Way back at the end of March I attended a vegetarian dinner at City Grit, where I met Chef Dave Santos. Dave was the guest chef that night, and although he isn’t a vegetarian he enjoys the challenge of cooking without meat. He hosts a secret supper club called Um Segredo, which is Portuguese for “a secret,” and he mentioned that does a vegetarian Um Segredo every once in a while because of the high demand for them. Interestingly enough, the majority of people who attend those dinners aren’t vegetarian either. Dave got in touch with me after the dinner, and I had a chance to interview him at his home on Roosevelt Island. Last week he emailed me and asked if I would be free to attend another vegetarian Um Segredo, this time in Brooklyn, as his guest. He even told me I could bring a friend. I invited my friend Melissa, who luckily was also free that evening, and gave her the details.
When we arrived at the location (given to me just one day before the event) we found that we had the best seats in the house — right up front, facing the kitchen, where we got to see Chef Santos, on the right, and his sous chef (pictured with the blowtorch above) preparing a five-course vegetarian meal for us.
The meal started with a warm and crusty fresh focaccia, with two condiments. There was sauerkraut that Chef Santos had been fermenting in his kitchen for a few weeks, and a delicious sweet paprika and onion jam. While the former was good, we couldn’t get enough of the latter.
Chef Santos came out and explained every course before we ate it. The first course he called “butternut squash.” It started with a smear of butternut squash puree, which was then bruleed with the blowtorch. Then they added cubes of pickled butternut squash, and garnished the plate with a blackberry puree and a leaf of tempura cavolo nero, black kale. My favorite element was the pickled squash, something I’d never had before. Although Chef Santos mentioned that blackberries were on the plate because they were in season, Melissa and I both agreed that the puree felt a little out of place with the rest of the food. It was, however, quite good smeared on the focaccia.
Next up was a mushroom soup. At the city grit dinner my favorite course had been the chilled carrot soup, and this soup was almost as good. It started out with a bowl containing a ricotta-truffle mixture, confit potatoes, and confit mushrooms (enokis and hon shimejis). Then the pureed hot mushroom soup was poured over that. The soup contained a combination of shiitakes, button mushrooms, and dried porcinis. It was an amazing soup — warm, comforting, but also sexy and gratifying. Chef Santos topped off our soup a couple of times for us, and we also dunked more of the focaccia into the mix.
Next up was “Brussels sprouts.” The Brussels sprouts were simply sauteed and then roasted in the oven. They went onto a sauce of pickled cranberries, and were topped with confit shallots, a honey foam, and toasted pecans. This dish reminded us both of Thanksgiving, and was a nice interplay of salty, acidic, sweet, and bitter. The Brussels sprouts could have been overwhelmed by all of those aggressive flavors, but they managed to hold their own.
Our final savory course was “broccoli & dumplings,” a play of chicken & dumplings. The broccoli was blanched in salted water, along with the small square yeast dumplings. Then they were added to a broth made of clothbound cheddar, and topped with thyme breadcrumbs and red pepper flakes. This soup was more straightforward than the mushroom one, though it was full of flavor. I particularly enjoyed the spiciness of the pepper flakes mixed with the sharp cheddar flavor, and the soft, chewy dumplings.
Dessert was playfully titled “PB&J.” The was a slice of peanut butter pain perdu (similar to bread pudding) nestled on a Concord grape jam. It was accompanied by a scoop of homemade frozen vanilla yogurt. This dish reminded me of when I was a kid; I remember eating lunch at my friend Jeff’s house, and his mom gave us peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and a bowl of vanilla yogurt. When I took a bite of this dessert, with all of the elements together on the spoon, I was transported to that kitchen table at that townhouse in VA.
After dinner Chef Santos came over to chat with us over coffee and tea. He told us that while planning this menu, he tried to imagine what vegetarian comfort food for the fall and upcoming winter would be. He certainly succeeded with this meal. For a man who has worked at Bouley and Per Se, he’s remarkably down-to-earth; quick to laugh and happy to share any information about the food and how he made it. When I spoke to him back in April, he said that he really enjoys these supper clubs because he gets to be right there in front of the diners: “I love watching people enjoy what I’m doing.”
You can sign up for your very own Um Segredo meal on the website: umsegredony.com — remember that they’re not all vegetarian.
You can see the rest of my photos from that evening here.