I am on the doorstep of a house in central Belfast, about to enter a strangers home to take part in the dining experience du jour, a secret supper club.
Peering through the open window into the candlelit dining area, I see a group of people sitting at a long table chatting, drinking wine and generally having a merry old time. It all looks so cosy.
My friend and I put on our bravest faces and venture inside not knowing quite what to expect. The sense of nervousness in the room is palpable, but soon we, the nine diners, realise we’re in this together and start mingling.
Secret supper clubs are becoming increasingly popular in London and the US. They can be defined as underground home bistros, where people with an interest in fine food invite you into their home or a random venue either via a social newtworking site or by simple word of mouth.
Jenny O’Neill and Sarah Allen, both from Belfast are two such people. They set up Plot 15 supper club (named after their allotment in the city) just two months ago and have had four hugely sucessful nights to date. It is the first official supper club in Ireland, with a Dublin club following hot on their heels.
Described in their own words as an “alternative dining scene with up to 12 guests enjoying the best local, seasonal food in a sociable, relaxed environment – our home. All guests eat at one large table providing a great setting for meeting new people who are interested in socialising as well.”
Both women know their way round a kitchen and have experience in the catering buisness but their supper club isn’t about fancy food. “It’s more about putting energy and money back into the local economy here in Belfast. I think it’s important to support your own economy,” says Sarah.
Our hosts Jenny and Sarah emerge from the kitchen wearing snazzy Plot 15 Supper Club aprons to welcome us formally to the fourth supper club.
“Jenny’s mum made them up for tonight,” Marie whispers to me.
Our waitress for the evening Lynn, a PHD student at Queens encourages us to nibble on some quails eggs dipped in cumin seeds and sea salt.
As you would expect, the kind of people who are attracted events such as this are quite open minded. The varied professions of our fellow diners reads like the cast of screwball comedy ala Woody Allen. To my left sits Melanie Carmicheal, from North Antrim 37, a costume maker for theatres in Belfast. Melanie’s acquaintance Caroline Dillion from Derry, 35, works as an interior designer and is also a talented dress-maker.
We are also joined by a friend of Jenny and Sarah’s, Marie Quiery a psychotherapist and consultant in orginsational development from Belfast. A former supper club attendee, Dr Paulo Sousa from Brazil, works as a lecturer in Cognitive Anthropology in Queens University Belfast and Adar Eisenbruch a 23-year-old New Yorker who has come to study Anthropology at Queens are also acquaintences of the hosts.
Micheal Steele, a 22-year-old accountancy student and Heather Smith, 21, a trainee pharmacist decided to come to the supper club after hearing about it on Facebook.
“I came across Plot 15 Supper Club after looking at the Secret Belfast page. It’s a site where people can share their knowledge of underground events in Belfast,” Micheal says, before confiding, “To be honest I came tonight out of nosiness.”
The Plot 15 organisers spent the start of the year researching and advertising the idea on Facebook and within 24-hours they were fully booked for their first supper club in January.
Since then, an article on the BBC Northern Ireland website, a mention on the secret Belfast Facebook page and rave reviews from people who have attended Plot 15 supper club has seen the women trying to keep up with the demand.
“People have raved about it to friends. We’ve even had some people travel all the way from Dublin. It’s the social aspect that attracts people. It has really captured people’s imaginations,” says Jenny.
In the current econmic climate, supper clubs also represent outstanding value for money. Most clubs encourage you to leave a donation of £15 to £20.
“You just can’t get a three course meal in Belfast for £20,” points out Sarah.
Once the diners master the tricky task of deshelling the quail eggs, we all agree that they are delectible mixed with a hit of cumin seed. Then it’s onto our starter of spicy sweet potato soup topped with crispy Jerusalem artichoke shavings, with home-made bread.
The soup is mouth wateringly delicious and illicits lots of “mmms” and nods in agreement from fellow diners. It is hearty and wholesome, with a spicy kick. The unusual addition of the fried artichoke shavings giving it a subtle sweetness. Every last solitary drop of soup is soaked up by the homemade bread.
Another clever addition to the night is that you can bring your own alcohol. Glasses clink and bottles open as we await our main course. There’s even a basket in the corner bulging with wine if you run out. Ambient music streams in the background and soon the conversation is flowing.
The roasted whole mackrel in citrus and coriander is a feast for the eyes. The fish dominates the plate and is accompanied by a generous serving of dahl and rice. The vegetarians opt for the Saag paneer with basmati rice and dhal.
Earlier, Sarah told me how supper club newcomers can get really nervous because they’re unsure of what to expect.
“But once people get here they realise they are in it together- it’s a new experience for all of them, so it’s immediately something to talk about,” she said.
In between mouthfuls, the dinner table conversation ranges from cognitive theraphy, a subject which Paulo, Adar and Marie seen to have considerable knowledge on, while the rest of us scratch our heads and try to understand the concept.
In what could be known as the relevations section of the night, our New Yorker friend, Adar reveals he dabbled in stand up comedy back in the States, Paulo tells us he is a published poet, Melanie reveals she has acted in some Irish fims and Sarah confides that she is a newly qualified hypnotist.
“You didn’t bring us here to hypnotise us did you?” asks a semi-serious Michael.
On that note, desert is served. It is a moreish tunisian orange and almond cake served with a tangy greek yoghurt washed down with some coffees and more wine.
As the evening winds down, we exchange niceities with our new friends and decide it’s about time we gave them their home back.
Would you come again I ask my fellow diners?
“Yes, definately. It was a great way of socializing and just a really interesting night,” Michael tells me.
“It’s been a memorable night,” says Marie.
I agree with them entirely. The supper club allows one a chance to socialise and meet new people in a different setting. In the usual social settings, such as a nightclubs or pubs, one could never hope to learn so much about people and share so much with strangers over the course of an evening. It throws you out of your comfort zone and allows for engaging conversations with people you wouldn’t normally mix with and subjects you may not usually encounter.