Located in Chicago’s west side is a former convent towering three stories above Racine Avenue. I noticed white paint along the arched windows flaking away as I soaked up the building’s architectural detail. Camouflaged by ivy spilling over a brick wall surrounding the space, the structure could be easily missed by anyone passing by.
Along with 15 other food and travel writers, I was hosted by Verizon Wireless as part of a Midwest Savvy Gourmets event. Earlier in the day, we attended informational sessions about food, travel and technology. Jaden, author of Steamy Kitchen, also presented about her experiences with transforming a humble blog into a brand.
And here we were, disembarking a motor coach, with no idea of what lay in store behind the ivy covered walls.
“This is where they are taking us to dinner?” I asked Jessie (aka Cake Spy) with dismay. She responded with the same deer-in-the-headlights look. Our hosts were secretive about our dining location until we arrived. I expected the usual fancy restaurant fare or creative roof-top destination. An old convent was completely off my radar and scored major coolness points.
We were guided along a narrow path to the main dining area which was actually the basement of the convent. To my left was an expansive grassy lawn with mismatched chairs and white lights strung casually between a few trees. Sprawling raspberry bushes and clusters of herbs dotted along the edge of the manicured grass. Old bowling balls lined-up to form a flower bed along a brick wall. Inside, a long picnic table was draped with a black tablecloth and clipped raspberry branches functioned as centerpieces. Each place along the rows of wooden benches was set with simple flatware and a folded dish towel.
The evening’s festivities began with an introduction by Chef Efrain Cuevas, founder of Clandestino Dining. His team was responsible for preparing the meal. “Our menu for tonight will be a series of courses inspired by the summer harvest. The theme throughout will focus on grilled meats and seasonal vegetables,” he said. We started with a mint strawberry julep cocktail and a vegetarian cauliflower ceviche on a tostada.
Chef Efrain is the creator of an underground supper club where guests are not informed of where or what they will be eating until the day before the scheduled dining time. “My focus is on sourcing locally, cooking seasonally, and collaborating with local artists,” he said as roasted corn on the cob on wooden skewers was passed around. The golden kernels were coated in mayonnaise and parmesan cheese with a sprinkling chili pepper. He further explained that serving interesting food in unique places helps to merry his three goals together into a single cohesive dining experience.
The main portion of the meal was a long and elaborate ordeal. Each course was paired with beers produced by Two Brothers Brewing Company. The first item to arrive was a skewer of three grilled shrimp on a bed of bean sprouts and shredded radishes. A cluster of watermelon beets on the side anchored the earthy tones of the dish. Next were several spears of tender asparagus, micro-greens and cubes of local cheeses. After a long pause, the third course arrived. Ribbons of marinated skirt steak were piled in the centers of two hand-made tortillas. A slice of avocado on top added a velvety texture to the flavorful meat.
“This is a marathon not a sprint,” I told myself as we waited for the remaining two courses to arrive. I was reaching the limits of consumption and sleep deprivation was setting in. (I took a 5 am flight to be in Chicago for the event.) It was close to 11 pm when the roasted Cornish hen and sautéed greens were served; followed by berry shortcake with vanilla ice cream. One last fork full of flaky biscuit soaked in berry juices and I was finished.
The winds began to pick-up and thunder rumbled – signaling it was time to head back to the hotel, slip into a pair of shorts with a generous elastic waistband and settle into food coma bliss.