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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Under the Radar Dining

Milwaukee's secret cafe society

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Milwaukee has an adventurous new flavor for its palate: its own underground restaurant. That’s about as much as I can tell you. The crew behind the venture has asked me to withhold who they are, when their next event is, location(s) and even the name their secret caf goes by. I can tell you, however, that the name is a reference to Emma Goldman’s journals. They’ll be referred to here as “Caf X.”

Underground restaurants have sprung up worldwide and, in the United States, range from the Blind Pig outside of San Francisco to the NY Bite Club in the heart of New York City. Blind Pig offers a different theme for each opening and one of the locations they use is a two-car garage furnished with booths that were thrown out from a closed-down Chinese restaurant. It’s run by two chefs—who go by the aliases Ro Smith and Mo Smythe—who cook outside the garage in a tent. The fee is $15 to $30, depending on the number of courses.

Bite Club is a members-only joint located in a Manhattan commercial loft building. Members are asked not to talk about the restaurant in the hallway and are charged $150 a head. Thankfully, Caf X has a much more laid-back attitude. Started by enthusiastic vegan chefs, they charged a more Milwaukee price of $10 at their last opening. The staff includes two or three chefs and a handful of volunteers.

One of the chefs recalled visiting underground restaurants in Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore. “I felt so overwhelmed by how amazing it was, and when the opportunity came up to do it here in Milwaukee, I was totally excited,” she said.

Underground restaurants are sometimes more a state of mind than an actual location, and so Caf X rotates between the homes of its crew members. On the night of Feb. 24, it took place in an East Side building with apartment loft spaces. A doorman at the ground level asked people if they had arrived for Caf X, and then directed them upstairs. Pushing through a door, you found yourself in a lobby featuring displays of paintings by a local artist—also anonymous.

Walking through a beaded curtain into the next room, you gave a donation for admittance to the culinary speak-easy. Candlelit tables were set up throughout the loft, and I grabbed a seat with my friend and her young daughter next to the open kitchen.

The Caf X staff was in high gear, slicing and stuffing, pulling trays of food out of the oven to restock the buffet-style food line.

Vegan Menu

This was the third time Caf X had set up shop, having done it twice in the summer in the vein of an outdoor, neighborhood barbecue. They said that they plan to carry on “as long as they can.” Everything is vegan, and on the night that I attended, one of the chefs stated, “This is our most ambitious menu yet.” The offerings included grilled tempeh, corn pudding, stuffed mushrooms, crostinis, seitan in chile-chocolate mole, lemon-roasted asparagus, toasted sesame slaw and, for dessert, cakes and truffles—rich truffles. When my friend’s kid grabbed quite a few, a chef gave her mom a friendly warning. “You might want to take some of those home,” she said. “They’re very rich. I don’t think you can eat them all in one sitting. “I had a friend who ate a bunch and he was like, ‘Ohhhh,’” she added, holding her stomach in mock pain.

Preparing the Meal

The preparation for this meal started Friday night with a major grocery run. “We try to use local and organic ingredients as much as we possibly can,” one chef said. The morning before the event is when the prep work begins. The chefs spend about seven hours on desserts, chop 37 pounds of vegetables, boil 15 pounds of seitan, move the food to storage and organize the space.

They begin the real cooking the morning of—lots of decorating, marinating, stuffing a hundred mushrooms, washing and assembling—fearful that everything might not be in place by the 6 p.m. dinner bell. Caf X has advertised through e-mail lists and fliers. This strategy attracted about 50 people in February—mostly Riverwest punks, activists and artists.

The atmosphere is friendly, and one of the secret chefs stated the ultimate inspiration: “It is obviously a labor of love, and we get that love back when we see people enjoying themselves and the food.”