The Underground Kitchen: La Vie En Rose

The Underground Kitchen story begins with a fateful relocation. Some years ago, Micheal Sparks and his partner made the move from the Big Apple to the River City's Museum District. Micheal is a fashion designer and creative consultant by trade, but his love and knack for food and drink are a family tradition, inspired and cultivated by a childhood of home-cooked memories. Richmond was a great fit for the pair, but they immediately began missing their close-knit NYC community. An extrovert with an uncanny ability to bring people together, Micheal's local circles quickly grew. After routinely breaking bread with new neighbors, dinners became more elaborate—and competitive—with Micheal and Co. inviting outside chef pros to take the helm each night.

Now, if there’s a city that loves some good food and drink, it’s RVA. As requests flooded in for a (literal) seat at the table, Micheal realized his casual neighborhood dinners could become something much more. He set out to share this community with cities and chefs beyond Richmond. And so, the Underground Kitchen was born—a movement that is:

“…unique, in the truest sense of the word. UGK, as it has come to be known by its foodie cult following, is a supper club that gives members access to a one night only, 5-7 course gourmet meal prepared by an amazing chef in an undisclosed location. The chefs are asked to prepare food that pushes them to the limits of their culinary creativity, and to refrain from preparing the staple items on their restaurant menus. Each event has a theme that is intricately woven through the menu and atmosphere. Locations vary from art studios, to local restaurants, to farms, to anywhere else with a venue suited to UGK’s holistic vision. The venues emphasize the themes, and generate dialogue about food sources, culinary preparation, and eating. An understanding of food, as an economy, profession, and source of enjoyment is one of the founding principles of UGK.”
The Underground Kitchen

Our UGK experience began a week ago under a signature veil of secrecy—location revealed last minute, and menu kept mum until we walked though the door. As we climbed the stairs into Charlottesville's Water Street restaurant, we were greeted with our first clue for the direction of the evening by a large blackboard welcoming us to “La Vie en Rose". Translation — life in pink, or life through rosy (pink) glasses. A nod to both Valentine’s Day and famed French singer Édith Piaf’s signature song, the theme and its inspiration was further explained by Chef Brice Cunningham, a native Frenchman who has called Cville home for many years. Turns out, included in each course was an ingredient commonly regarded as an aphrodisiac. Well played, Chef—well played.

That must be Nigel with the brie.  Find us someone who doesn't enjoy bread and cheese and we'll find you a liar. The two have been embedded in global food history for centuries, and for good reason. Chef Cunningham and the UGK team began the evening with passed hors d'oeuvres of baguette crostini and Vermont brie with a touch of pear jam. The flavors and textures of this particular crostini + brie + jam marriage interacted in a way that reminded us of the Rice Krispie treats of our youth. Unexpected? Yes. Awesome? Also yes. Well-paired to the setting and the hors d'oeuvre was a fresh and lively non-vintage Juvé Y Camps Pinot Noir Rosé Brut. Our palates primed, we settled in by the bar and admired Water St.'s recently renovated space, appreciating the largely unadorned style that pays attention to a few distinctive, choice details—custom wine bottle shaded pendant lights, and unique roller coaster Victorian-esque booths.

Under the sea. Caviar is always a crowd pleaser, elevating the flavor of dishes it accompanies and inflating the self worth of those who ingest it. (Who doesn't occasionally enjoy wielding a mother-of-pearl spoon like some sort of election-meddling, egomaniacal Russian oligarch?) However, not until UGK did we experience it camouflaged within a cream of oyster soup. Subtle and light, the velouté consisted of an oyster and cream emulsion that was delightfully more sweet than salty at first taste. The added salinity and texture of the caviar nicely completed the emulsion and made for an interesting pairing contrast to the lean and bright 2015 Laforêt Pinot Noir from Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin. The initial menu design actually included Drouhin's white burgundy, though a last minute switch by the distributor left Cunningham and the UGK team thinking quickly on their feet and changing course to the Pinot. All things considered, an admirable pivot.

