Let’s start with the fish. Not the chilled and raw seafood that arrives on plates — the scallops, crudo, and later the oysters, razor clams and lobster tails with a Granny Smith mignonette on the side. No, the first fish to appear still are swimming.
There are 42 of the little guys swishing through bowls as centerpieces for the Underground Kitchen on Saturday, Sept. 12. The one-night-only dinners, coordinated by designer Micheal Sparks, are meant to pull chefs out of their normal environment and give them creative freedom from the kind of food they typically cook. Diners don’t discover their identities until the meal is served.
These undertakings, which were started in January 2014, draw adventurous diners who snap up limited tickets. In this case, 74 guests made the cut, and are welcomed to Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to coincide with the museum’s Artrageous benefit downstairs.
Logistics of producing such an event aren’t limited to the menu, gift bags or wine pairings with each course. They can come down to pets.
The florist who handled the centerpieces recoiled at the idea of including the live goldfish on display. She agreed on the condition that the fish would be cared for after the event, and not dumped unceremoniously like empty plates into a dishwasher.
Sparks scrambled for solutions. One donor, an aquarium and several phone calls later, an arrangement is made. A kindergarten class at Linwood Holton Elementary School receives a new class project to feed.
As for the feeding of guests, it kicks off with a welcome from Sparks and a sparkler made of a French ginger liqueur. “Let’s rock it out,” he ends his toast, sitting down briefly, taking bites between moments of mingling through the dining room.
Amuse chef Greg Haley puts a French spin on things, an ode to museum exhibits on display and to come. “But we also wanted to keep true to the mid-Atlantic theme that we do,” he says in the kitchen — “and also transitioning from summer into fall ingredients that are growing.”
An amuse bouche on a spoon brings together cured egg yolk, house-made lardons and a sherry emulsion. A sweet and delicate corn soup arrives with duck confit and crispy apples. There is lambchetta (lamb sausage), served with mustard greens, crowder peas and lamb demi-glace.
But Haley leaves what he calls his most boundary-stretching dish for last. Foie gras is seared, served warm alongside a buckwheat crepe, peaches in Sauternes and a luscious Camembert ice cream.
Information on the next events — one to be held each night of the UCI Road Championships this week — and how to find out about the first-come, first-served tickets, can be found at theundergroundkitchen.org.