The text message pops up at exactly 4.42 pm.
“Tonight’s Secret Foodies Spanish Warehouse will take place at 74-76b Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. Be waiting outside at 7pm. xxMsD”
Before that moment, the only clues were the words “Spanish” and “Warehouse”.
Where will the location be? Who will be the chef? What will the menu entail? And what’s it like to become a secret foodie? These are some of the questions that came to mind when Alex Adams, aka Ms Darlinghurst, extended us an invitation to a Secret Foodies dinner which is taking part for the first year in Crave Sydney International Food Festival.
But I wanted no hints. And she kept her end of the deal, poker-faced, when we shared cocktails and conversations at the launch of Former Glory at the East Village Hotel two days earlier.
Since early 2010, Secret Foodies dinners have been popping up at various locations in Sydney, be it restaurants, warehouses, laneways or rooftops. Guests meet at a secret dining venue which is only revealed by a text message two hours before the event.
The element of surprise adds a dash of spice to an event. Much like the mystery surrounding the Calle to Cavern pop up dinner with Emmilou Tapas Bar we attended the week before, I am filled with anticipation.
At 7.00 pm, we all assemble in a line behind a narrow entrance with a black iron gate, the portal into the world of Secret Foodies. Our hostess Donna Freakie, whom we first met with Alex at the Vessel Italian launch party, ticks the names off her list and checks for any dietary requirement. Then one by one, we descend into the basement.
A spacious warehouse beneath Oxford Street has been transformed into a welcoming dining room. A glass of Sangria in hand, I study the space with bare walls and black ceiling. Hanging light bulbs covered in coloured cellophane emit an unusual hue that bathes the white walls. Red cloth napkins and gold masks accentuate the rows of tables draped in black. A make-shift kitchen is separated from the dining area by a mere curtain. In Spanish style, the hostesses and wait staff are dressed in black with a red rosebud in their hair.
I spot a large paellera and burner in one corner and when Ms Darlinghurst shows us to our seats beside it, another of the surprises unravels. The chef at tonight’s dinner is not only well known to us, but one whose restaurant and bar have been the subject of several reviews on Gourmantic.
Chef Chris Cranswick-Smith
Chris Cranswick-Smith, whom I have previously interviewed, has forged an international career in food that saw him working in France, Spain, England and the luxury yachts of the Mediterranean before returning to Sydney and opening Emmilou Tapas Bar in 2007.
Donna Freakie (L) and Alex Adams, aka Ms Darlinghurst (R)
A brief welcome by Ms Darlinghurst, and the secret foodies dinner is in progress.
Jugs of Sangria on the tables facilitate conversations and although 104 diners have filled the space, there is an element of intimacy among like-minded strangers sharing plates of spicy almonds, green and black manzanillo olives, joined by a passion for good food, drink and conversations.
The wines are provided by Broadway Liquor Distributors, specialists in Spanish wines and spirits, and we have José Fernandez and Dean Simmonds among the diners.
We start with Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, crisp and fresh with high acidity that leaves some of us divided on the taste. Later in the evening, I learn that it is best served very chilled and works well with spicy tapas dishes.
The menu tonight includes Emmilou favourites and makes me feel as if I am dining among friends. There is the signature spiced tomato chutney served with bread that we first had at the Taste of Spring menu, jamón which is always a favourite, and boquerones (white anchovies) served with potato chips, a salt and vinegar combination that Chris later explains is something he had picked up while working in the Basque region.
The Empanadas are spicy, flavoursome and filling, and are paired with the 2010 Martín Códax Albariño, crisp with good acidity and fruit, a wine we have previously enjoyed on hot summer days.
Martín Códax Albariño and Cuatro Pasos Rosé
Meanwhile the aroma of the seafood paella is permeating the air and conversations are flowing across the table.
When the paella is ready, we all line up with our plates, which gives another chance to chat among foodies as well as Chris as he dishes up what we have all been waiting for.
The seafood paella with prawns, mussels, calamari and spicy chorizo packs flavour and takes me back to long boozy Sunday lunches at home with good friends, with my version of a seafood paella and too many bottle of Spanish wine. There is plenty more for a second helping and at this point, I wish I did not fill up with the second empanada. The paella is paired with Cuatro Pasos Rosé, which gets nods of approval from other foodies.
The finished dish
Karl Burton and Chris Cranswick-Smith of Emmilou Tapas Bar preparing churros
We have a little break before dessert is served and another chance to mingle freely. I like to watch and take the opportunity to take a peek at the kitchen from behind the curtain.
When Churros con Chocolate are served on our table, the board is almost emptied before I have a chance to photograph the symmetrical presentation.
Churros are paired with the full bodied and viscous Nectar Pedro Ximenez Sherry, which goes well with the chocolate. But we soon discover there are two rules among serious foodies at our table. When the chocolate sauce is this good, licking fingers unashamedly is encouraged. Then you ask for spoons to scoop out the pool of molten chocolate you have poured onto your plate.
While chatting with others about the food and wine, I am asked to relay the following from a diner who is coeliac and had nothing but praise for the substitute dishes she was given. Instead of empanadas, she enjoyed the zucchini flowers stuffed with goats cheese and in lieu of churros, she had a crème caramel which she found to be fresh and light, and had the perfect texture.
“It tells you the calibre of the restaurant when they substitute meals instead of making you missing courses, ” she tells me as we pour each another another glass of wine.
Chris and Karl of Emmilou
The team of waitresses
Donna, Chris and Alex
Secret Foodies dinners unite strangers under the banner of food, drink and conversations. The ambience is relaxed, friendly, with dishes designed to be shared. Passing plates around, pouring each other various wines, and sharing the love of food and drink in convivial surrounds with charming hostesses and engaging chefs are key elements to its success. Usually a more intimate affair than this Crave Sydney event, whether you are dining alone, as a couple or with a small group of friends, it is an experience you will want to repeat and share with others.
Spain was on our travel agenda for 2011, with plans to eat our way around San Sebastián and Barcelona but circumstances prevented us from travelling this year. Thanks to the lovely Ms Darlinghurst and Chris Cranswick-Smith for taking us on a taste of Spain.
Gourmantic attended the Secret Foodies Spanish Warehouse Dinner on Friday 14 October 2011 at District 01 in Darlinghurst as media guests.
** For a photo gallery of the event, visit Gourmantic on Facebook where you can “Like” the page and tag yourself. **
Emmilou Tapas Bar
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