dinners in the past, so we're certainly aware that attending one can be a roll of the dice on a number of fronts. You can brush aside that you may be having dinner with 50 other people in a loft apartment with a leaky bathroom if the food is on point. The more established supper clubs, such as Clandestino, Sunday Dinner Club and X-Marx, have been doing this long enough to have access to professional kitchens for prep work, regular locations where they feel comfortable working, price points that don't seem like gouging (except for X-Marx, which routinely has wine pairings from Perman Wine Selections included in their ticket price) and other best practices in order maintain some level of quality control.

Conversely, as one of the more critically feted food critics in town, Dolinsky should have known that a review is an informed opinion, emphasis on "opinion." We've got our little soapbox here in our corner of the interwebs, but in no way do we look at one review as the impetus for us to check something out. It'll pique our interest, sure. But we don't take one review as gospel, having been burned on that one review before. Ultimately, the only palate we trust is our own and it's a certainty we'll be doing our own legwork before we commit to spending $85 for an underground dinner.