Trying to park a stick shift on Liberty Hill can be a challenge, particularly parking downhill and especially while you’re squinting at houses, trying to see an address obscured by some greenery, all the while trying not to be late to dinner.
Call me anything, but not late to dinner.
I was struggling to find the place because there is no signage. No valet service. Please isn’t a restaurant. It’s a food experience. Partly, this is because each meal is themed– there is no choice in what you eat, except if you have food allergies (for example, if it’s a pescatarian dinner and you are allergic to shellfish, you might wait until the next dinner). Partly, it’s because the chef’s house is turned into a communal dining room for you and 11 other people you probably haven’t met (but maybe you have).
“Underground” dinners aren’t new– they’ve been popular in larger cities for a while, though they’ve just arrived here. There are two that I know about: Santos’ Please and former Table chef Steven Shockley’s Date Night. There’s a certain set who likes things that are “secret” or “exclusive”, but I like the underground concept because it allows chefs to be more playful and not have to try to please everyone. They can be a little more creative if they’re only serving a limited number of people and not worrying about doing multiple turns.
Dinners are limited to a couple of days a month, which you can find out by following @pleasetoeat on Twitter or on Facebook. Ryan Santos, who moved here about a year ago from Cleveland, uses food that is in season, and only quality ingredients (some from his own farm, some from local farmers, others from local purveyors). You bring your own wine or beer (or, as Santos says, “bourbon, which goes with everything”). The pace is leisurely (without being slow) and service precise (without being pretentious). You also need to be adventurous– you’ll probably encounter a few uncommon or unfamiliar items, but they’ll all be prepared wonderfully. It is conducive to chatter– I was at a table with two friends (who I didn’t know would be there, it was a pleasant surprise), several designers from LPK who went as a group, and a couple of people who didn’t know anyone at the table. We were all friends by the end.
It’s hard for me to really “review” Please, because each dinner is a little bit different. What I ate in April won’t be what you eat in July or August. In fact, occasionally a dish will be added or subtracted between the first night and the last night of the dinner. That’s part of the fun. It’s playful– dishes ranged from a sumac soda (which tasted like a shrub– incredibly refreshing) to a scallop on the half shell, to my favorite dish that involved sunchokes, yuzu, black olives and white chocolate– it sounds odd, but the combination was salty and sweet (a favorite) and just plain interesting. We all discussed, over our respective wine (or beer), each dish– what we liked, what we didn’t (there was very little “didn’t”; I can only recall one guest not really liking peas), what was going on in the city– we all either lived or worked in the urban core, and had some spirited discussions about Over-the-Rhine, the Streetcar, you name it. We all had a moment of silence over a perfect prawn, and all oohed and aahed over the final course, a tiny, perfect macaron.
What I really like is watching Santos’ creative process on his Twitter and Facebook streams– he talks about the produce he’s growing, the products he’s getting for dinners, the occasional process snapshot. He’s not afraid to tweet with potential diners or exchange ideas (publicly!) with other chefs. He moved from Cleveland and thoroughly embraced Cincinnati, too– he’ll be selling call-ahead picnic lunches for two in Washington Park, for example (in partnership with the Brush Factory). Or, he’ll take some local hay and flavor a custard with it (who would have thought?) that he got from a local farmer, or share tips from farmers at farmers’ markets. It’s really fun to get an inside look at someone who is both exploring Cincinnati and adding to the interesting, creative things going on.