Eight of us, including my mother, descended upon the place Friday night for my birthday (which is today, actually). I had mixed expectations, based on such reviews, user and otherwise, that I had read. I expected a lot of pomp and show, but little substance. Moreover, I expected that the food would play second fiddle to the overall experience. Still, I was intrigued enough by the whole concept and was confident that, at the very least, it would be fodder for conversation.
An additional layer of intrigue stemmed from the fact that this building was once my office, during the first year I was at PlanetOut. I was simply dying to know how the place had changed on the inside. (As it turned out, it was so much changed I could scarcely recognize the place once through the front door.)
Talking of which. As you enter, you check in at the host station and then slip directly into a smallish room with a round bar in the center and deep red, quilted-panel walls. Off to the side is a small hangout room with mirrored walls and a large white bed with chrome trim on it, like a sex club from Logan's Run. Try the blackberry martini.
When the magic seating moment arrives, the doors open with a collective "Opa!" from the staff, and the game is afoot.
The dining hall is stark white, ringed on three sides with large couch-beds all in white with large pillows along the back; the open kitchen is against the remaining wall. Small chrome-and-glass tables perch every six feet or so. Ambient light floods the room in ever-changing tones of magenta, purple, blue and red. Upstairs, a balcony rings the same three sides of the room as the beds below, with the same setup. Lounge music blares.
In the center of the floor were the performers. A scantily-clad man and woman were sitting facing each other lotus position on two pedestals about ten feet apart. Lengths of twine connected their fingers to each other, like a strange game of cat's cradle. Once the room was seated and the servers got started, the blue-wigged hostess cut the strings across the middle.
Settling into your bed zone is a little strange at first, but within five minutes you feel completely at home. It's comfortable and relaxing. I had read in some user reviews that the sheets were dirty or that the beds were wet. I think they must have been talking about later in the evening, when it's a club. Our beds were pristine.
The sensory stimulation combined with the laid-back (literally) seating has a liberating effect, though the alcohol also helps. It's easy to get caught up in conversation with your neighbors. In our case, it even resulted in massages.
Right away we were greeted by our meth-skinny waiter with ratted hair and matching day-glow eye makeup and mesh gloves. He gave us the lowdown: Everyone gets the same thing (well, almost -- more on that later) at the same time. Lucky us, it was aphrodisiac week (now extended through this week), so each dish would feature one aphrodisiac ingredient; each course was preceded with a small printed card that explains the ingredient and its place in history as an aphrodisiac. Cute.
First course was seared scallops with caviar and avocado. While not the most innovative dish, it was rather good. The scallops were seared perfectly and the avocado and caviar went quite well with it and with each other.
For the second course, men and women got different dishes. Men got a carrot soup, whereas women got almond soup. Both were good, but concensus was that the carrot soup was better. It was smooth and bisque-y, lightly creamy with a bright carrot flavor.
The salad course was unremarkable, except that it was linked to the performance. Prior to the salad course, the male performer carried the woman wrapped fully in Saran wrap from table to table. Then, back on the floor, he cut the wrap so it became a slinky dress. Nice piece of sartorialism there. Once she was able to move about, they roamed from table to table, offering grapes on the ends of skewers to the diners. She took the empty skewers and pierced her dress with them. Grapes were the aphrodisiac ingredient in the salad. Then the trapeze show began.
The main course was probably the most interesting, and had the most mixed opinion: A large (!) piece of filet just barely seared, served with a fennel foam and chocolate sauce. The beef was too big and way too rare for me, but the flavor combination with the fennel foam and chocolate sauce was a revelation! I would so have loved it if it were a nice piece of flank steak instead. Between courses, a massage therapist came around and offered 15-minute massages for $15. I partook.
Dessert was a fairly predictable affair, a somewhat too large chocolate fondant cake that was good enough but a little too runny for my tastes. As we were licking the last of the chocolate off our plates and settling up the bill, the male performer was downstairs sticking flower petals and feathers on the female with honey.
The chef made some smart choices. The flavor profiles in the dishes were big, bright and screamed of their aphrodisiac ingredients. The theme was well carried out through the entire meal, and the flavors were strong enough to compete with the visual and auditory overstimulus of the restaurant. Also, as my friend Nick sagely pointed out, none of the dishes was terribly temperature-sensitive.
It doesn't come cheap. The prix fixe for dinner is $70, but at the end of the day we ran a bill of $140 per person. Of course, that includes cocktails at the bar and (I think) six bottles of wine, plus tax and tip. But for sheer entertainment value, and considering we were there for more then four hours, it's money well spent.
Some tips: First, request the balcony. Second, bring the party. The eight of us were clearly having a much better time than the individual couples around us. Though, again, the alcohol might have had something to do with that.
It's a unique experience. My mother was wondering how she could explain the place to her colleagues back in San Diego, who would have no earthly concept of such a thing. I said, simple:
"You know when that woman in the Saran dress feeds you grapes on a skewer, then pierces her dress with the skewer? It's like that."
"You know when some guy glues flower petals and feathers on a half-naked lady with honey while you get a massage? It's like that."
I mean, seriously. What's so confusing about that?
657 Harrison St (at Hawthorne)
Related: Many thanks to Jean at NOTCOT for picking this post up (and for the belated b-day wishes!).