We stand before a white door. A sketch of a llama hangs like a badge of honour at the entrance. To our right, a shoe rack for us to disrobe before we step onto holy ground. And by holy ground, we mean inside the living room of a nondescript apartment in downtown Kuala Lumpur. We would give you specifics, but therein lies the first rule of a supper club: the fun is in the finding.
Come on in.
The host of the evening can’t stop smiling, and is in a T-shirt and shorts. This is clearly not your grandfather’s upper-class social club. Before us lie eight chairs arranged in a rectangle, a menu printed on a manila card set at each place. Tonight, the four-course dinner is an a-typical deconstruction of nyonya fare: a salad sengkuang with carrots and an orange emulsion; pan-seared scallops, prawns and a snapper in an assam pedas sauce; nasi kerabu with beef rendang, and chilled mango soup. Sounds like a mouthful, and it better be. By the end of the night, we would fork out RM140 for it.
Welcome to the Klang Valley’s underground world of the supper club. Even the name itself has gone through a metamorphosis; where it used to mean a high-class establishment for the elite that included jazz, plush sofas and martinis, food enthusiasts have taken it towards a more Prohibition-style direction. Supper clubs are now another word for underground restaurants, most of which operate out of someone’s house. In short, they are paid dinner parties with food fit for a fine-dining palate.
“The guests are pretty much our guinea pigs”
“The whole supper club idea is entirely based on experimentation,” says Nicklaus Au, part of the duo who started the supper club Transparent Apron, the llama logo-ed food hideout where I currently find myself. “We rarely copy directly from any recipe book and since neither of the partners had ever trained with a proper kitchen, the guests are pretty much our guinea pigs.”
But willing guinea pigs. The appeal in a supper club can be traced to the still, small voice in every diner’s heart that chants: there’s no place like home. So, attracted to a more informal setting, supper clubs are sprouting across the city. Jen’s Underground Supper Club is hosted at the house of Jennifer Palencia, daughter of jazz singer Mia, and offers European-flavoured dinners and even tea time. Huck’s Café is another variation, and is touted as the underground supper club to have started it all, with self-trained chef Huck Seng opening his bungalow six times a week. It’s grown in popularity and bookings apparently need to be made a month in advance.
The question, of course, is: why not open a restaurant? In Transparent Apron, the attraction of hosting a small setting without the pressures of business has opened up new possibilities. “We didn’t want our food to be influenced by cost or business operations issues,” says Ryonn Leong, the other half of the club. “This is purely a place where both partners could come together, cook great food, feed some hungry few and everyone enjoys the process in between.” In Transparent Apron, the menu is heavily influenced by European cuisines with moments of Asian flair. “We try our very best, at any point, to use local ingredients as much as possible,” Nicklaus says. “That doesn’t mean we would shy away from truffles, lobsters and cheeses.” Or, for that matter, nasi kerabu.
The informal setting isn’t just a cost-cutting measure. Within the idea of a supper club also lies an unspoken rebellion against the very idea of a restaurant. A lot of supper clubs shy away from a fixed menu. Then, there’s the quaint notion that strangers can sit together over a meal and actually get to know one another, as opposed to eating silently at isolated tables. This has led to some memorable collision of personalities at Transparent Apron, and breaks down the fourth wall between chef and customer.
“We’ve had many interesting characters come through our doors since we opened last year. There was a couple who booked for dinner on the same day that they were driving back from Singapore, and another lady who came alone and was in crutches after an accident climbing Mount Everest,” recalls Nicklaus. “All of our guests are amazing in their own rights, but it’s the conversation that they have at our place that’s the most memorable for us both. After all, the kitchen is only two feet away, so whilst we’re preparing your meal, we can hear everything that’s going on in the dining room.”
What Nicklaus and Ryonn appeal to, then, is the soft spot in your heart where food, fellowship and fascination meet. On the night we went, conversation turned from the robust bottle of Thai Mekhong spirit that sat on the table, to tattoos and all-night parties. The assam pedas sauce melted in the mouth, and rounds of seconds were demanded when the mango bubur and home-made ice-cream disappeared. When the night ended and ringgits were forked out, you realised that you weren’t just paying for the meal. It’s the experience that makes the evening – and it’s price tag – so much more palatable. It’s a supper club rule, after all: come for the menu. Stay for the mingling.
Photos courtesy of Transparent Apron.