By Monica Schultz
DAYTON — If you’re looking for an authentic international experience on a stay-cation budget, look no further than the growing popularity of underground restaurants.
Underground restaurants, sometimes called private supper clubs or closed-door restaurants, are dinner parties hosted in the home of an amateur or professional chef in which the attendees — often strangers to the host and to each other — pay for one of a limited number of seats and a set-menu meal.
“It started one night after dinner,” said Monica Fabregat, owner and hostess of La Embajada Underground in Dayton. “I was in Argentina visiting my family, and they all went to bed very early. So I decided to watch some TV, and there was a BBC documentary about Buenos Aires nightlife and how chefs were adjusting to the economic and regulatory troubles by inviting guests into their homes to serve meals. I thought, ‘What a great idea for my nephew.’ He has a big beautiful house and a friend who is a chef. I told him about it and he said, ‘No way!’ So when I came home, I mentioned it to my husband, and here we are.”
Though La Embajada, which means “The Embassy,” opened last year, Monica and Jorge Fabregat are not new to the food business. Since 2003, Jorge — who by day works as a project manager for a large company in downtown Cincinnati — has operated a side business catering Latin American-themed weddings, business events and other celebrations. He is also as serious about learning how to prepare and present food as he is for keeping projects on task, on budget and on time. And, subsequently, he already knew many of the rules and regulations of the food business — and there are many!
In addition, the couple regularly hosts dinner parties and celebrations in their home for their large circle of friends. It was a natural fit.
The couple agreed their underground restaurant should focus on “criollo” — a term that defines Argentinean cuisine as being descended from European influences, especially Spanish. In fact, most of the recipes that make up their menu are modern variations of recipes Jorge learned from his grandmothers, Vicenta and Ramona, who grew up in Spain.
But food isn’t the only thing on the menu that they and their guests are passionate about.
“We are proud of our wines made in the famous Argentina wine regions, such as Mendoza,” said Monica, whose family is descended from Italians. “And since our families are from Spain and Italy, we serve their wines, too.”
In fact, at a recent dinner at La Embajada Underground, one of the courses included bocaditos de pollo al verdeo con mini-ñoquis — that’s pan fried chicken bites with scallions, cream and mini-gnocchi to non-Spanish speakers.
“The ñoquis is a traditional Italian pasta,” Monica explained to guests. “But in Argentina, it is the traditional dish expected to be served in all Argentinean restaurants and homes on the 29th day of each month for good luck. Tradition says that Italian immigrants found it hard to survive in the new country, particularly close to the end of the month, and would use the cheapest of staples to prepare their meal: potatoes, water, flour.”
“Well,” Jorge interjected laughing, “for good fortune, you are supposed to put the smallest bill in your wallet underneath the plate. Just like there is fish on the menu in Ohio every Friday during Lent, there are signs everywhere advertising ‘ñoquis specials’ on the 29th of every month in Argentina.”
Stories like these are as essential to the dining experience at La Embajada Underground as love of meat.
“Argentinean food is based on what we had available — which is mostly beef,” Jorge explained.
“However,” Monica interjected, “La Embajada is a cultural experience as well, and guests leave with a better understanding of our culture and how the ingredients have come to be an essential part of our cuisine.”
In fact, the comment cards at the end of every meal show nothing but high praise for the five courses and the wine pairing, but the most common hand-written note from guests is typically about how much they enjoyed the conversation.
That might just be reason this type of dining became popular to begin with.
Out-of-work chefs began hosting dinner parties for friends to make a living. Then friends of friends were invited, and referrals from friends followed. Pretty soon, complete strangers were sitting around a communal table sharing a meal … and conversation.
So why are underground restaurants so secretive?
First, many countries have laws about where food is prepared if it will be sold. In the United States, food that is sold must be made in a licensed kitchen that has been inspected and approved by the department of health. That’s difficult to do in your home kitchen.
It was an obstacle for Monica and Jorge.
“We wanted to do everything legally,” Jorge says. So they bought an enclosed trailer and retrofitted it, by hand, to be a commercial-grade kitchen. It took them a year, but the couple did all the work by themselves.
“When the inspector came to look at the kitchen, he couldn’t believe how nice it was,” Jorge said. “I told him, ‘I made it myself,’ and he said, ‘This is amazing!’”
The other reason why underground restaurants seem so secretive is the fact the meal takes place inside the host’s home.
“I’m inviting people into my home,” Monica said with a protective look. “We started with friends and people who liked the idea, but now we host people I’ve never met before. It takes trust.”
It also takes courage on behalf of the guest.
“In an age that considers itself ‘social’,” Jorge said, “dining at La Embajada will probably redefine that word for most people.”
Not only do guests not know most of the other guests they’re sharing the meal with, they are seated according to proper dinner party etiquette — that is, couples, or friends who have come together, separated from one another.
“It is not only at state dinners, but at any properly run dinner party that couples are seated apart from each other,” according to Miss Manners.
“We haven’t had a single complaint,” said Monica about the seating arrangements. “To the contrary, most people have said it made the evening more fun to get to know new people. Besides, at a table for 12, they aren’t that far from one another anyway,” she laughed.
The topics around the table range from wine to travel, business to pleasure, politics to traditions.
“There is a lot of talk about how the food we make are like foods guests are used to,” Monica said. “It’s always a surprise to me how much we have in common.”
One example was a recent salad served that included red beets and hard-boiled egg.
“I thought it would be a novelty,” said Jorge. “I was surprised how many people have this food tradition.”
Another tradition that underground restaurants have with each other and with many of their guests is an emphasis on local foods.
“We get as much of our food as locally as possible,” said Jorge. “What we can’t get locally, I’m learning to make.”
In fact, since the couple decided to open the underground restaurant, Jorge has been taking classes, in his spare time, for everything from French bread to charcuterie, cheese making to hand-made pasta.
“Everything is homemade,” said Monica at a recent dinner. “The bread, the pasta and even the dessert.”
And while the desserts are simple by Jorge’s standards, they have inspired many a guest to ask whether it would be OK to lick their plate. Everyone laughs good-naturedly and instead of passing around business cards, they exchange phone numbers that are hand-written on napkins since cell phones are nowhere in sight.
Perhaps Jorge was right. This is the new “social” experience.
MONICA M. SCHULTZ
Monica lives in Dayton. She owns and operates the marketing communications agency Windblown Communications LLC. In her free time, she researches the many ways to incorporate savoir vivre and joie de vivre into everyday life.