In avocado we trust / return of the crostini. First things first—we're proudly aboard the avo-toast train. Pictured right, our beloved avocado on an Albemarle Baking Co. toasted baguette crostini, topped with pine nuts, fresh greens, and a balsamic reduction. While a departure from our aforementioned musings on bread and cheese, it was a delicious interplay of acid and fat, salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth, and an ideal palate gear shift between the first and third courses. Similar to the first course, an unexpected wine delivery alteration caused redirection on the pairing here, though pleasantly so with a limestone-grown, steel-fermented 2015 Viognier from Le Paradou in France's southern Rhône.

Fields of green. Course number three presented a turn to the light and refreshing side of the spectrum—mixed field greens, pomegranate seeds, and house-made vinaigrette—before we got down to more decadent business. A no-frills palate cleanser with a satisfying crunch, the greens were accompanied by an expressive, cool climate 2015 Pinot Noir from Viña Leyda in Chile’s coastally-situated Leyda Valley. While not our favorite paring of the night, we’re interested to revisit this wine to see how it changes over time in glass. Noticeably reductive throughout the course, it only just started to show its true colors as we readied ourselves for the main event. C’est la vie. We will see you again, Leyda, don’t you worry.

The main event. As a Frenchman by both birth and culinary proclivity (is it legal for a Frenchman to prescribe any differently?), we fully expected Cunningham to know his way around a rack of lamb. Hot damn, our high hopes were met by a perfectly executed, medium rare trio of chops, accompanied by root vegetables and honey jus. Presented sans much stylistic embellishment, this course was a lesson in the power of quality ingredients prepared by a skilled hand. We appreciated the approach of substance over flourish, and cleaned our plates accordingly. Not to be overlooked, the dark fruited, Syrah/Grenache-based 2014 Chateau Puech-Haut Pic Saint-Loup "La Closerie du Pic" from Languedoc, played well with the rich flavor combination in front of us.

Cocoa me crazy. Capping the evening was a miniaturized chocolate molten cake served à la mode with raspberry coulis. The dessert satisfied our sweet tooth(s) without sending us over the edge into Thanksgiving sweatpants, self loathing territory. Appropriately paired was a 2002 late bottled port from Smith Woodhouse.

A note on wine: While it's exciting to attend dinners that pair precious wines beyond reach and/or budget, it's fun when you have an actual shot at taking home the experience from the table. This brings us to the UGK bottles—at the end of the night, Micheal announced that all were available for purchase though Richmond-based Looking over the provided price list, we were struck by the affordability—most in the $13 - $16 range, and all sub $35. As a crew with a penchant for cracking more than a few bottles each week, P+K is always on the hunt for quality wines that punch above their price weight class (have you met our friend, Austria?). Not only did these wines fit the bill, but the apparent, intentional accessibility of the lineup was appropriate punctuation for the evening: that is, food & drink = community at UGK, and discoveries made underground should be shared above.

FinAs was Micheal's founding hope and intention, our biggest takeaway from the evening was this sense of community that UGK evoked. From dinner conversations with our tablemates about travel, family, the state of global affairs, and whether or not Virginia can be considered “the South” (conclusion = yes, duh), to discussions of UGK’s support of culinary scholarships and training for underprivileged students, we left Water St. with a deep and renewed appreciation for breaking bread with neighbors and (former) strangers. Moreover, we left feeling inspired by the tight-knit and ever supportive soul of the foodie movement. In our fast-paced world of social media, mobile phones and online living, it’s not always easy or convenient to take a few hours to meet and truly get to know new people—we are thankful to UGK for pulling us from our comfort zones and designing a delicious setting to do just that. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for UGK and its team, a team that recently added a second Sparks to its roster—Micheal's niece, Sydney. A passion rooted in family tradition has come full circle.

Bring it on home. Gift bags! A wonderful, handheld takeaway that included Shenandoah Joe's Eye-Opener coffee blend, the latest issue of Charlottesville Wine & Country, sugar cookies from Paradox Pastry, and a box of chocolates from Richmond-based For the Love of Chocolate.

In full disclosure, the kind folks at UGK extended complimentary tickets to Pen + Knife to experience their unique concept. We assure you this in no way shaded our recounting of the experience if it had sucked, so be it, we would relay accordingly.

Want more? Check out The Piedmont Virginian's coverage of La Vie en Rose here!
Ready to experience your own UGK event? Register here.