We turned off of the main road and onto a darker, dimly lit street; neon signs for surrounding businesses and bright streetlights were replaced by dark, dreary industrial warehouses. My compatriot and I had heard of Hidden Dinner and knew that they were secretive; the folks behind the operation, chef Anahita Naderi, event designer Betty Lang and web/print designer Justin Paul Veiga almost preferred to remain in the shadows, only barely acquiescing to the creation of the Yelp page I found them through.
Even so, we hadn't expected this level of secrecy and seclusion. As we drove around the back (as the directions e-mailed to us two days prior had instructed), it was almost surreal in its mystique. Paper bag lanterns lined the side of the building and led to the back entrance to the venue. As we passed by the door looking for parking we saw people in blindfolds.
Blindfolds? Warehouses? The whole ordeal started to feel like a horror movie.
Once we got in, though, we were greeted by smiles, and our worries were put at relative ease. We put the blindfolds on and waited to be taken to a dinner table behind a curtain. We were seated, met the people across from us and exchanged awkward blind handshakes. It became apparent that we weren't going to end up on the news.
Hidden Dinner was started by Naderi, Lang and Veiga in an effort to break away from traditions, stuffy restaurant environments and humdrum regularity. Now, a year later (ours was the first-anniversary Hidden Dinner), they are starting to expand; what started as a night between a few friends has now turned into exclusive culinary adventures, tickets for which are now selling out in less than two days' time.
Each Hidden Dinner has behind it a general theme or idea. Past dinners have varied, but the plans have recently become more elaborate. The one before ours was titled "¡Vamos a España!" and featured flamenco dancers to accompany a menu of Spanish dishes.
When the meal started, the concept behind it became a little more clear; each of the thirteen mini dishes served that night resembled an important culinary memory for a bunch of the Hidden Dinner staff and their friends and family. As each dish was being brought to us, the story behind it would play on speakers. Titled "Memory Bites," the idea was for the blindfolds to help us better visualize how the food corresponded to the story; our minds eye would fill in the gap between what we were tasting and what we were supposed to see.
Dishes ranged from a fruit medley that contained a Persian cucumber sprinkled with lava salt to a pork rice porridge; from charred corn doused in saltwater to ambrosia; from corned beef and cabbage to lamb mansaf. Each was doled out in a small portion (some, like the ambrosia and a spinach and pomegranate saute, were served in large Asian soup spoons), and though the amounts of food were never large, the meal was still satisfying. Extreme care was taken in each dish not only to make the flavors mesh, but to make it easy to figure out blindfolded.
The mansaf was exquisite (several people even asked for a second helping), bits of lamb going perfectly with basmati rice on flatbread; the sauce beneath the corned beef and cabbage was bright and tangy, cutting the savoriness of a dish that so often turns overly salty. A chile verde sauce finished off the meatloaf, offering similar assistance to the salty, meaty, cheesy mass below it.
The flavors were all outstanding, if sometimes a bit hard to string together between courses. The ham, cheese and chip sandwich followed the mansaf, and though the sandwich was good in its simplicity, it perhaps may have been better earlier in the night to avoid comparison to the much more complex spices of the lamb. (It always seems a bit tactless to criticize these dishes, though, given that the people whose memories they represented were in the room. How would you feel if somebody called one of your most cherished memories oversimplified and out of place?)
Though the concept of the blindfolds and listening to the people's stories was great in theory, most people ditched their blindfolds so that they could see their food and the people around them; through no fault of anyone's in particular, the individual speech accompaniments to the dishes seemed to get lost in the conversations held by people around the table. Some of the diners (six or so of the thirty-two present) kept faithful to their blind experience, but most (regrettably including myself, though I put the blindfold back on whenever a new dish came out) indulged in seeing the person across from them. Even when the more elaborate details of the night lost out to socializing and red wine, the concept behind "Memory Bites" still prevailed to some extent.
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Not many details can be shared, but I've been assured that the folks behind Hidden Dinner have big plans coming up; sign up to be on their e-mail list at hiddendinner.com to receive notifications about upcoming Hidden Dinners.
Each event is unique, and there's no way to tell when the Hidden Dinner will come around again. Keep your fingers on this pulse, though, and you will be rewarded the next time Naderi and her crew come out of hiding.