Saturday, September 27, 2014

Secret Dining with Illumineati

Can you imagine getting an exclusive invitation to join a secret dining society whose only goal is to bring people, chefs, wines and an evening of surprises together.  Well, in Tampa, Florida that is happening now (Shhhhhh!).  If you can keep a secret I can tell you more....

I read a great article recently by Meaghan Habuda about this awesome group of three friends who are entreprenuers in the restaurant and marketing fields who came up with the idea for..... wait for it.......
Illumineati logo by Jimmy Breen
Illumineati is the brain child off Jimmy Breem, Johnny Ciani and Reuben Pressman.  Together they wanted to further enlighten the Tampa area to a fast-becoming-trend in the foodie world of underground supper clubs and pop-up restaurant dining.
Founders Johnny, Jimmy, Reuben and myself (and a photobomber) all smiles after the inaugural dinner
We have seen several pop-ups in Tampa such as Jeannie Pierola's KitchenBar a couple of years ago who now owns Edison Food Drink Lab.  Then there was the launch of the Epicurean Hotel's main restaurant Elevage at a pop-up that was done at Side Berns last year (check out my earlier blog post all about it here).  We have seen fantastic pop-up farm to fork dinners at the King Family Ranch by AJ Latteri of Loft 5 (check out my previous blog post about it here.)  There have been a couple of groups that have come and gone with ideas of bringing people together to dine and drink and expose chefs and breweries to new groups of foodie friends.  Datz owners Suzanne and Roger Perry have long been participating in louring us happy foodies into their restaurants and home for tasting events that we lavishly enjoyed the last few years as one of many examples.

Illumineati feels different than these previously wonderful dinners and in a very cool way!   Illumineati is invitation only and even then you might not get into the next dinner depending on space and date.  You won't know where it will be until two days before, you won't know the chef or the menu, and you won't even know who else will be dining with you that night.  The vibe in the room is very relaxed and made conversation easy and interesting.  There was much laughter, applause for the chef and his team and as many smiles going around the room as there was wine being poured.  

We delighted in the gorgeous view of the water from the front porch of our very gracious hosts.  We were greeted by bartender Chris Marsicano of Red Dwarf Hospitality who was enjoying making our cocktail hour memorable.  We were treated to champagne or even better by the signature starter drink "One For Tucker" which was named by Illumineati co-founder Ciani in memory of a dear friend who had passed away.  Ingredients included Angel's Envy Bourbon, orange blossom honey water, lemon juice, lavender and bitters. It was divine!!!  

We mingled with other guests (sorry I cannot reveal my fellow club members, but safe to say they were amazing locals who enjoy great food, wine, restaurants, art, culture and were lucky enough to be welcomed by the club founders early on).

We sat at a long communal table for twenty and then came the introductions.  Our chef turned out to be David Benstock of Il Ritorno restaurant which was an incredibly good sign!   The Chef and his team along with our wine expert for the night introduced us to the nine course meal and pairings we were about to indulge in.  

The menu looked incredible.... the food was even more so.... check out the beautiful job that co-founder Jimmy Breen did on designing this menu that the Chef created!  

The wines poured with each course were superbly paired and they were provided by Pernod Picard.

I hope you are hungry.....
Amuse Bouche of Oysters and Pancetta
After the oyster amuse bouche appetizer, we began with a tuna tartare, bone marrow, watermelon relish, toasted ciabatta and meyer lemon

Charred octopus, smoked potato crema, kalamata olives, confit tomatoes and capers.

Pan seared foie gras with pear jam, pickled beech mushrooms, onion caramel, and mustard greens.

 Ricotta gnocchi with rabbit bolognese, roasted shishito peppers, and faithful farms herbs.

Tagliatelle pasta, smoked venison and pear ragu, and calabrese chilis.

Seared scallop,crispy guanciale, smoked corn and pickled ramps.

A Chetta duo: lamb bell, pork belly, and spiced quince puree.

And finally a pistachio semifredo with champagne peach compote, caramel pistachios and a 10 year aged balsalmic.

Creative Loafing's Meaghan Bahuda who wrote the original article that piqued my interest also recently posted her follow-up article on her take on our amazing evening.  You can check out her work and great details on our inaugural dinner here.  

 Co-Founder Jimmy Breen said, "People will be able to attend the dinners through a referral system.  During each dinner, current members will fill out a card with contact information for those they think might be interested in the next one."  Locals without an "in" must email Illumineati via their website and they basically undergo a one-question interview.  "It's what you bring to the table," says co-founder Pressman.  "You can answer it in any way you can think of."  If the trio of founders like your answer, you become a member.  You may not initially make it in, but there may be a wait list that you can snag tickets last minute like I was fortunate enough to.  Now... which of my foodie friends wants to be referred at a future amazing and top-secret dinner?