To preface this post: I’ve followed this story for years and I recap part of that story below. It has made for a long post, so stick with me. But if you don’t want to read it all, I’ll cut to the chase – it’s really good. You should go.
Sometimes you wait a while for something, with only an idea of what you’re awaiting. Back in 2011 or 2012, I heard about this “underground dinner” that was going on around town called Prelude to Staplehouse. Ryan and Jen Hidinger were preparing to open a restaurant, to be called Staplehouse, and were hosting these small dinners in their home.
They sent out emails, roughly once a month, with a date and a menu and you RSVPed via email. We tried nine or ten times, but were always too late in responding and they filled up. Then in late December ’12, came the news that the dinners (and the restaurant) would be placed on hold, for a while. For the next year, we followed the battle that Ryan waged with cancer and the development of the Giving Kitchen movement. The openness with which they shared their fight was touching. And very brave. They share a video, on the Giving Kitchen website, under “Our Story”, which I encourage you to grab some Kleenex and take four minutes to watch.
The quest to open Staplehouse was taken up (you can read more of the story here) and they opened for patio service in September and received their liquor license a couple of weeks back. Last week I saw an email that they were taking reservations for dinner. When we discussed dinner for Halloween night, I went onto their reservation system and grabbed a spot. They are the first Atlanta restaurant to use Tock – a system in which you buy a ticket for dinner, basically pre-paying. This is unique – you commit to and buy a non-refundable ticket for dinner. I chose Saturday at 6:00.
We arrived at the building on Edgewood, parked the car and walked through the big doorway and onto the patio. We were greeted, inside, at the host desk by a dinosaur / crocodile (She asked what we thought she was as we walked to the table and I guessed dinosaur. I was wrong, she was a dragon) – it was Halloween. It is a small space, looking like it seats 40-50 inside. There are also seats at the bar and on the patio, where you can order individual items from the price fixe or the patio menu.
We had already committed to the tasting menu, so we clarified our drink orders with Agent Mulder (“the truth IS out there”) and headed toward the first course. Looking around, most all of the staff was dressed for the holiday.
We started out with an amuse bouchée- a pickled beet, topped with pastrami powder, caramelized creme fraiche and some liquid pickled beet. It was interesting and moderately bacon-y, but it was very much a pickled beet. A quick slug of Diet Coke removed that “beet taste” quickly enough. I am in no ways, a beet fan, however Jo, who is, loved this bite. It was a slow night (slow was a drastic understatement – there was us, a table of two and a table of six, in the restaurant plus two couples, at staggered times in the bar). We were talking with one of the chefs as we left and he said that Halloween night and Super Bowl Sunday were the two slowest nights of the year for restaurants.
They had peeled both the sable fish and the sun choke and fried those skins to a crisp. The juniper had been whipped into a purée and was mixed in with the custard. This dish was cold and our least favorite of the night. I did learn that sunchokes are part of the sunflower family and it’s the tuber-like root that was served as a custard. Think about earthy-tasting, thick mashed potatoes. I thought they were related to artichokes. Thanks, Wikipedia.
While the slow night may have been bad for them, it was perfect for us. We met pretty much every person in the restaurant, as they brought out courses and cleared plates. Someone would deliver the course and explain what it was, in detail, while others would ask what we thought of the dish as they cleared the table. This gave us a chance to ask questions and get their thoughts on the restaurant. Course two was listed as fermented greens, Charleston gold rice, razor clams and benne.
The plate arrived with a ball of Napa cabbage, wrapped around the rice, topped with benne crumbs and surrounded by razor clams. There was also a bowl of benne crackers. The benne, gold rice and clams is a very coastal Carolina style dish, as the benne seeds (we know the mature benne seeds as sesame) were brought to South Carolina plantations (and ultimately South Carolina dinner tables) from Africa by slaves. I’ve never really thought of myself as a “clam person”, as growing up in the Atlanta suburbs of the 60s and 70s, the only exposure I had to clams was the clam chowder at Red Lobster. Can you blame me? This dish, on the other hand, was phenomenal.
