Back to Hell ONCE more
How about if the food was really good?
And thus we found ourselves once again traveling through Dante's nine circles at a re-staging of last year's ONCE in Hell, with players from the A.R.T. providing the theatrics and — more importantly — JJ Gonson and the Cuisine En Locale pirates in the kitchen.
Many of the elements, both food and performance-wise, were close to last year's production, with a few small tweaks and, in some cases, major redesigns.
The space used the same layout, with one big improvement: where last year the food prep happened in a separate space away from the action, this time the kitchen was tucked along the back wall.
It seems like a cramped area from which to feed more than 100 people, but JJ does amazing things from the teeny kitchen at the regular ONCE dining space. It was nice to be able to watch her crew work.
Meanwhile, Virgil moved from table to table, warning us to prepare for the journey ahead.
Last year's limbo was bread and water and zombie-like waiters; this year, the servers were stuck in an endless repeating loop of fake cheer, while a singer gave us "The Girl from Ipanema" over and over and over ...
And then we started our descent. First floor: Lust, again an oyster shooter in a sharp apple mignonette. Lucifer stopped by to get us in the mood.
Next up, Gluttony. As with last year, it was beans (scented with allspice, perhaps?) plus juicy two-hander ribs, and also chicken feet.
This was all served in paper bowls, which at first seemed wasteful. But after encouraging us to take second helpings of everything, the server-demons brought out a trash cart and started throwing plates, beans, ribs and anything else into it.
Meanwhile, Lucifer was introducing Cerberus. But where was the beast?
Oh. Inside the trash cart. Joyously smearing itself in beans and glitter.
Once the last of the beans had been cleaned up, we continued the descent to Avarice. As with last year's ONCE in Hell, the game show was Squander or Hoard?
This year's dish was simple and perfect.
Fresh corn polenta, full of end-of-summer flavor, and apple sauce, rich pink in color, sweet and refreshing. It's the dish that stands out most, and the one I keep thinking back to.
Next up: Wrath. The angry salad was this year enhanced with freshly sprouted mung beans:
And this was one of the few places where the theatrical component didn't quite work.
Last year's Wrath saw the demons whipped up in an unrestrained fury; this year, we listened to The Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me" while Lucifer slouched and sighed and complained about being misunderstood.
This wasn't Wrath. It was Mope.
Though maybe that's more frightening.
And then we reached Heresy. Last year that meant raunchy nuns; this year, Lucifer, as the leader of a religious cult, decided it was time for us to shuffle off this mortal coil and handed out poison.
(Okay, it was actually a light lobster salad with puff pastry coffins. Though as The Boy has a seafood allergy, it was pretty realistic for him.)
Lucifer kept encouraging us to eat. "There are no convulsions with this one." And then the waitstaff all died.
Most of them recovered quickly, except for one girl who stayed down for a long time, unmoving.
But somehow, more disturbing was the behavior of some diners who started taking photos with her: Hey, look! I'm with a dead body!
Yeah, I know it wasn't real. But it still felt inappropriate and, well, rude.
It got my gander up just in time for Violence. Hooray! I was hoping for a repeat of last year: the lovely Jen's refreshing and pure beet soup and the eerie, terrifying demon's song.
The soup we got, and it was just what I'd wished for.
It should have been a beautiful moment. But for me, it was marred by the fact that half the audience believed it was a comedy piece. Whether they weren't listening to the lyrics, or weren't making the connection, I can't say. But they laughed. They thought it was funny.
Maybe theirs are the houses to stay away from.
Next was Fraud, which began with a TV chat show-style interview that graphically described how foie gras is made (somewhat lecture-y, I thought) and ended with faux gras, whose provenance we could not guess. Potato? Cream cheese?
JJ, a little help here?
And then we reached Treachery. As with last year's ONCE in Hell, this course centered on the evils of corporate junk food. Which meant — oh yay! — we got the most annoying song in the world again.
The menu listed the dish for Treachery as "chicken hand pie." Chicken-hand pie? Hardly likely. Chicken hand-pie? Well, almost:
The small but perfectly formed pasty (as my people call it) came in a bag with a disturbing Mad Libs game; you can see that, and the entire menu, over at the Lovely Locavore Ladies blog.
And then an angel appeared.
And we all went to heaven.
And lo, there was pumpkin cheesecake.