Going underground

Would you ever consider opening your home to paying diners? Have you ever visited a 'secret' restaurant? Did you know that such a thing existed right here under your very noses? Well, the underground food scene in Galway is alive and lives in Spanish Arch. This is the location of The Nutmeg Feast, you could call it a restaurant or supper club, a ‘guestaurant’, or a paying dinner party.

While these type of establishments are nothing new, having been to the Cuban equivalent, a paladare, while in Havana, the home of the guestaurant. The one thing to keep in mind is that these events are not for the fussy eater. There is only one menu and, dietary restrictions and allergies aside, you must be willing to try what is put in front of you, no matter what that might be.

Pawel Karnafel and Yolanta Struska, a fun and relaxed couple, ran their first event in August 2011 hidden away in their attic apartment in the city, feeding all-comers course after course of amazing local and wild food. Chef Pawel, originally an environmental engineer from Poland, is a product of a west of Ireland culinary education, graduating from the accelerated chef course at GMIT with the title of 2009 Student Chef of the Year. He has worked in some of the best restaurants in the area, including Sheridans at The Docks, Ballinahinch Castle, and Cava Restaurant and Tapas Bar.

Yolanta, the gracious hostess, is warm and welcoming and has the gift of immediately putting people at ease. She is doing degree studies in event management and has worked as an interior designer and a fashion buyer in the past.

I was lucky enough to attend one of these nights last month and was impressed by Pawel’s attention to detail in everything he did. Yolanta is the voice of Nutmeg Feast and her talents as an interior designer are evident when you see the intimate settings created in the living room with the open fire and the beautifully dressed table, the choice of glasses, cloth, and cutlery, and the careful use of lamp and candle light. What must look like any rented accommodation in Galway city centre is transformed, for the night at least, into an elegant dining space.

Then there is the fun part of this style of dining — the other guests. They were an interesting mix of people of different ages and backgrounds. A rather beautiful and well dressed crowd of mid-twenty botanists made up part of the group — you never know who you will meet at a communal table!

Iberico ham, quince paste, and abalone — my first taste of this exotic seafood, and quite possibly my last as you do not typically see it on menus. The vegetarians had woodruff, cauliflower, and quince paste which looked lovely also. There was a selection of pickled vegetables on a bed of foraged leaves. This was followed by my own favourite, oxtail in pork cowl, served with an almond and wild garlic pesto that provided a nice balance against the rich and fatty meat. Pawel and Yolanta chatted animatedly all the while with guests, answering any questions. If they were under any pressure they did not show it. I soon got chatting to fellow guests, one the nicest aspects of dining at a supper club, and the discussion around the table was lively and interesting.

There followed a refreshing gazpacho of apple and cucumber with nettle, kale crisps and soused gunard. The main course of lamb belly, loin, and smoked fillet with buckwheat and beetroot was nothing short of sensational. The meat had been perfectly cooked, the skin was crisp and delicious, and the accompaniments faultless. For dessert, Pawel served what he described as a “kind of pina colada”. This was an intriguing but fun dish, and had very interesting flavours with fennel making its presence felt in a pineapple and rum granita, a light as air coconut cream on top, served with a beautiful cold muscat.

Pawel was catering for his 12 guests, including one vegetarian and one coeliac, all from a small domestic kitchen with a four ring ceramic hob. I was hugely impressed by his passion for his work. The phenomenon of the pop-up has flourished in this economic climate and while other people may do it for profit, you get the distinct impression from Pawel, at least, that this is a true labour of love. His food philosophy is based on locally sourced produce, that comes from markets and farms in the area. To create his dishes he is also forages for seasonal wild fruits, nuts, herbs, flowers, mushrooms, and seaweeds that are in plentiful supply in the countryside, woodlands, and the seashores close by.

Each event sees Pawel serving up six dishes which are complemented with all sorts of beverages. They have just hosted Sheep, the first of five new themed meals. Each of the courses including dessert is sourced from one animal and its environments. The other themes which will be hosted on Sundays over the coming months are Cow, Pig, Vegetable, and Seafood.

Nutmeg Feasts events are open to anyone, space allowing. There is no membership or referral required. Bookings can be made on line through [email protected]. The dates of upcoming events can be found on the Nutmeg Feasts’ Facebook page.

Food is the new rock ‘n’ roll I reckon. If you want to take a leap of faith and try something new, you could do a lot worse than trying out a supper club. Underground restaurants may be the latest trend in eating out, but they are also a great place to meet people, share food and, if it is held in someone's home, have a bit of a snoop. For entrepreneurial cooks and chefs, starting your own supper club could be the start of a whole new life, the opportunity to show off your creative cooking, earn a little money and meet new people. But keep it to yourself. Don't forget, it's a secret!


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