October 2, 2007

Discovering the Hidden Kitchen

On Sunday night Morgen and I had dinner at Hidden Kitchen. We left with full stomachs and warm fuzzy feelings. It was a deeply satisfying experience all around—one of the best meals I’ve had in years, plus wonderful conversation in a truly delightful setting.

HK is sort of a cross between an exclusive restaurant and a private dinner party. A young American couple prepares a 10-course meal in their Paris apartment every Sunday evening for up to a dozen guests. Anyone can come, but reservations are required and there’s about a two-month wait for a spot. (We made our reservation for this week in early August.) The location is secret, sent to guests a few days ahead of time by email. A donation of 60 € is suggested to cover the cost of the food and wine. Even though HK only started in June, it has already attained a sort of cult status here, especially among the many producers and consumers of Paris expat blogs. Guests have ranged from random tourists to cookbook authors and corporate execs in town on business.

I always enjoy trying a chef’s tasting menu, but this one was genuinely memorable. Each course, from the amuse bouche to the desserts and petits fours, was a work of art. I can’t come up with any criticisms whatsoever—the clever recipes, the presentation, the wines paired with each course, and the service were absolutely spot-on perfect. Given that all this was the work of just two people in a small Parisian kitchen, the effect was even more impressive. They pulled off culinary and logistical feats that put many fine restaurants to shame.

But what intrigued me most, I think, was the roster of guests. The 12 of us—mostly couples who’d never met each other—sat at a long table in the dining room for four hours and chatted away like old friends. It was uncanny how easily everyone got along, even introverts like us. I’m not sure what cosmic forces induced this particular group of people to select themselves to come together for an unusual dinner in Paris on this particular night, but the vibe in the room was just right. Everyone was smart, interesting, friendly, and polite—everything you could ask for in dinner companions.

After dinner, we stayed into the wee hours of the morning chatting with our hosts, Laura and Braden. They’re extremely nice people, very down-to-earth despite the unusual way they’ve chosen to spend a year or so of their lives. (Mac users too—we approve!) They told us that although the demographic of the crowd varies from one week to the next, nearly always, for unknown reasons, any given night’s guests tend to have a lot in common with each other. There’s usually a mixture of English-speaking expats and French diners, but conversation is generally in English. Nearly everyone seems to have some sort of blog connection, because that’s the main way information about HK has spread.

I was shocked to learn that neither of the chefs had attended culinary school, though Braden had worked in a restaurant for a while. Even more surprising was the fact that they weren’t looking to turn this into a career (though I certainly understand not wanting to open a restaurant, regardless of how much one likes to cook). These folks have both a talent and a love for fine cooking as well as for bringing interesting people together, and Hidden Kitchen is a marvelous way to combine those passions.

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