After reading a Chicago Bites’ review of an Underground Dinner hosted by X-Marx Chicago, I was curious to experience it myself. Not only did the review highlight the creativity of the culinary team, but I was also intrigued by the concept of an “Underground Dinner”. For an underground dinner, you know in advance the date, theme, and cost of the meal, but the location is kept secret until about a day before, and the menu isn’t unveiled until you arrive at the restaurant.
Right after reading the Chicago Bites’ review, I promptly signed up for the X-marx mailing list and soon after received my first mailing with their list of upcoming events, and this exciting disclaimer: “X-marx is without a doubt, an adventurous dining experience. From exotic plants … to the hottest chilies on the planet, you may expect to indulge in some extreme cuisine with us…”
The majority of the events on their menu were limited to omivores only, so I was excited to see one purely vegetarian night on the calendar: “Spring Sprung, A Vegetarian Market Dinner”, promising to incorporate Buddhist style technique with Farmer’s Market Findings. We had to register far in advance since the events sell out quick, but they have a cancellation policy of 48-hours should something else come up.
The meal itself had a festive atmosphere with BYOB, hip-hop music, and about 30-40 guests seated at communal tables. It was a fun environment to meet fellow foodies, and you could really feel the energy in the room as everyone eagerly awaited each course and got to know each other between bites. To start the night off, the head chef went to each table to share some highlights of the menu.
Throughout the meal, it was very apparent that the ingredients were in-season and market-fresh. Additionally, there were some “special” ingredients like parmesan cheese shavings on our salad which we were told came from a variety of cheese that was imported from Italy and is only made with milk from Red Cows. However, the “Buddhist Style” techniques promised in the theme only showed through in some of the courses. I was especially confused by how a Mexican Sope (corn cake) with Chevre and Hazelnut Mole fit into the theme, but it certainly was delicious.
Both mine and Mike’s absolute favorite course was the Sichuan Cold Noodle dish featuring thick, doughy noodles and imported szechuan peppercorns in a sweet and spicy sauce. This dish was so spicy that after a few bites my mouth was pleasantly numb, making it easier to lap up the rest of the sauce. If there were a restaurant in town with this dish on the menu, I know we’d be regulars there.
I also loved the dessert – a gellee of raw honey and rhubarb with tapioca pearls and fresh sour cream. Although it sounds like a strange combination, stirred together it was a very spring-like and refreshing dessert. It was garnished with a fresh leaf of Sorrel, which was my favorite discovery of the evening. Biting into the Sorrel leaf at first tasted like any other green, but after a quick chew a citrus-like flavor burst from the leaf, reminding me of sour candies. I had eaten the entire leaf before I even started on the rest of the dessert. A quick Wikipedia search informed me that although Sorrel has been cultivated for centuries and is popular in soups and salads in many cultures, large quantities of it can be poisonous. I guess that’s what they mean by adventurous eating!
While all of the dishes were good, some were less thrilling like our soup and salad courses which were enjoyable but did not leave a lasting impression. Mike and I also debated over the Bi Bim Bop, which I thought tasted like any other Bi Bim Bop I’ve ever had, but which he particularly didn’t like. He has had the “real thing” before in Korea and this version didn’t measure up to his expectations.
I should also mention that it took nearly 4 hours for us to be served this 6 course meal. On the night we were there, X-marx had bit off more than they could chew by running a pop-up restaurant out of the same venue that night. We were crowded in elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors and the service was so slow we waited nearly an hour (and asked twice) before they brought our bottle (BYOB) of wine to the table that they had been chilling for us. I was also hoping for more of a dialogue throughout the evening to learn more about each course.
Overall, while the service was an off-night and the theme wasn’t always apparent in the food, it was a unique experience and a fun night. I’d recommend an X-marx underground dinner for anyone looking to add elements of adventure and surprise to their meal. But if you are looking for a flawless evening, we enjoyed the food and service during our multi-course meal at Bonsoirée much more.