Underground dinner parties add mystery to bored diners' schedules

At Paired, Barbette's Chris Olson (above) might serve guests dishes like citrus-braised goat with barley (below).
Amanda Hankerson

One recent Saturday night, while dining in a northeast Minneapolis storefront, I took a bite of rabbit liver as I watched a mechanical stuffed animal squawk and convulse a few inches from my plate. The grotesque, homemade creature—it looked like a dodo bird with lobster claws—was simultaneously adorable and revolting, a little like eating the internal organs of a cute, fuzzy pet.

I wasn't at David Lynch's version of the Rainforest Cafe, but at the third installment of Paired, a series of underground dinner parties in which a chef partners with an artist and creates a meal inspired by the artist's work. Guests are recruited by email, and those who reserve spots (they're capped at 24) are notified of the event's location—typically an artist's studio—a few days before the dinner. When I explained the concept to one of my friends, she replied, "That sounds like something that would happen in a city a lot bigger and cooler than Minneapolis."

Paired was conceived by chef Chris Olson (he opened Moto-i and now cooks at Barbette) and his artsy pals Brooke Hajinian and Lauren Ignaut, who work in the Guthrie Theater's management office, and Brooke's husband, Peter, an advertising copywriter. The events take place about once a month, with the Hajinians and Ignaut finding the space and the artist and also serving as hosts, while Olson takes care of the multi-course meal and wine pairings. To avoid being perceived as an illegal restaurant, Paired doesn't technically charge money for meals. Instead, they're handled like a quasi-dinner party thrown for friends and friends-of-friends, who each chip in about 50 bucks to help offset costs.

While working with a new artist in a different venue each time presents its share of logistical challenges, the Paired founders insist that that's part of its appeal. "You don't know where you're going, who you'll be eating with, or what the meal will be," Olson says. "The mystery brings interesting people. If you're willing to go somewhere you don't know, you'll be more willing to be an active participant and try new things." After several years line-cooking, Olson says he relishes the freedom of doing whatever he wants—though it comes with a certain amount of pressure. "You're trusting us with your money and your Saturday night," he says.

The first Paired event, which took place last December, started with a four-flight climb up a grungy, concrete stairwell in an old Warehouse District building. I hadn't done anything that clandestine since high school—was this like a rave for grownups? (At least my parents couldn't bust me.) Once inside, the vibe was far less exclusive than your average secret society—no nicknames, passwords, or secret knocks. The local music producer who had volunteered his space offered me and a few other guests a tour of his recording setup, then he took us to the room where dinner was served. Aside from the long banquet tables set with elegant linens and stemware, the space looked like a working artist's loft, not dissimilar to the one Scott Seekins used to inhabit, minus the clutter, self-portraits, and closet full of tattered suits.

St. Paul-based artist Charles Matson Lume had arrived earlier in the day and installed three mosaic-like artworks, including one in which he'd glued dozens of miniature plastic magnifying glasses to the wall to create a pattern of light that looked a bit like swimming sperm. Unlike a typical gallery visit, interacting with the art in this setting offered more opportunity to see how your perceptions of the piece changed over time, and to discuss its merits with the other diners, a diverse group that included everyone from lawyer moms to jug-band performers.

At the second Paired event, Kyle Loven, a puppeteer, projected shadows of intricate paper cutouts to narrate the tale of a journeying man. (He has performed a large-scale version of the piece on the overpass of the Third Avenue bridge.) The most recent Paired event featured artist Asia Ward, who brought her mechanical menagerie of animatronic sculptures—think Walt Disney with a dark side—and demonstrated how the creatures are wired with motors and sensors to move in response to sound and light.

All this, of course, made great fodder for Olson's cooking. At the first event, his menu took a fairly literal approach, playing on Lume's use of pale colors and round or heart-like shapes. The results were somewhat mixed: I loved the roasted garlic and celeriac soup with apple, celery leaf, and crème fraîche, as well as a plate of grilled radicchio whose bitterness was offset with strips of salty prosciutto, aged balsamic, and brown butter. But the roasted pork loin medallion was rather drab, and the dessert course, persimmon sorbet, had an astringent flavor and chalky texture, due, I suspect, to under-ripe fruit.

Olson's second menu reacted to Loven's black-and-white visuals as well as to the emotions the story created. Several dishes—a tasty French onion soup with a Parmesan crisp, haricots verts topped with white tofu dressing and black sesame seeds, and a blackberry crème brûlée—juxtaposed light and dark colors. The familiarity of these dishes reflected the story's allusions to the comforts of home, while the entrée—citrus-braised goat with barley—represented the point in the journey when the character ventured into the chaotic confusion of the big city. The dish certainly sparked lively table conversation—How should we separate the meat from the bones? Was this part of the spine? Do we pick it up and eat it with our hands?—though I'm not sure the resulting gamey bites were a suitable payoff for the effort.

For the third dinner, Olson responded to Ward's creepy plush sculptures by serving dishes that expressed the theme of taking something familiar and making it a little unnerving. Take a cute bunny rabbit...then kill it and eat it for dinner as a cornbread-stuffed loin served with mustard hollandaise and mashed potatoes. Olson cooked the rabbit Boy Scout-style, over a pan of hot coals in a foil-lined cardboard box, and it turned out as well as anything sent out of a restaurant kitchen. (The logistics were less successful with the salad, as the greens, which had been chilled out in the snow, gave new meaning to the term "iceberg lettuce.") For dessert, Olson served a delicate orange soup, a cool, almost medicinal broth with bits of dried fruit and fresh orange segments. While the soup would make an ideal summer refreshment, it seemed an awkward ending for such a cold, blustery night, and it left me longing for its piping-hot cousin, Scandinavian fruktsoppa.

Still, it is impressive that Olson pulled the meal off without a stove, oven, or refrigerator. When cooking at Paired events, he's pretty much limited to small appliances like Crock-Pots and electric skillets, or those with a stand-alone heat source. One time he brought a charcoal grill to the studio, opened a door, and cooked in the hallway. You have to admire a guy who, armed with what amounts to a Wiffle ball and plastic bat, still insists on swinging for the fences.

While uniformity is usually a good thing for a restaurant (at many of them, you can eat the exact same dish, prepared the exact same way, months, if not years, apart), it can also lead to monotony. Paired's idiosyncrasies are precisely its appeal. Olson's menus may have the rough edges of a first draft, but they're blessedly unburdened by the homogenizing force of too much scrutiny—no recipe testing, focus groups, or consultants. Olson's biggest hurdle may be to make sure he's not challenging his guests intellectually at the expense of leaving them happily fed.

If you're only seeking consistently delicious food, admittedly your $50 might be better spent elsewhere. But the overall experience at Paired—the mysterious location, the inspiring art, the social interaction—in my mind makes for a more satisfying evening. The feeling is one of embarking on a shared adventure, sometimes with a spoonful of rabbit liver in one hand and a wine glass in the other. The night's unique, fleeting nature creates the impression that it's something to be savored—and something to talk about long after the fact.

One night, as my tablemates and I discussed German history and looked at some ice-fishing photos passed around on an iPhone, it struck me that Paired was not just a meal but a celebration of the Twin Cities' rich social capital, of our wealth of creative people with interesting ideas. One of the guests, a popular local blogger, summarized the sentiment best when he leaned across the table, as if sharing a secret, and said, "Minneapolis is fucking cool, you guys." 

The next event takes place April 18. For more information, email [email protected].

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