Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Su Rreal

'Free' wine if you buy an artwork

Surreal cocktail in a teacup

Table decoration

Chicken a l'orange

Pesto a l'orange


Beautiful vintage crystal

My imaginary dinner

Sue the hostess and the 'half course'

Goats cheese

Have tape measure, will attend dinner party

This is Davina

Kale in a tin of tomatoes...wow crazee

You lift your plate and ooh!

Frogspawn tapioca
I heard about the Surreal Dinner Party pop up restaurant on Facebook. On a muggy but dull August evening I make my way to Shoreditch. The streets of Hoxton are full of 20 year olds getting drunk.
15 people are invited. Inside there is an enormous table, probably a billiard table, with a large cello on top. So far, so surreal.
We are given a cocktail of Cava, bitters and brandy in a tea cup poured out of a teapot.
After approximately 30 minutes we are led into another section of the room where a table is laid with beautiful vintage crystal. Above our heads is a floating cloud with tea cups hanging from it.
Dress code is wear something surreal: I wore a flamenco dress with a bowler hat and moustache.
My fellow guests include a tall blonde girl with cello markings on her back, her posh boyfriend, two Italians who made no effort to dress up, a couple who are touring Underground Restaurants, a weekend trannie named 'Davina', a doll-like Portuguese girl wearing a child's party dress.
A charming volonteer Kiwi waitress wearing just an apron goes around asking our names and gives us all a free glass of wine.
The first course arrives. The light is very dim but it looks like tinned tuna on two slices of orange. I start to eat mine. I've never eaten such tasteless hard tuna. I look at another guest...
"What is this?"
Suddenly the hostess Suehyphendinnerparty dashes over...
"Are you vegetarian?"
'Well I eat fish"
"That's chicken" she says " I was calling out who is vegetarian?"
The music was rather loud. There's no way I could have heard. Ideally the front of house should have asked when she noted our names.
Still it's a mistake, an unpleasant one for me, but this is only the third night of the first weekend of this project. Does tinned chicken even exist?
I am given my vegetarian alternative, some home-made pesto on two slices of orange.
We then wait almost an hour for the second course which was a little dollop of goat's cheese and pistachio in a paper fairy cake case held up by balloons.
It's not bad. But I'm seriously hungry by now.
The blonde girl next to me asks me about my Underground Restaurant:
"Sell it to me" she says.
"I don't have to" I snap.
I'm at the end of the large table. I feel isolated. The couples just talk to each other. The Portuguese girl goes around with a tape measuring people.
Another hour and we get the third course: the carnivores get fish stew with chorizo, some kale in an empty can of tomatoes, potato in a sort of wheel. A couple of dishes of French beans with peanuts are passed down the table.
My stew replacement was aubergine slices with cheese in the middle. It's not too bad. No attempt has been made to make the kale tasty, and the potato is nothing special. In fact everything is school dinner bland. One's attitude is not helped by the slowness.
I start to wonder what is going on. Has she not prepped this meal beforehand? Is she cooking it all now?
We try to amuse ourselves between courses. Pieces of paper are handed round and we are encouraged to draw on them. I draw a plate of spaghetti, a vision provoked by hunger.
Fourth course: another hour later. I go to the toilet and pass by leaves with 'frog spawn' on them. It seems to take our hostess hours to 'plate' them up. In fact the hostess looks exhausted, out of it. I know she's had a death in the family, maybe that's taken it's toll?
We are served the leaves, topped with rose water and lemon tapioca(the spawn) and a tiny plastic frog. Reminiscent of this meal in terms of food styling.
Neighbour says "Toothpaste?"
Another says "Mouth wash?"
Nobody eats it.
The fifth course comes thankfully quickly.
A pear and spiced cake with a meringue top and home made gingernut icecream. It lacks sweetness. In fact all the food, apart from the goat's cheese and pesto is underseasoned. Is the hostess another of those low fat, anti-salt, anti-sugar types, motivated by a desire to keep her weight down? You cannot be a good cook and on a diet. It distorts your taste buds. I know from personal experience. Every time I've dieted my cooking has suffered.
Despite the charming service, I am disgruntled. It could have been my mood, which was low. It's August and the sky is grey. Low pressure is hanging over London and I'm finding it hard to raise the energy to get out of bed even.
At midnight I make my excuses and drive home in the rain.
Three and a half courses cost £35.
Free booze if you buy an artwork worth £15-£20.
Sue the hostess is normally an architect. Work in that area, like in so many sectors, is hard to come by at the moment. She's using her cafe experience to set this up and earn some money. She lives in a tiny studio flat and so hired this garage to stage this meal. Unbelievably the owner is charging her £100 a night and she is supposed to be out by midnight.
I heard from friends that attended Friday night that a reporter from The London Paper was there too "holding court" my friends said, and will do a piece on the dinner.
Nowadays the quickest route to getting your 15 minutes is to open a pop up restaurant. While my attitude is the more the merrier, it does seem like many people are jumping on the bandwagon(not accusing Sue of this just a general observation) just for a crack at fame.
Sometimes it's clear they haven't done any research. When I began the Underground Restaurant, a whole 8 months ago, there was only Horton, who started a couple of weeks beforehand, to visit. I was the first to report on this burgeoning movement. But...now there are several, more starting every week. Why aren't people going round to see a few before starting? There are 'top 10 secret restaurant' lists in the papers, but many of these 'top 10' haven't yet opened or have had only 2 or 3 dinners. The journalistic desire for a new trend does seem a tad forced. In a year's time, these lists might make more sense. (I've got more to say on this subject but will save it for another post.)
Suehyphendinnerparty seems a lovely creative woman, I like her concept, her styling, her vintage crystal, and appreciate the work and thought gone into this evening and hopefully the food and timing will improve.
Perhaps in a situation like this, especially when the hostess is jet-lagged and suffering from a bereavement, it would have been better to have a soft opening.

