Dear Secret Supper Diner..." begins the invite, lending an air of mystery to the rendezvous somewhere in Delhi. Once you're at the venue, you're asked for the password — if you don't have one, you will be turned away without ceremony. You don't know who is hosting you, who your fellow diners are or even what you will be eating. But by the time the evening ends, you are almost certain to return home after a memorable meal, and maybe some new friends too.
That's the Delhi Secret Supper Club, the latest culinary craze in the national capital. While these 'underground restaurants' or 'supper clubs' are blossoming again in Britain and the US, Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune are catching up too. There are differences, of course, in backdrops, terms of membership and choice of venues. Several traditional supper clubs in Britain, for instance, aim for an underground New York jazz club vibe where people can enjoy a dinner with live music without the formality of a ball.
The concept is simple: you go to a venue, eat from a menu that has been specially prepared to suit the theme and fraternise with other guests you may not know.
Since its formation in March 2013, the Delhi Secret Supper Club has held 11 successful secret suppers around the capital. In an anonymous email (in keeping with their idea of maintaining secrecy), the founders said, "We organise secret suppers every month to highlight a new and exciting cuisine. We carefully scout for restaurants that will showcase their food in a different light and cuisines that will excite palates of the Dilli-walahs."
It would cost you Rs2,300 to Rs3,000 for a multiple course tailor-made meal paired with the drink of your choice. The idea, they say, is to form a great story and experience for the diner. The venues so far have included a leading Japanese restaurant, a beautiful French one and a world-famous contemporary Indian eatery.
The Delhi Secret Supper Club is invite-only. All diners on the supper table are personally screened on the parameters of wit, intelligence, passion and experiences. "Based on various permutations and combinations, we then reach out a select and eclectic group of diners. We carefully screen people from different walks of life, people we would love to engage with, people who will add value to the table. Past suppers have had fashions designers, hoteliers, chefs, entrepreneurs, PR heads, journalists, stand-up comedians and authors, among others," say the founders.
While the Delhi Secret Supper Club chooses to shroud itself in mystery and flit from restaurant to restaurant, the scene in Mumbai is a little different. Salt Water Cafe and Silverspoon Gourmet, two main leaders in the area, prefer to host supper clubs in their own premises. Salt Water Cafe's supper club goes by the name Swine Dine, and it is exactly what the name suggests.
"This one is not for the faint-hearted. We butcher an entire pig and try to ensure that the meal is worth the sacrifice, serving up every part of the pig — right from its ears and tongue to its heart and belly," says Chef Gresham Fernandes, who initiated the Swine Dine series in March 2011. While many other cultures around the world have embraced the consumption of an animal's "nasty bits", Indians are repulsed by the thought of it. Which makes pork lovers grateful for the Swine Dine.
Held at Salt Water Cafe's Bandra outlet once a month, the event hosts 12 to 15 diners and offers them a classy pig feast, with items such as pate made of cheeks, tongue, feet and smoked bacon fat; a salad with watercress, pomegranate, dill and refried belly; ribs soaked in bottle masala and tamarind; chorizo and chickpeas in a cider stew; and brioche garnished with maple bacon.
Food blogger Kalyan Karmakar, an enthusiastic participant when it comes to all things food, says, "The concept of supper clubs is very popular in the UK. I think it's a great idea because menus are created especially for the event and have a pretty well thought-out theme, and it also gives you a chance to meet like-minded people. It recreates the feeling of eating out or at a friend's place."
Further south, Silverspoon Gourmet offers an experiential dining experience at its Lower Parel space. "The concept breaks the barriers of a traditional restaurant and allows participants to experience delightful gourmet food in a completely different setting. The space is designed to be very casual, welcoming and inspiring. It's almost an extension of our living room," says Chef Joshua D'Souza, who runs the place along with his wife Neha Manekia.
"Our food events are theme based, from exclusive cooking classes to grilling events, tea parties and dessert lounges. We aim to break the barrier of a traditional restaurant space."
Priced between Rs1,200 and Rs2,500, depending on the event, Silverspoon has an "everyone is invited" policy, allowing you to drop them a mail showing interest.
Come on over
While we've warmed up to the idea of sharing our table with strangers at eateries, there are some who are tired of restaurant fare and would prefer savouring a home-cooked meal while breaking bread with someone new. Launched by Pune-based husband-wife duo Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha, MealTango (mealtango.com) lets you sample delicacies right at your host's table.
The project spans 20 cities across the world, including Mumbai, London, Dubai and Osaka. All you have to do is sign up on the website and you could be eating spicy kathal (jackfruit) masala at a Kayastha home, vonn (Goan coconut kheer) in Pune or a traditional Hungarian meal in Budapest.
Perzen Patel of the popular food blog Bawi Bride who, through MealTango, hosted a Navroz meal at her Dadar home in March, believes it's a great way to learn about other cultures and their food. "I am always inviting people over. So it only made sense for me to get to know strangers by calling them over to my house for a meal. It's also great for travellers, who get the opportunity to try the local cuisine of a place at the host's house," she says.
Perzen tries to keep her menu traditional — dhansak, kebabs and lagan nu custard — quite a treat at a time Mumbai's beloved Irani restaurants are gradually downing their shutters.
MealTango follows close on the heels of initiatives such as Traveling Spoon (travelingspoon.com), Gypsy Kitchen (facebook.com/pages/GypsyKitchen) and Once Upon My Kitchen (onceuponmykitchen.com), all of which pay tribute to regional ghar ka khana and the humble home cook.
But be it at an eatery or in someone's house, supper clubs are here to stay. Kalyan says this is because it allows a lot of people, who may have the talent but not the venue, to showcase their culinary skills.
"People might not be able to sustain a restaurant long term, but on an odd night, they might want to put out a spread for others," he adds.
It's time to make the most of this trend. Go out and meet new people, all while getting the best of different cultures and their food. Fork and knives ready? Time to dig in!