Described by some as the culinary equivalent of the swingers’ party, secret supper clubs have been doing the rounds in London and other cities for at least a couple of years.
The premise of this urban phenomenon is a simple one. Coming, no doubt, from the cash-strapped recession, people have decided to create the ultimate dining experience in their own homes. For complete strangers.
Jenny O'Neill (34), a lecturer in architecture, and Sarah Allen (26), a research assistant originally from America, decided to have a go and created Plot 15 Supper Club, the first such venture in Belfast.
So far they have been featured on the internet and local radio and at the moment their Secret Supper Club evenings have a waiting list of between four and six weeks.
Curious to find out more I decided to go along to one such ‘supper’ — and so a few weeks ago one balmy evening I walk through the door of a secret (naturally) address in south Belfast.
Walking into a room of strangers isn’t the easiest thing to do and so I have braced myself for an evening of awkward whispers as groups of friends talk among themselves, too apprehensive to chat to anyone else in the room.
Plus, if I’m honest, I’ll admit I harboured secret fears the floor would be littered with blue bags containing anything from Budweiser to Buckfast or Bollinger.
I expected bumps and bangs and oaths uttered sotto voce by pink-faced cooks as they raced around a cramped kitchen spilling things on top of one another.
I got nothing of the sort.
I step through the door to find 11 individuals chatting and laughing amiably in a large room lit by candlelight.
The atmosphere is so relaxed and friendly I’m stunned to find that outside of their groups of no more than three, none of the diners had met before. Nor have any of them ever been to a secret supper club.
The supper club is held at Jenny’s house, a hulking building in south Belfast that was once divided into flats — there are clutches of rooms divided into apartments on every floor. The unconventional layout is perfect for the hosts as the first floor dining room comes complete with a kitchenette they can serve food from.
Guests are greeted by Jenny and Sarah at the door, then welcomed into the dining room by a wait person, usually a friend of the pair roped in for the purpose.
And no, there isn’t a blue bag in sight as any alcohol brought in is refrigerated and served at the table by the wait person during the course of the evening.
We all sit around a large dining table which allows everyone to talk with everyone else. The gentle background music oozing through the speakers is punctuated with bursts of laughter every now and again as people chat. The guests want for nothing.
Jenny and Sarah recommend from past experience that guests come on their own or in pairs — it's easier to get to know the other diners that way. Indeed, the largest group of people at the table that night was made up of three friends.
Lorraine O'Neill (30), a teacher from Co Down, brought two of her friends along.
“I heard about the club on the radio and asked my two friends to come with me,” she explains. “We're all big fans of Come Dine With Me and thought it would be like that. It’s a great night, very relaxed.”
The one thing this isn't is a singles club, not least because of the uneven distribution of girls and boys. For example, tonight there are two male guests and nine females.
Still, this didn't appear to bother anyone, though, as all seemed to be having a good time. Although you may not meet the love of your life at one of these evenings, you will certainly meet an eclectic clutch of people. When I attended the ages ranged from 25 to 75 and occupations included teachers, travel agents and scientists. All of the diners have one thing in common though, they’re all foodies.
Alison Noble (47), a foot health practitioner from Newtownabbey, is one of those who has turned up on her own.
She says: “I moved back to Northern Ireland about three years ago so I’m still meeting people and looking for fun things to do,” she reveals.
“The atmosphere here is great and everyone’s very relaxed — the only problem is I have to drive so I can’t have a glass of wine like everyone else.”
Chris Pollock isn’t the least daunted by attending on his own, either.
Recently returned to Belfast from Dublin, several of his friends had boasted of their attendance at the club on Facebook.
Chris admits: “I was jealous! I like doing things that are a little different and involve culture and the arts. I'm a bit of a foodie too. I figured if I didn't like it I could just leave when I wanted to.”
He quickly adds: “Everything is great tonight, though, the food is lovely and no one feels awkward.”
The guests aren't the only ones having fun at the Supper Club.
The idea of cooking a five-course meal for 11 or 12 would leave many of us a gibbering wreck or reaching for the cooking sherry, but Jenny and Sarah have everything under control.
Theirs is a well-oiled machine. Even when they are plating the food it's like watching a merry dance in the kitchen as they move around without banging into each other. They take a break in between courses and sip wine themselves. This isn't a restaurant so there's no pressure on them to provide ultra-fast service. In fact, if anything the evening seems to coast along all the better because the guests can chat leisurely in between courses.
The food is delicious, with a series of appetising aromas permeating the room.
Self-confessed foodie Jane Patterson (32), an ad sales executive from Belfast, says: “This is the whole package. Things like this are good for Belfast and this is really well done,” she continues.
“I've been to supper clubs in Amsterdam a couple of times and it's very different. There you sit on a double bed instead of a table and you get a butler assigned to you. This is a much more exciting experience.”
Plot 15 is named after Jenny and Sarah’s own allotment from which they try to serve as much food as possible. The sprouting broccoli on the menu tonight, for example, is allotment-grown.
“We try to keep it seasonal and local as far as costs will allow,” explains Sarah. “For example the duck served tonight is from Northern Ireland and it doesn't lose anything in taste and texture.”
At the moment Plot 15 is one of a kind in Northern Ireland.
Hopefully, though, we will follow the London model and within a year will have several of these charming nights out to choose from.
The event was a smooth juxtaposition of casual fun combined with a well-planned dinner party.
The devil is in the detail for these ladies who also have a slick website to go with their matching green aprons.
Plot 15 Supper Club runs approximately every two weeks. The girls will also cater for private dinner parties on request.
For more information go to plot15supperclub.wordpress.com