At a technically illegal, kind of racy, strangely elegant, more-or-less underground supper club, a prominent local chef sitting next to me had this to say on tasting the rack of lamb with rosemary-salt-dusted peaches and salsa verde: “I just came in my pants.”
Sure some Cava had been consumed, as well as a kind of dreamy Tuscan and the mood was jovial and some quips were flying, but…dude. That’s just not really dinner conversation. It was, however, the truth—at least metaphorically—for everyone at the table. I didn’t count how many people were seated—10, maybe 12—but at that particular moment, I’m certain that every one of us had a kind of glassy look in our eyes, while the serotonin levels in our brains burbled at a steady pace and our fork-handling arms, momentarily spent, dangled uselessly.
Working to prepare dessert—a Taleggio cheese with local honey and a golden, tongue-stroking tomato jam—chef Michael Easton was like a kitchen gigolo, satisfied with the carnal food coma he had induced. As well he should have been. Earlier courses had included a local Pollo Real Label Rouge chicken liver and prune compote topped with truffle cream, a duck breast prosciutto salad complete with toasted pine nuts and a blackberry vinaigrette, and lovingly handmade tagliatelle pasta perfectly accompanied by portobellos and thyme. All of this Easton had prepared on a countertop stove with two funky burners.
Never again will I use a camp stove as an excuse for poor cooking and never again will I believe that a six-burner Viking professional range (with matching hood) is essential for boiling proper water.
Easton’s below-the-radar La Lucciola Supper Club has arrived just as Santa Fe loses Salon Mar Graff and chef John MarGraff’s regular art-fueled dinner and brunch club (the operation has moved to Philadelphia). The scenes are different—MarGraff chefed for dozens at his sprawling Tesuque rental and accepted a small donation, while Easton’s endeavors are more exclusive and one might feel obliged to leave a more dear contribution—but the spirit and experience are similar.
When one leaves the house to eat, the practicality and repetitiveness of restaurants can easily shift from treat to minor tyranny. Even the best and most intimate establishments are forced to operate with a kind of systematic efficiency and in accordance with laws based on mass production. A supper club—or whatever you want to call it—is closer to a focused dinner party, at which each dish receives uncompromising attention, and interaction between food, diners and chefs takes place in a sub-regulatory environment in which roles are not separated by OSHA regulations, health department decrees and insurance liability concerns.
Of course, a certain amount of regulation is a good thing, but too much—especially when laws meant to monitor gargantuan food producers and factory farms become burdensome to smaller operations—is a slippery slope. The current national debate about food safety and various tracking systems is one that should be monitored by Americans as closely as the price of milk and a loaf of bread. If I say that I routinely do things with bacon that could probably get me incarcerated under the wrong circumstances, well, someone might get the wrong idea, but suffice it to say there are times when one is more concerned with the love and care being put into one’s food than whether or not the chef is wearing a hairnet.
I don’t know if Easton is a con man or a holy man or a guy who just wants a restaurant. But I do know when I bit into that rare, tender lamb, its innocent earthiness could not have paired better than with a peach made slightly tart with salt and the faintest exfoliation of rosemary. It was just about enough to make me weep.
And we all know what it did to the guy sitting next to me.