underground resto receives too much press

Friday Night in Boston: Love + Butter

Frying under the radar
At Love+Butter supper club, dining is a covert experience

There’s no sign on the door, there are no business cards near the entrance, and there is no phone number to call for reservations. You may dine there and never learn the names of your hosts. But that’s all part of the mystery.

Love+Butter is an underground restaurant, or supper club, as it calls itself, the first in this area. It’s not listed in any dining guides, and all the advertising is word of mouth. But those who have eaten there give this illicit venture and the chefs who run it top ratings.

For years diners on the West Coast have been scrambling for invites to underground restaurants, where local chefs take off their toques to cook in a small setting without the limitation of having to cater to public tastes. Other cooks also got on board, creating illegal supper clubs in their homes, friends’ homes, even, in one case, a bus on the beach.

Love+Butter does not take place in a bus on the beach, happily. It’s in a private home, where on weekend nights you can secure a seat at a table for six by making an online reservation. Unless you book it for yourself and five companions, you’ll be seated beside a stranger. But by definition, the other guests are typically interesting and add to that sense of discovery. Love+Butter provides only water, so it’s strictly BYOB, which wine lovers appreciate. There is no set charge for dinner, but rather a suggested “donation” of $45 per person in cash, with a discount for students or those working at nonprofits. Interested diners go online to see the five-course menu one week in advance. None of the courses are set in stone. Special requests such as fish instead of red meat, or restrictions because of allergies can be accommodated.

The underground spot has no license to operate, nor has the Board of Health inspected it, which means it risks being closed down. In California, one underground restaurant, Digs Bistro, was busted and shuttered, but parlayed its success into a legal business just last month.

While the air of secrecy does add spice to the experience, having a restaurant in a home means that the duo who run this place are both cooks and servers. As a result, some things are downright homey. Flatware isn’t replaced after each course, and diners pour their own water. As for decor, crates of books line the walls. Think graduate student housing, only spotless.

The venture isn’t a moneymaker.

“It would take one creative accountant to find profit in this,” says one of the chefs.

So why do it?

For love. The love of good food and feeding others, they say. But also for a more sentimental reason: their love for each other. They wanted a project that would bring them closer. “We have very different professional lives,” says one half of the duo. “This was a project we could do together.” And they simply enjoy cooking for others. “We were feeding people long before this.”

Making a meal in their tiny kitchen might test the tightest relationship, but for these two, harmony rules the house. On one visit, while they prepped for the night’s meal, one had sent small rounds of dough to the oven, hoping they’d bake into puffy little cakes, but they flattened and spread into a thin, crispy layer of brown. They tasted it. Not bad, but not what they wanted. No worries. The other chef remixed the dough with more flour and tried again.

While the two cooked, there were no recriminations, no sighs of exasperation. It might have been a lesson for kitchens and marriages both.

Their food philosophy is the popular one these days, buying local and organic whenever they can. A farmer brings them grass-fed lamb, which is tender and flavorful, prepared four ways: lamb’s tongue with beets becomes an appetizer, set on Chinese soup spoons with herby pesto. The entree is fashioned from peppered lamb loin, braised lamb shank, and seared lamb belly.

“Each muscle is distinct,” says the half of the duo who used to be vegetarian. “With several cuts of [lamb] we can put all kinds of cuts on display. It becomes an act of discovery.”

A lineup of dumplings, vegetables, and rabbit broth for a second course is the only clunker in the mix. The dumplings are undercooked and a tempura carrot has lost some of its flavor, although the golden crust is a model.

The third course is Spanish mackerel fillet with two potato pancakes and white gazpacho with chorizo. “The only food I’ve had in Boston that’s better than what these folks cook is at L’Espalier,” announces one of the guests.

Amuse-bouches – tiny mouthfuls – punctuate the meal, such as an apple fritter with a crisp outside and springy inside, offered with a shot glass of apple essence and a palate-cleansing spoonful of salty-sweet cucumber jelly over preserved-lemon ice.

A fourth course, called “Herbs & Spices” on the hand-printed menu, includes an unusual trio, beginning with a tablespoon of Greek yogurt topped with rosemary sugar, a buttery cookie with juniper icing, and a bay-leaf gelatin cube, all with vastly different, yet compatible, textures and flavors. “We wanted to pay attention to each flavor – rosemary, juniper, and bay leaf,” says one of the chefs, “in isolation and then unite them.”

The final dessert course includes spiced cardamom bread with orange and lemon rind, ice cream dotted with pieces of preserved bergamot (the citrus that flavors Earl Grey tea), and a warm slice of pumpkin.

After dinner ends, the chefs answer questions about the menu. The two are smart, thoughtful, and quite shy. There’s no denying that what they do, they do for love.

Love+Butter might smack of a certain elite foodiness if the meals weren’t so carefully and cleverly prepared. And the secrecy is fun. Who doesn’t want to give a smart answer to colleagues wondering what you’re doing this weekend or be able to bring a date to a restaurant no one knows about?

Alas, there’s no receipt to prove you were there.

photo of ours, not theirs: