Chad Houser told me things were going to be different at his next Café Momentum dinner, but when a large hunk of sod landed in front of me at my table, I felt a little unprepared. I wasn't the only one. In every direction questions rose up out of the darkness. "Are you supposed to eat it?" "Is that really grass?" "Is that dirt?"
The answers to each of these questions was obscured by lighting so dim you had to hunt for your fork before you figured out how to use it. In the end, yes, it really was sod, and yes, the sod clung to a considerable hunk of earth, and yes, you were supposed to eat it, but only what was gently laid on top and not the sod itself.
The greens were very lightly dressed and seemingly pulled from the earth seconds before they ended up in the salad. There were unidentified leafy things with toothy roots and greens with a pronounced herbaceous flavor. It was elegantly simple once you figured out how to eat it.
Forks were useless unless you wanted to turn up soil so we dove in with our hands. Through the murky dark I watched a woman forage, her wrists pointed upward over curled paws like a rabbit. She chewed with rapid fervor and stopped sharply as if alerted. "I think I ate some dirt," the rabbit said. I thought I did too.
Houser's Café Momentum dining event has become a staple in Dallas, raising money to help kids who have gotten a bad shake. But this version felt like Houser hijacked, or maybe Houser on acid. House of Plates, a group known for throwing booze-heavy cultural events featuring music, fashion and now food, promoted the dinner, and the results were strange.
They also got people talking. Dining in the near pitch black removes an important tool used to evaluate food. You can still smell things, but with your sight stripped away your mind plays tricks. Smoked squash and an unidentified pork product might taste like bacon for a flash, until you realize it's chorizo. And then you subsequently realize the chorizo is floating in a decadent soup. The appreciation comes in layers.
Other dishes and flavors were a lot easier to understand. They include the minerality of beef tartar, fashioned from hunks of meat larger and chewier than you're used to, and all the more delicious. Or a monster pork belly tater tot, with a maple-bourbon ketchup that smacked of barbecue sauce. And the pickles that were served at the end of the meal, of crunchy carrots and beets -- these dishes appealed to a familiar understanding of what food should be. They were delicious, and against the surreal, barely-candle-lit backdrop created by the folks at House of Plates, they were reassuring.
As was the wine, which combined with odd food and odd settings (assigned seats paired you up strangers instead of people you know) kept the chatter moving.
Good conversation is almost a given at pop-up dinners. Houser has held events in popular restaurant dining rooms, in hotels, and now in a secret, dimly lit Deep Ellum loft. Each has gotten people whose paths might have never crossed talking over good food. Viewed through the House of Plates lens Houser's event took on a youthful edge, while the nameless cultural curators who normally lean on Jell-O stepped out into new territory.
It felt like the start of something new for both parties. And it's a shame there aren't more pop-up dinners like this one for Dallasites to enjoy.