Book on facebook


  1. Funny that frogspawn course ;-) Can't believe they served you chicken being a veggie. What a faux pas! Wish you had a got a shot of your outfit. Bet it was a winner :-)
    Managed to get myself a seat in the kitchen of the Loft this Friday! So looking forward to actually eating instead of doing the cooking.

  2. Yeah it is a coincidence isn't it.
    You'll have a great time Friday. I wouldn't mind going as a proper guest one time...last time I stood up for six hours photographing everything that came out of the oven. Still it made for a great reportage...http://marmitelover.blogspot.com/2009/04/loft-nuno-mendez-supper-club.html

  3. You've taken some gorgeous pictures that make the space look magical...when I attended I recall it looking a little more sparse and garage-like.

    The 'surreal' concept is certainly novel, and a lot of effort has gone into the styling; but it's not what I'm personally seeking from an Underground restaurant. I want to interact with my host, meet interesting people, and relax in an 'authentic' environment (e.g Sue's studio flat, rather than her hired garage).

    I think I've just got the last tickets for the Rambling Afternoon Tea on Friday which promises to be equally as kooky!

  4. Miss Marmite, think you're correct with respect to the food, but sitting at the end of the table, as a lone diner is probably not condusive to having the best night. What hasn't come out in your blog, is just how much fun was had, how great the waitress was and how much all the guests interacted with each other. I think most,apart from yourself would agree, that despite the food, what a thoroughly good time was had by all.

  5. Interesting post. Last night, before work ended I skimmed through the photos and failed to read the copy - I initially thought wow - that looks magnificent - very arty, very surreal! I imagined you had a brilliant time. Then I read your verdict this morning...

    I guess there is room for improvement then! The concept is a great one from the looks of it but as you say, it sounds like more preparation was required. They look like they have the scenery covered - now they just need to work a little on the food?

    Maybe, if they keep this up you should go back again and see how they have come along in a few months time. Maybe they are having initial teething problems?

    I can imagine your frustration with some of these Underground restaurants popping up. It is difficult when you have put so much time and effort in to see people jumping on the band wagon and trying to wing it all for their 15 mins of fame before casting the idea aside and moving on to other projects. With all ideas and 'movements' time reveals all though. In a year or so, the good underground restaurants will still be about and will be remembered, those that were created half-heartedly without true dedication will fall by the wayside. You know what you do is done full-heartedly with passion and so long as you know that, forget the others...(though us readers can also tell that and love your blog and keep coming back for more! We support you too! :))xxx

  6. Love the photos ... and the review certainly has 'bite' :-)

    ... if they are charging a cheeky £20 for a bottle of Chardonnay, that's an open invitation to HM Revenue and Customs to come and close them down ...

  7. Hi Johnny,
    I really struggled about critisising an amateur chef's efforts. But the food was really not up to scratch yet and I would feel bad about recommending that people spend £35 on the meal and £15-£20 on wine.
    They can go to a good restaurant for that.
    Anon: I don't really like it when people comment anonymously. I did mention how nice the service was. I sat at the end of the table because I am deaf in one ear and try to choose a position where I can hear everybody. I didn't realise that nobody would sit next to me. Plus the table was so large, the music quite loud, it was hard to hear anyone.
    There seems to be an optimum shape and size for a table. I like table sharing and often going alone means you talk to more people but this very large, spectacularly so in fact, table was daunting in terms of social interraction.

  8. To my knowledge, there's nothing like the underground restaurant phenemenon happening in Scotland yet, so I do really enjoy reading your blog.

  9. You've been doing this for 8 months, so I expect it's easier for you to see mistakes and criticize other people's efforts. Perhaps the host wasn't as organised as she should have been but it does sound fun and a bit different which I think should be encouraged.

    Maybe you should run a 'how-to-do-an-underground-restaurant' course?

  10. well lizzie I hope you don't think I'm being unfairly critical. I'm very reluctant to criticise an amateur cook. I make mistakes too.
    If anything I am more sympathetic because I run one myself.
    But you are welcome to go and try it for yourself, don't mind me.
    My book is precisely that...an underground restaurant handbook.
    But yes, I may think about talks...

  11. I think I speak for most people when I say that your opinion is the most respected when it comes to these things - personally I would be far more pissed off about all these jokers who are jumping on the bandwagon whilst barely acknowledging your free publicity and advice. Thanks for an honest and entertaining review, I think you were very kind considering they fed you meat! I'd have walked out at that point.

  12. Hey, saw the review of the same night in the London Paper - that was interesting - slightly different take. I guess each to their own. I don't think you need to feel bad about making criticisms - they were productive! Sometimes honest criticism is better than just empty praising just to please... And people are allowed to have opinions anyway - it is brave of you to speak up and share! But at the same time others can disagree too and its no problem - just life's rich tapestry eh? xxx

  13. Sounds like the "Surrealists" weren't on top of their mise-en-place. If you're going to run an underground restaurant you can't keep your guests waiting an hour between each course and then charge them for the privilege.

    And the whole menu shows a complete lack of imagination, as evinced by the kale in a tin of tomatoes. That ain't surreal, that's just banal.

    Good review, keep 'em coming!


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