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Vagabond Dinner


"Underground" dinners have become quite the thing in the foodie community and there are several ways to get involved if you are so inclined.  If you have not heard about them yet, they normally employ known chefs who, instead of working from a traditional restaurant or commercial kitchen, present a dinner at a home or other non-restaurant location.  Sometimes the chef is someone just breaking into the business or a foodie who doesn’t really plan to make this a career but likes the occasional challenge of cooking beautiful food for an appreciative crowd and being able to charge for the meal to cover their costs. 
The reason these dinners are underground is basically that you cannot charge for food (run a food business) without a commercial kitchen, being registered as a business (paying taxes), and being subjected to the normal inspections done by the Health Department.  So technically these dinners are illegal, which of course adds to the attraction for many people.  There is always a set menu, often based on seasonal ingredients and often covering several courses, mostly the food is fairly high-end and always creative.  These dinners often are a playground for the participating chefs as they are not bound by the restraints of their own restaurants.  Many of these dinner associations require that you be a friend of a friend sort of thing but some are more open.  And then there are also pseudo-underground dinners. 
Monday night M2 and I attended a Vagabond Dinner, which I classify as a pseudo-underground dinner.  Pseudo because Vagabond Dinners are held in a licensed establishment yet keep all the primary elements that make an underground dinner so much fun.  There are rotating chefs; the menus are always creative and served family style; reservations are generally hard to get; and maybe the best part you’ll find that all of your dining companions are focused on food, wine and the communal dining experience as much as you are! Also, Vagabond Dinners are more approachable for everyone, in my opinion.  They are three-course meals; more high-end family, than haute-couture; and priced more affordably.
Our dinner on Monday was presented by Tyler Hefford-Anderson, formerly at The Rainier Club and, as of this coming Friday when it opens, the chef at Opal at the top of Queen Anne.  We have to give big kudos to chef in presenting this Vagabond dinner just a few days before opening Opal – and even more amazingly just a few days after the birth of a new child!  The baby will be just one week older than the restaurant!  
About an hour before the official start time, folks started gathering at Portalis Wine Shop in Ballard to select their wine, a place at one of the communal tables and to mix and mingle with others at the event.  M2 and I selected a lovely Pinot Noir (one of the recommended dinner pairings) from Walnut City Wineworks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
While we were still mingling, baskets filled with lovely, thick-sliced country breads were placed on the tables along with a carrot-almond spread.  The spread was good but seemed to be missing just a little something, which we soon found could be remedied by adding a bit of the olive oil with aged balsamic which also graced the tables.  
As some point we all settled into our places, the opening remarks prepared us for what we’d experience that evening and the service began.  
Our first course was a beautiful Vichyssoise.  Our bowls were first garnished with Humboldt Fog Blue Cheese and it was topped with a little bit of micro-greens.  Next the cold soup was poured over the garnish and finally finished with a lovely swirl of balsamic.  The freshness of the soup, richness of the soft, ripened cheese and the little bite of the microgreens blended into a beautiful experience in the mouth with both flavors and textures making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  
Next up was the entrée of apple-cider braised pork belly accompanied by sautéed fiddlehead ferns and richer-than-rich super buttery mashed potatoes.  The pork was all you would want it to be: tender, full of juicy-flavor; and fragrant so that the experience began before the meat reached your mouth.  The fiddlehead ferns tasted of spring.  The potatoes were very good but my personal preference is for potatoes with a bit more texture and not quite so overwhelmingly buttery.  This dish was really more butter with potatoes then potatoes with butter – but I know that many people would think this was the be-all, end-all in potatoes, it’s just not my favorite style.  
For dessert we were served walnut bread French toast, topped with piles of fresh berries and (I think) a balsamic reduction.  The toast was a bit dry (and this was the conclusion by all dining around us); the berries were gorgeous but the overall impression was rather disappointing.  But not disappointing enough to ruin the evening!  
As mentioned earlier in this post, one of the best aspects of these dinners is meeting like-minded individuals and sharing the meal and conversation with them.  We were surrounded by fun and interesting people who made our dining experience very special.
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There are a few more photos of the evening here

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