A fizzy alchemy can occur when you gather unfamiliar faces around a table of food and wine. You might catch yourself smiling. Is this really happening …? Are we becoming … friends? And maybe it’s for just one night, but on this night the dinner is divine and the conversation crackles. Dept of Culture, chef Ayo Balogun’s 16-seat restaurant in Bed-Stuy, where he puts on a four-course tasting menu showcasing the north-central Nigerian cooking of his youth, conjures the kind of magic that you might only discover at a dinner party. The first time I went, last year, was on a triple date — old friends meeting new lovers — and ever since, I’ve been looking for other places that might capture the same frisson.
So this Valentine’s Day, I convinced my boyfriend to spend it with strangers. I had learned of Friend of a Friend Collective, a site that organizes random groups of people to eat together in “a modern twist on the community table.” Caitlin Moore, a 29-year-old doctoral student in clinical psychology at LIU Brooklyn, says she was interested in “creating a space where people could come together from different walks of life.” Rather than organize something around an activity, she thought the simplicity of dinner and the chance to meet new people would be enough of a spark. It’s not about professional networking or romance, but it’s also not not about those things. There’s a simple application process, and, pending approval, an open invitation to join one of the many meals she sets up (there’s a popular monthly gathering at Lilia). There are 2,000 people and counting on the list, and there have been 150 meals, which are generally small affairs of about four to eight people. Moore doesn’t attend, so as to maintain the purity of the dynamic. This is a long way of describing how we joined a table for seven at Pep’s on Grand in Little Italy.
I wouldn’t recommend the food at Pep’s on Grand. My lasagna was gummy and my boyfriend’s bucatini was as watery as a Slip ’N’ Slide. We didn’t try anyone else’s food (we weren’t “there” yet), but nobody commented on their own meals, perhaps out of politeness. Since there was no designated master of ceremonies, we had to do it ourselves — halting pauses and all. If this sounds like your personal hell, I would say it builds character! One guy had done this a few times, and he was the most confident in talking about his dog and himself. But slowly, surely, others found their footing. (I’m sure the drinks helped.) I could feel the contours of the group dynamic forming and after the usual formalities (names, jobs, signs), I could better understand how our awkwardness came from a sense of mutual vulnerability — people just trying to connect.
Dinner Party, just south of Fort Greene Park, attempts to channel a similar energy, albeit on a mellower cadence. The restaurant is cozy (yes, small), with just two large tables inside. The aesthetic is antiquecore, and the vibes are tenderqueer — think Doc Martens and blue eye shadow. My boyfriend was put off. Personally, I thought it was sweet. The table setting has a worn homeyness: yellow cloth napkins, water glasses etched with leaves, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a brass vase on top of a large doily spread out across the table. At any moment you expect Emily Bode to run inside and turn the antique lace into a shirt.
The restaurant is good at conjuring the atmosphere of a dinner party even if it isn’t one. While the tables are communal, it seemed people stuck to the groups with whom they made reservations: Four of us had come for brunch, the menu for which was handwritten on paper with a wash of green watercolor. There’s a list of items — grilled polenta sourdough bread, a leafy salad, stracciatella with salty punches of cured olive, and softly scrambled eggs with spring onions — but it’s a bit of a fake-out. I had hoped each of these things would arrive on the table in a large bounty we would pass around ourselves — a big wooden bowl of salad, a hunk of bread — much like the references surrounding us, such as a copy of MFK Fisher’s Provence, 1970 or the bright-blue still-life painting of a table with a cornucopia of food. Instead, everything arrived on individual plates. Setting aside my own expectations, though, the price ($25) was fair and the food remarkably good. “Someone here knows how to grocery shop,” said my friend Isabel.
All of this leads us back to Dept of Culture, this time as a twosome with my friend Kovie. We were the first to show up for our 6 p.m. reservation and took our seats at the head of the 12-seat rectangular oak table in the center of the restaurant. They’ll serve Chenin Blanc on the house, but you can also bring your own bottles. Chef Balogun wouldn’t appear until 20 minutes later, but no matter; we knew the drill and cracked open some Primitivo we’d brought, and began chatting with our new friends, Jennifer and Aderonke, sitting next to us, who after a glass became Jenn and Ronke.
Dept of Culture was already doing its job of bringing people together, which, unfortunately for Balogun, meant he was in for some ribbing from the three Nigerian women in the corner. When the first course landed, a goat pepper soup, Ronke burst into laughter. “She knows why,” she said, gesturing toward Kovie.
“It’s too small!” said Kovie.
“This is like the portion I would give my mom to taste,” added Jenn.
About half a cup of soup was in the divot of a bowl with a brim as wide as a fedora. We laughed and tasted. Small, but mighty. The goat meat broke apart tenderly under the spoon and the first sip of broth delivered a warm kick into our nostrils from the rodo peppers — a heat that rose and then settled into pleasure. Maybe it could have been spicier, but this meal was, as Balogun explained, inspired by the regionalism of his native Kwara State in north-central Nigeria. He believes in the specificity of his cooking, and with that, the belief that food may be one of the most powerful forms of ambassadorship.
Before each course, the waiter turns down the record player and Balogun stands near the door waiting for our attention. He has the geniality of a popular college professor, and he delivers personal anecdotes alongside each course. As the second dish descended on the table, he raised his hands up a bit: “I used to do it like this,” he said, about to clap, “and then I saw The Menu.”
We looked down at our plates: This was asaro, a porridge made of sweet potato and white yams with smoked shrimp and crayfish, which he described as something he “properly hated as a schoolboy.” The starches had broken down so that the outside was sticky while retaining a toothsome chew. Then came the “old-people food,” layers of pounded yam with smoked fish and efo egusi — a spinach stew — rich with a slight bitterness from the fermented melon seeds. “It’s a healthier version,” Ronke noted, because there wasn’t the traditional slick of palm oil you might see pooling on top. I could have devoured heaping bowls of everything and imagined another world where a Crock-Pot sat in the middle of the table and we just had a ladle and our appetites: big, big conviviality.
For dessert, we had a plantain sliced lengthwise and lacquered with caramel with a side of vanilla ice cream — a little underwhelming. As we ate, Balogun discussed some of his most frequently asked questions, particularly: Why this format? “How do you capture the warmth of a people?” he said. “What we are trying to do is see how people from my part of the country would entertain their guests. When the food is served with dignity, it can be served anywhere.”
Outside, Balogun said good-bye to the customers. People from the next seating were overlapping with us. Kovie, Jenn, and Ronke engaged Balogun in some healthy debate about the diverse regionalism of their food, and he quoted a Yoruba proverb: “If you never went to another man’s farm, you’d say your father’s is the largest.” Ronke nodded. “Okay, I have one more piece of feedback,” she said. “I’m starving!” “It’s a tasting menu!” Balogun laughed before heading back in.
As for us, we went around the corner to one of my neighborhood standbys, Macosa Trattoria, for some pasta and wine to keep the dinner party going.