For extremely picky Dallasites looking for an exclusive dining experience with rare and seasonal ingredients on an adventurous menu in an intimate setting, there’s a place you might not know about. Yet. It doesn’t happen every night, and some wait over a year to score a reservation. The chefs involved source their ingredients from both Texas farms and global markets and, once selected, spend more than a week prepping for what will be a first-rate gastronomical journey hosted in a secret location.
This dinner party is known to its nearly 6,000 email list constituents as Frank Underground. Frank is Dallas’ headquarters for an increasingly popular food trend referred to as underground dining or secret supper clubs. The concept originated in Europe among home chefs leery of a restaurant investment and with socialites eager to open their homes in speakeasy fashion. American globetrotters caught on, books were written and the concept traveled.
So when two former MasterChef finalists returned home to the their native Texas in 2012, Jennie Kelley, inspired by the book Secret Suppers: Rogue Chefs and Underground Restaurants in Warehouses, Townhouses, Open Fields and Everything in Between, decided she wanted to try it. She invited her recently made reality star friend, Ben Starr, to join her.
They named the operation Frank — direct food, to the point. The duo’s guest list began with friends and family and then grew into their MasterChef followers. Word-of-mouth was their only marketing strategy until Starr took it to Yelp. Today, Frank is the only Dallas “restaurant” that maintains a 5-star status on the site.
But the founders of Frank insist they are not a restaurant, nor are they professionally trained chefs. They are self-proclaimed “food dorks” who believe that food is a miraculous way to celebrate life and bring people together. Instead of working in a restaurant pumping out food for people they will never meet, they prefer to bring culinary-curious strangers together at a communal table where they share detailed information related to each of their five-course offerings. The hosts’ faces beam as they entertain guests with a colloquy of food stories.
They also seem happy with their day jobs. When Kelley isn’t touring as a vocalist in the symphonic pop rock band, The Polyphonic Spree, she works as a food stylist, arranging food for photography in magazines and TV. Starr is a travel writer, self-taught forager, home gardener, chicken farmer, vintner, cheesemaker and brew master of his private garage brewery.
But they don’t leave Frank behind during breaks. While they are traveling the world, they are hunting for rare comestible gems to bring back to share on the Frank table. Though they claim that opening a restaurant would be easier, they have no desire to do so. They call Frank their labor of love.
Each of their offerings is centered on a creative theme, and the menu is never repeated. Themes may be an ingredient, such as chocolate, where the amuse-bouche was a cocoa rubbed beef Wellington in a chocolate puff pastry, or perhaps egg, with courses that include a Scotch guinea egg with house-made venison sausage. Or the theme could be a movie: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” from The Godfather inspired an amaretto tiramisu with an orange pistachio cannoli. Themes could also be cities, holidays, music albums or whatever else these gifted gastronomes may think up.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a seating of “Brunch after Dark,” where each course featured a breakfast dish from a different country. The first course was an adaption of a dish co-chef and former MasterChef finalist Adrien Nieto got from his mother: black bean huitlacoche puree with local squash chorizo and an egg cooked to 63.5 degree perfection. What’s special about 63.5 degrees? It’s the temperature at which the yolk and white are the exact same consistency, which created a perfectly creamy gravy to the beans and squash. The free-range eggs came from Frank’s own flock of hens, which forage their diet much like their owner Starr. The second course was a frittata with Iberico ham shipped directly from the south of Spain. These pigs, too, once foraged their own food, specifically acorns. After the butchering process, the Iberico hams were hung upside down to cure for over a year. In case you think $150 per person price for a seat at the table is exorbitant, consider that Iberico ham retails at Central Market for around $200 per pound. Other courses included a watermelon sorbet with a housemade peach moonshine and a croque-madame starring Lara Land farms smoked red wattle ham that was topped with a local duck egg for extra eggy-ness. The caviar on top was an even nicer touch. My personal favorite was dessert, what they called a “faux Benedict,” a candied bacon waffle with cantaloupe ice cream and amontillado (dry sherry) zabaglione.
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Traditionally, underground diners bring their own bottle of wine after learning the menu, though at Frank that you are welcomed at the door with either a craft cocktail or bubbles, and each course thereafter is paired with beer or wine. Warning: They pour generously, so Uber is highly recommended.
To secure an invitation to Dallas’ best soiree, one must sign up on the email list. Invitations with the theme announcement go out on Sunday nights. Then, all responders go into a lottery, and the lucky winners are contacted on Tuesday with instructions to reply with any dietary restrictions. Beyond allergies and strict food diets, they request their diners be open to trying new things or even things they typically don’t like, as they often hear feedback of how one never liked X until Frank. My husband, for instance, abhors peaches yet happily slurped up his peach moonshine in the sorbet palate cleanser.
Getting an invitation may take some time. I waited a year between my first and second event. Other people are luckier. Check Frank Underground's Facebook page Thursday-Monday for cancellations and quickly respond with your party size when you see an opening.
The last step is to show up hungry, on time and prepared to meet new people who all share the love of food. The experience lasts around three hours and is sure to be a dinner party you won't soon forget.