by Silvana de Soissons•14th June 2011
The Montpelier Basement Supper Club, in the Montpelier area of Bristol, was set up in October 2010 after its hosts, Dan Vaux Nobes and his girlfriend Elly Curshen, went for dinner at two different London supper clubs. They were so inspired by their experiences of eating in strangers' home pop-up restaurants that they converted their own basement dining room into a secret supper venue.
“We thought the layout of our house was perfect for holding events,” explained Dan. “Guests can come downstairs, sit together in one room, and the kitchen is just at the side, so we can come out and chat to people during courses.”
The house is across the road from a doctor’s surgery, so during the weekend evenings that the supper clubs are held there is plenty of parking space. Located right in the heart of Bristol’s buzzing bohemian centre, Dan and Elly have secured the crown as the City’s most popular amateur restaurateurs, and on this, their 28thevent, my husband, John-Paul, and I decided to reserve tickets.
We arrived at the same time as a few other couples, so we immediately struck up a conversation at our table, talking about teenage daughters, jobs, hobbies and food in the space of a few introductory minutes. In the dining room there were three wooden tables seating a total of 18 guests in the room, which was candle lit and filled with summery flowers, vintage china, old linens, red and white stripy napkins and black and white graphite drawings. Soft French music, tinkering pianos and gentle jazz played in the background.
To my left I met Mark, who works as a consultant radiologist at the hospital in Bristol, but also works one morning a week as a helper in Hart’s Bakery. He told me that he and his wife, Moira, were worried they would be the only “oldies” in the room, but, in fact, there is such a diverse and eclectic range of people here they need not have worried. One common theme united us all: we were all foodies, and the Montpelier Basement fan club tomtom drums had drawn us all in.
Dan and Elly had much to accomplish. The Menu, handwritten on the mantelpiece blackboard, was long and promising:
Radishes, Sea Salt & local Butter (Vegetarian)
Chilled Cucumber and Horseradish soup with Cornish Crab
OR Chilled Cucumber and Horseradish soup with Homewood Ewe's curd cheese & fresh herbs (Vegetarian)
Soft boiled Pheasant egg with Devonshire dry cured Bacon, Leaves and Sourdough Croutons
OR Soft boiled Pheasant egg with Old Ford crisp, Leaves and Sourdough Croutons (Vegetarian)
Saltmarsh Lamb Cutlet with crushed New Potatoes, Broad Beans and Peas, Mint Sauce.
OR Wye Valley Asparagus Custard with sauteed New Potatoes, Broad Beans and Peas (Vegetarian)
Rhubarb & Sipsmith Gin Ice
Montpelier Elderflower Posset with deep fried Elderflowers and St Werburgh's Honey.
Gorwydd Caerphilly and Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout Rarebit
Because there were so many different dishes they tended to be served in small bowls, glasses or cups, so that guests could pace themselves right through the meal, which, in this case, lasted five hours.
The chilled cucumber soup was very velvety, rich, fresh and creamy, with salty, soft pieces of tender crab. The soft boiled pheasant egg salad that followed it was my very favourite dish of the night, with the saltiness of Old Ford cheese slithers and crunchy bacon slices (for non-vegetarians) foiling the unctuousness of perfectly cooked, marigold orange yolked-eggs, mixed with frilly frisee leaves that had been dressed with a creamy vinaigrette. We all commented on how difficult it must be to serve three tables, in relays, eggs cooked to such a level of perfection. We also agreed that none of us would ever try.
John-Paul devoured his Saltmarsh lamb cutlet, gnawing the bone clean, and it came served on crushed new potatoes that were mixed with individually peeled broad beans and peas, and a homemade mint sauce that was emerald green, grassy and fragrant. I had never tasted asparagus custard before, and it was served baked quite firm in a ceramic soufflé pot. The flavour of Wye Valley asparagus at the peak of its season is quite unbeatable.
Elly worked swiftly in between the tables, balancing water jugs, glasses, plates and cutlery on her tray. I drank homemade elderflower cordial and water, as I was driving, but saw that cooler boxes had been arranged on the floor so that the wine bottles brought by guests could be kept chilled. Everyone shared their drinks, contact cards, foodie finds and jokes, in the spontaneous, democratic melting pot of random human encounter that is created when 18 strangers meet.
The volume of the conversations rose and rose, throughout the evening, to the point that you had to shout to be heard. Many of the guests were repeat customers, whilst others had newly discovered the event through Twitter.
As the harbinger of sweet things to come, the rhubarb and Sipsmith gin sorbet arrived, cleansing the palate with an earthy, spicy tang. I wanted a second portion, thinking that these recipes really need to be published. Despite writing a very successful food Blog at www.essexeating.blogspot.com I don’t think Dan includes the supper club recipes, and as I finished my sorbet, ate my way through a crispy, sweet elderflower fritter and an elderflower posset, to the “oohs” and “aahs” of our table, sloe gin and the Caerphilly and stout toasted rarebit was passed around on a wooden board.
Several things were noticeable: the Trojan amount of work involved in sourcing, carrying, preparing, cooking and serving food of such a professional calibre; the challenge of arranging a seating plan of 18 strangers so that no-one felt left out; the courage and confidence required to deliver such an ambitious Menu, with vegetarian options; how good value for money such a wide ranging array of dishes were for just £25 (recommended donation); the scale of the washing up.
Throughout the evening Dan and Elly smiled, chatted and mingled with their guests, in between bouts of concentrated cooking and ballerina-like waitressing across the crowded floor. At the end, as most of the guests had left, they showed us their comprehensive cookbook library, pointing to Darina Allen, Gary Rhodes and “The Eagle Cookbook” as being their most inspirational reference touchstones.
Their supper club fame has now reached the national newspapers, several magazines and other Blogs, but they have not been affected by all the attention. “We are still doing exactly what we set out to do,” said Dan. “We just want to cook good, seasonal, locally sourced produce. We go to our fishmonger, to Joe at the Source Food Hall Café, to the Bristol Beer Factory, to Trethowan’s Dairy and to Sharpham Park spelt flour mills to source our ingredients, then we carry them all home and cook them. Every Menu is different, we never practise, and we mail our mailing list in the first instance to see who is interested in coming to eat with us. Then we also sell tickets through Twitter. The preparation starts days in advance, we both work really long hours, we put our all into it.”
Dan works at the St. Nicholas Market in Bristol, for the Trethowan Dairy company, and Elly owns the Pearcafe nearby. She confided “There I was in the kitchen, sat peeling scores of really fiddly pheasants’ eggs, and trimming asparagus, but while I was doing it I thought to myself how these two great ingredients were in season right in that moment, but then next week I am going to be cooking the next ingredient in the season's calender. Each supper club is completely different. And that is the joy of it for us.”
Montpelier Basement Supper Club details: http://supperclubfangroup.ning.com/profile/TheMontpelierBasement
Follower Montpelier Basement on Twitter: @MontpelierBsmt
Dan Vaux Nobe’s food Blog: www.essexeating.blogspot.com
Elly Curshen’s Pearcafe: www.thepearcafe.com