Saturday, November 22. Six p.m. On an evening that felt arctic — even by Ithaca standards — I anxiously stood huddled near the bus stop in Collegetown with a small gathering of Cornell University associates, waiting for my Cornell Underground Dinner Series experience to begin. What experience, you ask? This was unknown, as I stood that evening with very little knowledge about what the Underground night would bring.
There was a very palpable word-of-mouth buzz spreading around the School of Hotel Administration about this secretive event, yet few seemed to have any idea about where the event would be held or who was even behind the evening’s festivities. All the attendees were told beforehand they were to expect the finest combination of food, music and design. The rest was left up to our imaginations.
Sure, I was a bit skeptical of this premise. How could a group of shadowy hotel, architecture, and design students ever manage to live up to the lofty promises of the highest service, aesthetic design and culinary mastery? Yet, as this very thought entered my mind, a gleaming white limo elegantly pulled up to the curb. My colleagues and I gleefully entered this first-class haven of warmth — which would be the night’s mode of transport — and my cynicism melted away to enthusiasm; I knew I was in for a special evening.
As we arrived at our destination — which I will not reveal, as this was an event veiled in secrecy — we were met by an intimate dining room amorously adorned with delicate candlelight and soothing jazz rhythms. Throughout the evening, there was a wonderful diversity of sounds, each rhythm perfectly suiting the course that was being served.
Though I fully intend to celebrate the uniqueness of this event –— this collaboration of gastronomy, architecture and design was the first of its kind and the Underground’s main focus — I cannot help but first focus on the evening’s exceptional cuisine. The menu — which was executed by a team of hotel students — was superbly inspired.
The dinner consisted of seven impeccably innovative dishes, all served with the finest attention to detail and care. The meal for 20 began with a dual plating of dishes referred to as Gasoon sushi and French kiss — both offered a variation on foie gras accompanied by succulent truffles and prunes. Though minute in portion size, they were full of flavor. The wine pairings for the evening, compliments of the luxurious, Paris-based Champagne House Nicolas Feuillatte, were lovely accompaniments to the palate.
Once I got over the irksome idea that pigeon could be edible, the quenelles de palombes (wood pigeon in veloute sauce) was delicately delicious. The subsequent courses — a fall collection of vegetables with potato puree, as well as wagyu beef tenderloin with puff pastry and onion royale — were the pinnacles of the experience, fantastic contrasts of subtlety and robustness. The final courses of the dinner — a precursory palate of sugary fruitful flavors called mastic, as well as a decadent chocolate dessert called chysalid — made the finale quite satiating.
This night, however, was not merely an evening of culinary quality. On the contrary, the experience really stood out because it so effortlessly fused intriguing architecture and design elements. First, the table’s centerpiece, fashioned by the Underground’s architecture students, was a masterful transformation of a piece of disfigured driftwood — found at the bottom of the gorges — into a smoothly sculpted showpiece of elucidation.
The menu itself, created by design students, was striking not only for its interesting bass-wood texture, but for the intricate stenciling of the menu items into the piece of wood.
So, what exactly is the Underground and how do you become a member? The answer is still shrouded in mystery — especially to the Cornell community at large — except for the fact that they are a group marked by magnificent paradox. Although they are not officially recognized by the university, they are a highly structured organization, who apparently gather weekly for meetings and receive energetically engaged participation from their members. In order to make in-roads with this group, you “gotta know somebody who knows somebody,” according to one of my fellow diners.
Nevertheless, if this dinner as any indication of the Underground’s caliber, I would strongly encourage you to seek out more knowledge about this organization. Not only does the Underground truly understand hospitality at its best, but they also have the spirit, willingness and desire to serve and entertain others. I anticipate that there is much more in store from this group. I, for one, cannot wait.