We went to Hell, and it was delicious
So our friend Dante needed help locating his girlfriend ...
So we always said we wanted to spend winter somewhere warmer ...
But really, it's this: JJ Gonson, the creative culinary genius behind our amazing Halloween feast, was staging Dante's Inferno in ten courses, with help from people at the ART's Donkey Show (which is exactly how Shakespeare would have done A Midsummer Night's Dream if he'd known about disco balls).
How could we not go?
The Donkey Show's dancefloor was fitted out with round, eight-seater tables, and we were assigned seats at one. We chatted with our new dining companions, drank a little water, nibbled on bread rolls. And then we looked at the evening's menu and realized: We were in Limbo.
In which case, Limbo is not such a bad place to be. Our fellow diners included a music teacher, two (count 'em!) recording studio owners, and an artist who makes very cool plates. And on top of that, the bread was from Clear Flour.
And then the room darkened and a spotlight fell on our MC for the evening.
He explained that we were entering the second circle of Hell: Lust. And suddenly a couple dressed in black began to dance a passionate tango, while our waitstaff, roses clenched between their teeth, hissed and moaned and served the next course.
Some people think of Lust as deep decadence: chocolate fudge cake, or butter-drenched steak. But this dish defined Lust for me: a fresh Duxbury oyster in a shot glass with a green apple mignonette, the soft texture and earthy, briny taste of the oyster dancing its own tango with the sharp, bright taste of the apple.
We were just starting to understand how integral the waitstaff were to the show. Throughout the night, they changed outfits and personas, becoming demons in each subsequent level of Hell.
As we descended to Gluttony, the MC brought out Cerberus, the three-headed dog, for "an eating contest ... with himself!"
While Cerberus bayed and snarled over an enormous bowl of beans, our suddenly sullen waitstaff started slopping our own portions into plastic(!) bowls, topping the beans with a pork rib, and handing out oversized utensils.
The beans were sweet and lovely and exactly what beans should be. The pork was finished with an apple cider glaze. It was the perfect dish for Gluttony, because I could have eaten nothing else for the rest of the night.
But we were moving to the next circle: Avarice. The MC hosted a game show called "Hoard or Squander?" and the waitstaff became his lovely assistants.
One of the guys from our table was pulled onstage to play; he managed to squander away a Ferrari, was cheated out of eternal happiness, and ended up with a bowl of mud.
But the food made up for it: a fantastic flan, made with turnip — yes, turnip — and maple syrup, and served with a Taza chocolate sauce and a side of celeriac mash. The textures and flavors were surprising and unusual and went together perfectly: hoarding with the subtleness of the celeriac, squandering with bold, rich sweetness.
And then things started to get ugly.
See, the wait-demons, now wearing grunge flannel, were rocking out to Chris De Burgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman", which seemed appropriate — when the song screeched to halt and was replaced by this abomination.
Ohh, the demons were mad. Wrathful, even. Wailing in anger, they slammed down sturdy mugs of kale salad in front of each diner.
Their wrath was our gain, though; the slightly bitter kale was fantastic, and perfectly balanced with the "grapes of wrath" dressing, which was light and sweet. The Boy thought this was the best dish of the evening.
Next up: Heresy, illustrated theatrically by three thigh-high-boot-clad nuns performing a bump-and-grind routine, and culinarily by a lovely lobster salad, sandwiched between puff pastry, and finished with a sauce of pumpkin and chili.
I confess that I didn't understand what was heretical about this combination. But I also didn't care.
By the way, check out the cool purple shadow on the above shot. As with any good theatrical performance, lighting was an integral part of this experience. Some courses had bright white lights; for others, the room was appropriately dark, or bathed in red. It made photography a challenge, but greatly enhanced the atmosphere.
And then ... Violence.
Imagine this beautiful but terrifying song, being lip-synched by this crazed creature, who is crushing beets and smearing the scarlet flesh all over his body:
And then the demons serve blood-red goblets of fresh sauerkraut, topped off with chilled beet juice, using Gustav Doré's illustration of the Violent, tortured in the Rain of Fire as placemats.
Well, that was certainly a palate-cleanser.
Time for a little levity, in the shape of Fraud. This was my favorite: the demon-staff, sporting ridiculous fake mustaches and equally fake French accents, announced the arrival of the next course: beef Wellington. An oversized carving knife was brandished; a silver serving-dish was brought out in triumph; and with cries of "le beeef Wellingtohn! Ahhh, le beeeef Wellingtohn," the demons presented us with ...
Mind you, it was lovely: the (local) tofu was creamy, the mushroom gravy was rich and deep, and the sprouts and turnip and potatoes were delicious. And every now and then, a demon would lean over and ask, "'Ow eez the beeef Wellingtohn, madame?"
And then we reached the final circle of Hell: Treason. I suspect Dante had his own reasons for finding this the most sinful sin of all.
JJ Gonson is known for being passionate about locally sourced produce, organic ingredients, the Slow Food movement and sustainability. So it's not surprising that for her, treachery = junky fast food.
The dish at level nine was Beelzebub's Beelzeburger. Of course, the bun was fresh and the beef was fantastic, juicy and perfectly seasoned. And it came in a bag bearing a quote from Sally Fallon.
While we ate, our demons danced themselves crazy to an awful, awful song. DO NOT CLICK THIS LINK. Just don't.
Oh yeah, and then Satan appeared.
And as we beheld this spectacle, our mouths full of bread and meat, JJ's husband began to play heavenly sitar while an acrobatic angel indicated the way of our ascent.
And then we had dessert.
A light, fluffy meringue on a pool of crème anglaise, finished with a dollop of intensely fruity, memories-of-summer preserves.
We emerged dazed, and not just because we'd eaten so much. The entire event — the food, the detail of the presentation, the theatrical interludes, the perfect pitch of the in-character waitstaff — everything came together seamlessly and gracefully for an unforgettable night.
I can't imagine how much work went into making it happen. And I hope I get to experience something like it again.