Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Psst... wanna go for dinner?

$2,500 strip loin, exotic tips and addresses left in drop boxes

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At a time when Canadian restaurants are staring down $1.2 million in recession-related losses, you'd think chefs would be pleading for patrons. Instead, some of the nation's top culinary names are making it as difficult as possible to get in the door -- if you can even find it.

Pop-up restaurants with no fixed address; underground dinner parties that make wannabe patrons plead their case in writing; secret suppers so clandestine, the location isn't revealed until the night of the event: This is guerrilla gourmet, by way of Agatha Christie, and it's quietly changing the way many Canadians do dinner.

"People always like things where they can be 'in the know,' " says Diane Thompson, who authors the food blog Global Peasant.

"You have to be socially linked or have your finger on the pulse to access these places."

Thompson, a textiles designer from Vancouver, gained entrance to an underground restaurant in Vancouver because she and the proprietor shared a mutual friend.

The boisterous four-and-a-half-hour affair, held at the chef's private residence, included a five-course gourmet meal that left one diner "so hot and bothered," she left her lingerie as a tip.

"We were a pretty lively bunch," recalls Thompson, laughing. "There's more confinement at a traditional restaurant. You have to behave yourself and be quiet, and there's an unspoken rule about turnover times; you can't camp at a table all night."

To hear dazzled accounts of these pirate operations is to assume God's right hand had seared the steak. In other words, the restaurants may be fly-by-night, but the culinary artists behind them are usually the real deal, with prices generally ranging from $40 to $150 a head.

A recent dinner hosted by Toronto-based Charlie's Burgers, an elite "anti-restaurant" that rotates top-tier chefs, sommeliers and locations, saw executive sous-chef Victor De Guzman of the Langdon Spa in Cambridge, Ont., prepare a $2,500 Kobe strip loin for such gastronomical glitterati as superstar chef Susur Lee, who was visiting from New York.

Those pining for an invite must apply online and fill out a written questionnaire. If they are approved, the location of the dinner is left, cloak-and-dagger-style, in an envelope at a predetermined public place -- a newspaper box, for example -- and the guests have to present identification at the door to prevent reservation-scalping.

"Because the demand for a seat... greatly exceeds the supply, we can fill our (spots) almost instantly," writes the elusive "Charlie" in an e-mail, claiming he protects his identity to keep the focus on the food and wine.

Chef Todd, the similarly guarded founder of Vancouver-based 12b, is so overwhelmed with business that he's stopped sharing his contact information, and bristles when a reporter sleuths him out.

"There's a lot of secrecy, but I'm also quite busy," says Todd, refusing to divulge his last name. "Right now, if you wanted to book a weekend, you're looking well into August."

In Canada, underground restaurants generally require minimum "donations" to cover costs -- most have little or no profit margin, existing solely for the chef's love of entertaining -- and are likened to private parties.

Health authorities say money can change hands and alcohol can be served outside licensed eating establishments, just as at a members-only party or fundraiser, but that there are no guarantees about food safety.

Chef Durant Ellis, who has been running Toronto's Hidden Lounge for more than a year, is registered as a private-event business and has "not run into any legal instances." Word of mouth has now grown such that Ellis expanded the concept beyond underground dinners to include food services at birthdays, art shows and other occasions.

Jenn Garbee, author of the book Secret Suppers, says this transition is common, with most operations either going legal or self-destructing in a short period of time.

"As the price goes up, people shift from being guests to being customers," explains Garbee. "It's human nature to think, 'If I'm paying $100 for dinner, it better be good.' The whole dynamic changes."

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2009 C19

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