Location: Secret address in Hackney
I nominated myself to be in charge of my work team Christmas party this year. Back in November, I gave my colleagues a list of five or so foodie options. Personally, I thought they might all go for the mushroom foraging tour on Hampstead Heath, guided by someone dubbing himself a "Fungi To Be With!" It sounded hilarious. Alas, that wasn't the first pick. The majority loved the idea of going to a secret supper club. The concept has really taken off in London in the past year. Basically, you go to a stranger's home and they cook you dinner. It's kind of half dinner party - half restaurant.
I've been following the tweets of one secret supper club in particular: Fernandez & Leluu. It's run by couple Uyen and Simon from their flat in Hackney. By day she is a fashion and jewelry designer. He's a freelance software designer. They've received a lot of praise this year and were named one of the top ten supper clubs in London by the Guardian. They are a favorite among many food bloggers too. So, on a chilly winter's evening, eight of us trekked out to east London, armed with bottles of wine and prosecco (it's BYOB) and not the foggiest idea of what to expect.
What we got first was a lovely warm welcome from Uyen who was playing hostess for the evening. She took our coats and showed us into what is usually their living room - now packed with around 25 strangers at different tables. Super smiley and gracious, she showed us to a table set for eight and opened a couple bottles of the bubbles we had brought. Casting an eye around the flat, I felt like I could have been in a little shop on Colombia Road. So many funky little knickknacks and antiques. The room was filled with happy chatter and candlelight and immediately we felt right at home.
Sometimes Uyen cooks, sometimes Simon does. Uyen's specialty is Vietnamese food. She was born in Saigon and came to London with her parents at the age of five, fleeing the Communist regime. Simon was born in Madrid and also came to London when he was five. At the helm in the kitchen on this particular night, he started us off with one of my favorite courses of the whole night: pea and basil soup with ham hock and parmesan and freshly baked garlic bread.
What I liked most about the soup was how truly homemade it tasted. In a fancy schmancy restaurant, the peas would have likely been pureed to a smooth, velvety finish. But in this case, there was still the odd full pea chunk that escaped from the food processor. It didn't matter. The flavor was divine, the healthiness of the garden peas swimming in the creamy mixture with rich ham hock and slivers of beautiful parmesan. The bread was warm, tasted of olive oil and the perfect mop for the leftover soup.
The next course was a thing of beauty. Glasses filled with invisible tomato. We spent a good five minutes trying to figure out how they could taste so much of fresh tomato and not be red in colour. We gave up, swigged them back and loved the lightness of what tasted like a tomato consume. They were a gorgeous partner for the rather more sinful treats that came with them.
Bacon swirls. Holy sweet Jesus. Out of 1 to 10 on the calorie scale, these things are sure to be off the map. But what a genius concept. I suppose you could compare them to the bacon, cheese croissants that you get at Pret a Manger - except that would be an insult. These were clearly made with much more love. And speaking of love, by this point I was pretty sure that I might already be in love with the chef, so I trundled upstairs to say hello and meet him.
Simon was relaxed, charming and I couldn't believe that he was such a cool cucumber with a crowd of strangers downstairs who were growing louder with each bottle of wine that passed. He told me that he had just acquired a job at a chalet in Switzerland for the rest of the winter, so they would be taking a bit of a break. Bad news for all of you drooling over this post so far. But the good news is Uyen will be offering Vietnamese cooking courses throughout January and February.
Uyen asked if I could take the next plate down to our table. My colleagues of course thought it was hilarious that I had suddenly become a waitress. But, I would do the same thing at a dinner party, so why not? This course was quite special: serrano ham on a bed of leaves with pears poached in champagne and vanilla. The jar of pears came with a handwritten label with all our names on it. Such attention to detail is what makes Fernandez & Leluu stand out. The champagne marinade doubled up as a lovely dressing for the salad.
The next course was the only one that our table disagreed on. Loin of pork with carrots and passionfruit. About half the table found the sweetness of the passionfruit too overwhelming. The other half loved it. We all agreed that the pork was a bit overcooked - but otherwise I personally thought the combination was gorgeous.
Right. By this point, we thought we might explode. We had lost count of how many courses (and bottles of wine) we had consumed. Somehow though we all managed to make room for the braised oxtail and beetroot with creamy mash. It was worth it. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The meat slipped off the bone like a dream and the clouds of potatoes floating on top of the dish were creamy and seasoned perfectly. The beetroot added a subtle sweetness. Divine.
We were sure the next course would be pudding. It had to be. It was unfathomable to think otherwise. Wrong again. Out came a dish filled to the brim with steaming seafood paella. Cooked in a sweet tomato sauce, this too was amongst my favorites. The mussels were big and juicy, the prawns perfectly tender and the rice, bloated with flavors of garlic and onion. It was such a shame that we were all too stuffed to eat another thing.
Oh wait...dessert you say? Well, in the end we managed to fit that in too. A moorish slice of bread and butter pudding, which if you can believe, I've never ever had in my life. It's an old fashioned English favourite layering slices of bread with raisins in an egg and milk mixture seasoned with nutmeg. I loved it. One of my colleagues hated it - but she said it was nothing personal - she's always hated bread and butter pudding. I think there's something wrong with her.
When Simon finally came downstairs once all the courses were consumed, he received a roaring round of applause from everyone in the room. It was nearly 1am at this point, and as we happily slipped our payment into an envelope (the suggested donation is £35) we agreed that as far as work Christmas parties went - this one was by far the best.