Local secret dinner tantalizes taste buds with five courses

Food Columnist and Food Columnist

Some secrets are worth sharing, such as Happy Badger’s very first underground RSVP Dinner Party, which took place on Friday, March 2.

According to Gisela Williams, CNN reporter, secret suppers are becoming quite the trend in the U.S.

“The idea behind these dinners is to let talented chefs work their whisks in an affordable, relaxed setting,” Williams said.

Chefs Ben Cohen and Jason Vahle at Happy Badger captured the essence of the underground dining experience when they unleashed their talents, cooking a five-course Slow Food dinner for only $40 per person. That’s beyond reasonable, considering the chefs procured goodies from Zingerman’s, Calder Dairy, MacQueen Apple Orchard and several other quality, local establishments.

“Food and cooking have always been very important parts of our family. I remember as a kid driving an hour up into Michigan every Saturday to get fresh milk and eggs from a farmer we knew,” Cohen said. “That type of experience has shaped the way I think about food and cooking now. Our society is far too detached from our foods. Slow Food is about reconnecting with the foods we eat, prepare and buy while establishing a community in doing so. As a growing restaurant and grocer, those ideals are what’s pushing us forward.”

It’s no secret Happy Badger and I share the same food values regarding the importance of local, fresh, organic foods, and those values we hold dear were clearly exhibited during its first RSVP Dinner.

Upon walking into the Clay Street entrance, a quiet mix of folkie tunes played in the background, while candles flickered, casting shadows on the colorful cloth-draped tables decorated with lovely flowers.

Cohen and Vahle did not disappoint with their first course: soup of slow roasted root vegetables with fresh cream and sage served with grilled Zingerman’s sourdough, olive oil, goat cheese and honey.

This soup slayed me to the point that I wanted to sink into my chair and melt away with it. A velvety, smooth broth with some small bites of potato, this soup was so delicious it made me break all dining etiquette and dip a strip of Zingerman’s bread with melted goat cheese into the cup. Immediately, I was reminded of the earth, the soul of winter root vegetables.

Salad as a second course is no surprise, but the creative plating gave this salad heart. Nested underneath rocket lettuce and mixed field greens were juicy, ruby beets that cut through the bitter pepperiness of the salad greens and the tangy goat cheese croutons. Thoughtful in its execution, this dish turned a simple salad into a memorable moment.

The fresh fettuccine from Mama Mucci’s Pasta, with wild mushrooms, garlic sautéed basil, spinach with imported Parmesan and lemon was utterly divine. Even though this was the richest dish in the lot, the citrus gave it a lift of air, and the mushrooms rooted it in the earthiness that continually united each dish into a solid overall theme.

While the poached salmon course was perfectly cooked, I didn’t fully taste how the peach reductions were incorporated. There was a sweetness there, but on my palate it wasn’t fully realized. That said, the dish was so light, I noshed it. And in those few moments before dessert, I said to my friends, “I can’t eat another bite. I’ll take my dessert home.”

But when our waitress presented grilled nectarines and apples with homemade (that day!) vanilla bean ice cream, I couldn’t resist. I took just one bite, then another, which led to many more and, finally, an empty bowl. The Honey Filo was so airy and divine I could have been eating puffs of clouds laced with honey. The chefs choose to leave the skins on the fruit, which gave the dessert a very rustic, homey feeling. After I ate my last bite, I was sad it was over.

My fellow diners and I warmly applauded the chefs immediately upon their entrance into the dining room after the dessert course. To have achieved what they did with such a small kitchen is no small feat.

And it’s no small feat to make a room of diners feel special. Personally, what made it even more special to me was the secretiveness of it all.

“There is something super cool about our dinners. It’s like a secret dining club,” Cohen said.

Visit the Café for details about joining the Happy Badger RSVP dinners. Rumors are the next one will be the first weekend in April. But you didn’t hear that secret from me.