There was plenty to fix people’s attention as the Mosquito Supper Club got underway one recent Sunday evening at the Tigermen Den, an offbeat events space in the Bywater.
A soundtrack of Cajun music played in the background, and the antique ambiance of bare cypress and lace curtains around this 1830s-era corner building was a conversation starter in its own right. An ice chest of wine, beer and mason jar cocktails sat beside a blackboard for people to keep an honor system tally, and there were introductions to be made between the strangers who would share a pair of long tables and a multi-course dinner.
Still, when Effie Michot began ferrying cast-iron skillets of seafood gumbo from the kitchen, the chatter quickly fell away and the two dozen people assembled for the evening started working together, passing bowls around and ladling out the first course.
Dinner is served family style at the Mosquito Supper Club, though that term means something a little different for Melissa Martin, a longtime New Orleans restaurant chef who started the monthly dining event with Michot this spring.
“When I plan a menu, I try to imagine what the table looked like at my grandmother’s house on the bayou,” said Martin, who grew up in the Terrebonne Parish fishing village of Chauvin. “These are all my family’s recipes, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to cook like this and build that kind of experience for people.”
The Mosquito Supper Club unfolds as a curated evening for its patrons, a highly personal exercise for its chef and an altogether different experience from a conventional restaurant meal or even the typical pop-up concept. But it is on par for a style of dining that’s getting new attention in New Orleans. Sometimes called dinner clubs or just private dining events, they draw from elements of social function, grassroots business start-up and dinner on the town.
The best known example in New Orleans comes from Dinner Lab, a company that started here in 2012 and has quickly expanded to 19 other cities around the country. Pay a fee to become a member (membership opens and closes periodically, and is currently open in New Orleans) and you’re invited to attend an ever-evolving schedule of dinners, prepared by a stable of up-and-coming chefs and hosted in unconventional locations around town.
Others have emerged more recently. Mosquito Supper Club is open to anyone who snags a reservation on its website. The same goes for the PDR — restaurant industry parlance for “private dining room” — another ongoing dining event started this spring by Rita Bernhardt and her boyfriend Will Barial. They host the PDR dinners each week, setting a table for a dozen people in the dining room of their shotgun apartment in the Treme.
If Mosquito Supper Club events feel like family meals, the PDR is like a dinner party with table service. At a recent edition, guests plucked at platters of charcuterie and cheese as a preliminary course, while Barial filled glasses with their own BYOB wines and helped Bernhardt serve a five-course dinner, from hand-made tagliatelle with duck confit to goat cheese cheesecake doused with fried Nilla Wafers.
Bernhardt, a native of Portland, Oregon, moved to New Orleans in 2011 to pursue a culinary career and most recently worked at John Besh’s flagship Restaurant August. She sees the PDR as a way to build a culinary career on her own terms.
“I was ready to do something different on my own, but I’m still pretty young, and opening a restaurant would be a huge step,” said Bernhardt, who is 24. “Unless you have a really strong business case or someone behind you, it’s really hard to get the money to do that.”
In the meantime, she’s found the dinner club approach allows her to build her skills in and out of the kitchen.
“I’m involved in every step. I buy the food. I break it down and prep it. I plate it,” she said. “And you get to really interact with your guests. Sometimes people start restaurants and all their experience is in the kitchen. They don’t have much front-of-the-house experience.”
Front of the house in this case means her own house, of course. These PDR dinners are very casual — to visit the bathroom, for instance, guests wend their way through the couple’s bedroom and past their bicycles. They’re also intimate. Everyone at last week’s edition of the PDR ended up sharing New Orleans food stories, and a few swapped phone numbers after dessert.
More twists on the format are in the pipeline. Next month, for instance, chef Scott Maki, of Maple Street Patisserie et Bistro, will host the inaugural version of his Relish Supper Club with a boucherie, or Cajun pig roast. Maki described Relish as a side project that will be held at least monthly in the bistro dining room, with a mix of coursed dishes, family-style platters and open bar.
Meanwhile, Martin and Michot are planning an expansion of their Mosquito Supper Club. They’re contemplating a tour of other cities, and in the fall they plan to start a spinoff called Gumbo & Beer, a pay-one-price event with a Cajun band and dancing in addition to the marquee items spelled out in its name. Still, Martin sees limits to where she’ll take her dining concepts.
“I don’t see this leading to a restaurant,” she said. “In a restaurant, eventually you’re doing a lot less of what you absolutely love to do, which is cooking. I don’t want to teach someone to make my mother’s gumbo. I want to make it myself.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.