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Stag Dining Group: An Above-Ground Series of Clandestine Dinners 

Wednesday, Apr 4 2012
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After the shooting, rosé was poured.

Skeet shooting, to be exact, on the shores of Lake Merced, on one of those rare spring days when the fog peels back from the coast and the lake glitters blue. Fifty or 60 of Stag Dining Group's guests tentatively shouldered rifles to aim at flying clay pigeons, guided by instructors from the Pacific Rod & Game Club. The rest of us stood around, picking at platters of ham and cheese, before heading up the shore to the lodge for the wine reception and eight-course dinner.

Stag Dining Group has been making its name on such events over the last 18 months. The group's happenings began as dinner parties in private homes, but quickly turned into spectacles, the most elaborate of which took place on a battleship in October. While the location of each dinner is revealed to guests at the last minute, you now buy your ticket through EventBrite, and photo galleries of them appear online within a few days. Hardly secretive.

Organizers Emory El-Imam, Matthew Homyak, Jordan Grosser, Anil Margsahayam, and Ted Fleury have taken the lessons of the clandestine dining movement of six or seven years ago, but found commercial kitchen space, purchased insurance, and incorporated. Now they're a polished business that gets paid to organize two to three corporate catering events for every not-quite-clandestine dinner they do themselves. If Stag Dining Group's "Guns, Game, and Rosé" dinner held last week is any example, the dinners are creative, professional, and heavily co-branded. If you're not attached to the screw-the-Man ethos that once made underground dinners the rave of the new millennium, they can be a hell of a lot of fun.

In the lodge, bartenders were handing out half-glasses of two rosés from Peterson Winery, a Dry Creek vintner who partnered with Stag Dining Group. They were both good: pale vin gris with a lilting acidity and a nose of berries and flowers, and a burlier mourvèdre rosé appropriately called "Big Pink." As we toured the wood-paneled dining room, inspecting yellowed photographs of men holding guns, other diners were claiming spots at the long tables or posing with prop rifles for Hipstamatic reps (another "partner"). Videographers roamed around the room, cameras braced on their shoulders. I half-expected Snooki to stumble out of the bathroom, cursing the cooks and vomiting on the floor.

The signal was given, and we all took the places we claimed, sizing up our neighbors and shaking hands. The next 10 minutes were filled with introductions, winemaker speeches, and clapping. More wine was poured. And then the plates began to arrive.

The shooting was certainly a draw, but I was there because I've been a fan of Jordan Grosser and Ted Fleury's cooking at Alembic, where Fleury is still chef; Grosser is now working for Emeryville's Honor Bar and the Chalet restaurants. Earlier in the day, guests at the lunchtime Pacific Rod & Game Club event were served a five-course lunch. Dinner, which cost $110, promised eight courses. The plates came out fast, and we rushed to heap warm food on our plates and pass the platters along.

The food was more rustic than the precise, intellectually composed fare that Fleury serves at Alembic. I've been to dozens of underground dinners over the years, many of which tasted like wedding banquets cooked by amateur caterers, and this was far more polished.

A frilly, thin-leafed arugula with sugary chiogga beets arrived first, tossed with a tight little lemon vinaigrette and scattered with rye croutons. Minutes later, we were presented with heaps of spring asparagus covered in a creamy fennel-pollen mayonnaise whose flavor hinted at flowers. Platters filled with quail, slathered in chiles and spices and grilled just past pink, were quickly stripped to the bones. Grilled whole trout whose spines had been replaced by fennel fronds, tarragon, and lemon — perhaps a little overcooked, which is hard not to do when you're grilling in bulk — were reduced to tails and heads.

The most amazing smoked fingerling potatoes emerged, tossed with Parmesan shavings and tasting so meaty you'd swear they were infused with pork fat. But it was hard to concentrate on them too long, because the suckling pork soon took over the table — mild, extremely tender, and served with its salt-flecked skin, which turned out to be the best part of the pig. The wine, of course, kept coming around. From a gawky semillon to a soft-hearted carignane blend, none of it outshone the two rosés. That didn't keep the booze from doing its job: turning an event into a gathering.

Something unique happens when you seat a group of strangers together for a long banquet, an effect that can't be reproduced at cocktail parties or the communal tables at restaurants. Stuck near one another for three hours, we began to swap stories: Assault rifles in the Kentucky hills. Rising rents in the Tendernob. Our thoughts on the wine and the asparagus. On some level, the conversation barely scraped the surface — few people even talked about their jobs — but it seemed to have more weight than your average bar chat.

The talk spiraled on through the dessert course (banana pudding and muscat), while the view of the lake faded out and the reflection of our faces in the windows came into view. At some point, once all the wine was drunk, another round of applause erupted for the flush-faced chefs. Then numbers and cards were exchanged, rides were offered, and everyone got up to put on their coats, except those of us who had a few last stories to tell.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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