About this time we were telling one of the young men who was talking with us as he served (and dressed like a character from Inglorious Bastards – I incorrectly guessed Percy Fawcett, the explorer in the Lost City of Z) about our history with Staplehouse and how we had followed the story. Mulder came back with the next small bite, that he advised should be eaten in a single bite, to avoid messiness.
It looked like a squash (or a nut) but was actually a dumpling, filled with pork and shaved baloney and other stuff, and topped with mustard seeds, and was described as tasting like a fried baloney sandwich. I popped it into my mouth, took a bite and, holy cow – it tasted like a fried baloney sandwich! As she was clearing these (empty) plates, I asked the young lady two questions:
- how she would describe that bite to someone who isn’t Southern and doesn’t have a fried baloney sandwich as a touchstone. She answered, “I tell them if you’ve never had one, get some baloney, fry it up and make your own”; and
- if she was enjoying working there. Her answer was, and I paraphrase, “it’s a dream come true.” I didn’t know how honest she was being.
The third course arrived – a duck confit (I’d be eating two of these – my beloved does not eat duck), with carrots and nasturtium. Yep, nasturtium – a flower, served puréed with blossoms. I did get both confits, and sent my carrots across the table in exchange. If you aren’t familiar with confit, it’s a method of preserving and re-constructing meat, that’s very well described here.
The duck was very tasty, particularly when ran through the nasturtium. Yep – I was enjoying duck plywood run through a crushed up flower. After this course, the young lady who told me “it was a dream” returned with a covered bowl.
She was dressed for the evening as a man – with a beard and glasses and a trucker hat. Actually, she looked just like one of the guys in the kitchen. As she came to the table, she began explaining that she was “Chef Ryan Smith” (the executive chef / the guy in the kitchen /her husband) and this was his Pennsylvania grandmother’s potato bread, with a few modifications, served with whipped olive oil (it looked like butter, but was olive oil). She then told us that she had dressed like this to surprise him, and when she walked out, he was shocked. His comment? “I won’t be kissing you tonight..” Turns out, she is Kara Hidinger, Ryan’s sister (and the other Ryan’s wife) and that’s why this is a dream coming true for her.
While we waited for the next course, the dragon returned. She said that one of the guys had told her that we had mentioned to them how we had tried to get into the underground dinners and followed their story. Then she introduced herself – Jen Hidinger. We talked for a good while and she gave us this notebook, telling us that Ryan had journaled “for later”.
She said when later came, she understood, as it was filled with thoughts “for later” and that they were giving this notebook to diners to create their own journal (to write about dinner, to write about whatever, to play tic/tac/toe). Her openness, and poise, were touching – we were both tearing up while she spoke. Jo, being a crafter, who makes travelers’ journals, thought it a particularly nice touch.
The ribeye was perfect – fork tender and seasoned simply with sea salt and black pepper. The mushrooms were in two forms, the mitsusake were sliced and seared and the mitake was pureed. The sweet potato was also in two forms – a baked sweet potato, cubed into a perfect, juicy block and a whipped white sweet potato, under the steak and mushrooms, that tasted more like parsnips. Excellent.
I expected the sorrel to be a mushroom and was surprised when the plate arrived. We were told that the greens were wood sorrels, a herb that went perfectly with the apple ice cream. The candied squash was topped with an apple galette and this plate was wonderful. We would gladly have eaten another. Or even shared one. After we finished our meal, they brought two small truffles of 70% dark chocolate, filled with more chocolate and peanut butter. My bride’s night was complete.
Inside the notebook, this quote was stamped:
“Well, I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. A quest for fun.” – Clark Griswold
The quest was successful – we remarked in the car that this was the most fun that we’ve had at dinner in a long time. Thanks to all for the efforts to bring this to fruition.