Covert eats

I’ve often been asked if I wear wigs or disguises, à la Ruth Reichl, when I review restaurants. I never have, but I worried that I might have to the other night when I went to the Hidden Kitchen—which is not a restaurant at all, as the hosts (who shall remain nameless) are careful to point out, but a dinner party. About 10 guests assemble at the hosts’ Sacramento home, having signed up in advance on their Web site, and each guest makes a “suggested contribution” of $45, ostensibly in order to defray the food costs. “It’s like a culinary rave!” a friend whom I told about the dinner said. In a way it was like a rave—though the dinner was entirely glow-stick free—and I was the youngest person there by several years, except for a college student who attended with her parents.

With just nine of us there, plus the hosts (a married couple; the husband cooks, the wife is sous chef and server), I was nervous about inadvertently outing myself over dinner. Plus, there was the general nervousness about reviewing an underground operation. These sorts of not-quite-restaurants have become trendy in bigger markets in recent years, but this is the first I’ve heard about in Sacramento. The trend itself seems edgy, but there was nothing particularly avant-garde about the hosts’ lovely home, the crowd or the hosts themselves, a nice couple who have been putting on these dinners since April. They open their home to guests (many of whom are also acquaintances) about twice a month.

Nor was the menu itself especially outrageous. It was solidly appealing and fresh without being gimmicky. We started with a plate of tea-smoked duck with a sweet tart plum applesauce. The two tender slices of duck were a pale pink, rimmed with pepper-crusted skin. Endearingly, the cook-host said that the recipe came from Gourmet magazine; it was nice to meet a modest yet enthusiastic guy who clearly loves food and cooking but lacks the pretentious swagger and culinary one-upmanship of many chefs.

I also appreciated the modesty of the portions. The meal was well-calibrated, and it can be rare to find a chef who knows when to quit giving you food. With five courses, it would have been easy to feel overstuffed, but each was small and well-crafted. After the duck came a small, ultra-simple salad of watercress paired with a slice of savory green onion galette, the buttery tart dough enclosing a cheese-rich and slightly salty filling.

Next, a bit surprisingly, was a French onion soup made with cave-aged Gruyère and topped with easier-to-eat cubed croutons rather than a whole bread slice. They provided a craggy, crunchy surface for the nutty Gruyère, which was complemented by the excellent stock and carmelized-onion flavors.

The main course was beef two ways: roasted short ribs and pan-seared strip steak. The short ribs were presented in two little rectangular lozenges, neatly boned. Though the cut can be fatty, these were cooked to be meltingly tender—rich, but not overwhelmingly so. They came with a tangy, deeply flavored jus-like sauce, which also went perfectly with the just-rare slices of pan-seared strip steak. It was the strip steak’s fault, I presume, that the wait for this course was longer than the others, though that just gave the three opening courses time to settle a bit before we moved on to the entree.

Accompanying the beef was an unbelievably delicious carrot puree—made, our host said, from the carrots used in cooking the short ribs, it echoed the tang and depth of the sauce. There was also a slightly cold but otherwise lovely slice of truffled potato gratin, made with ultra-fine slices of potato and boasting a subtle aroma of truffles, though it was perhaps just a touch salty. A tart roasted cippolino onion added extra flavor at the center of the plate.

Dessert was, to my mind, the least successful course. An amaretto poached pear with almond crunch, it was neither as distinctive nor imaginative as the preceding courses, and my pear was underdone, though some of my dining companions differed. One congratulated the host, saying that he always found poached pears undercooked; the host said his wife thinks he doesn’t cook the pears long enough. I have to say that I come down on his wife’s side of the debate—my spoon bounced off the surface of the fruit—but the almond crunch was great, like toffee without chocolate to distract from the pure marriage of toasty almonds and caramelized sugar.

The too-hard pear, however, was only a minor disappointment. Overall, the dinner was excellent, and the underground party with personable hosts and other guests to talk to—happily, there was none of the stilted dullness of, say, a B-and-B breakfast table—made a pleasant change of pace from a noisy restaurant. The slight air of illicitness can’t hurt, either. Both it and the sheer novelty of the experience add a little extra spice to a very good dinner.

I don’t think I can go back, though; I’d be recognized. Maybe I’ll have to wear a wig.