THE subway doors opened, and the mob shuffled out. Roman took my arm and led me onto the concrete platform. The newly renovated Queens station had a high ceiling and walls overlaid with tiles of radiant white, interrupted by black mosaics spelling out Main Street.
“Okay, Roman, this whole underground restaurant thing is new to me. What do we do next?”
He waggled his black eyebrows. “Now the intrigue begins.”
“I don’t need intrigue. I just want to nail Neville Perry to the wall.”
“Come on then, sweetie. Follow me.” Roman led me to a forty-foot escalator. We boarded with the other commuters and slowly rode up.
“Don’t be nervous about the area, Clare,” Roman whispered. “Just pretend we’re on a clandestine rendezvous in an exotic foreign city. Someplace really strange. Istanbul, perhaps. Or Cleveland. And speaking of strange-”
Roman pulled a baseball cap out of his pocket and placed it over his thick black hair.
“We have to blend in with the populace,” he said when I gave him the fish eye. He pointed to my clothes. “In that Fen original, you resemble the elegant Asian businesswomen you’ll see up on the avenues. In this hat, I look like one of the wastrels who roam the side streets.”
“I doubt very much the street wastrels around here wear Abercrombie & Fitch safari jackets, powder-pink chinos, or the hot new line of Hush Puppy casuals-never mind the Yankees cap. I guess you didn’t notice: Queens is Mets country.”
Roman threw up his pudgy hands. “Mets? Yankees? What’s the difference? A bunch of sweaty men hitting little white balls with sticks. Or is that golf? Well, never mind, my wardrobe will have to suffice.”
We exited the escalator beside Macy’s Flushing store on Lippman Plaza and walked right into a fog of noxious fumes emitted by a parade of idling MTA buses. The stench was punctuated by the roar of a passenger jet descending overhead, and I remembered LaGuardia’s tarmac was only a few miles away.
We turned onto Main Street next, and I understood why Roman regarded Flushing as some sort of exotic frontier. The intersection of Roosevelt and Main, once a Dutch neighborhood, had become the city’s center for Chinese culture and small businesses. This Chinatown had a size and scope that dwarfed the Manhattan original. English was not a common language on the street. Even the billboards and neon signs that advertised American products-Verizon, Crest toothpaste, and Chase Manhattan Bank-were printed in Chinese characters.
“A few years ago, this whole area was dominated by Korean businesses,” Roman told me. “But since 2007, most of the Koreans have moved on, and Chinese concerns have taken their place.”
We strolled past shops catering to an Asian clientele, with names like Singapore Optical, Tai Pan Bakery, Hong Kong Clothing, and Lucky Bamboo Flower Shop. A dealer of ginseng and herbs displayed outdoor stalls stocked with mushrooms of every shape, size, and color. One clear cellophane bag contained black flakes identified as Fungus from the Mountains.
“Are these medicinal herbs or culinary ingredients?” I asked Roman.
Roman pointed down the block. “Along here, you can dine on a marvelous selection of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Malaysian fare, and end the night swilling warm sake in an authentic Japanese-style karaoke bar. I know, because I’ve done it, although I prefer to come to Flushing for the underground restaurants. They’re so much more interesting.”
“If these restaurants are underground, how do you even find out about them?”
“Oh, there are lots of ways. Foodie networking mostly; chefs and friends of chefs; amateur reviewers; and, of course, the local blogs. If you throw a little money around, waitstaffs will usually clue you in on their neighborhoods’ culinary secrets.”
“Is that how you got in tonight? Throwing money around?”
“Tonight’s meal is a bargain, believe me,” Roman said. “A hot young chef named Moon Pac wants to open a restaurant and needs financial backers. If he dazzles the right people, he might get his sugar daddy, so he’s been throwing this dinner once a week for the last two months. I was invited by e-mail. Other influential New York foodies and restaurateurs received the same invitation.”
We hiked past St. George’s Episcopal Church and finally reached a mixed residential block that paralleled Northern Boulevard. We stopped under the glow of an ornate, Victorian-style streetlight.
“According to my e-mail,” Roman said, “we’re to wait here at the Friends Meeting House for our connection to arrive.”
With its simple lines and dowdy appearance, the landmark Quaker building more resembled a colonial farmhouse than a place of worship. The structure was separated from the sidewalk by an old stone wall. I turned to watch the traffic flow along Northern in a slow but steady pace.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t have taken a cab here. What’s the point of the long subway ride and a rendezvous on a darkened street?”
“Cabs bring attention and unwanted scrutiny. Too much traffic can be the death of an underground eatery. It’s happened before. For instance…” Roman pointed to a gas station down the block. “Once upon a time you could park in front of that station, make a cell phone call to an unlisted number, and in a few minutes an order from the famous dumpling speakeasy would be delivered to your car or cab-”
“Excuse me, did you say ‘dumpling speakeasy’?”
“Best dumplings I’ve ever eaten outside of Shanghai. Sadly, the cab and car traffic caused too much attention. Word leaked to the local supermarket sheets. It hit the bigger papers, then New York 1, and that was that!”
“What happened? Did the Department of Health descend?”
“More like the tax man. An underground restaurant is an unlicensed business. That’s one reason for the secrecy.”
It certainly felt secretive enough loitering there, I decided. At eight thirty in the evening, the traffic on Northern was heavy. There were a lot of police cars around, too, but the sidewalks were pretty empty, except for a trio of men hanging out just like us at the end of the block, in front of the Taiwan Cultural Center. One of the youths wore a black jacket with an elaborate dragon design on the back. He noticed me looking and glanced away.
I wondered if they were coming to the secret dinner party, too. I considered asking them when I felt someone grab my elbow. I whirled to find black eyes staring at me from under the shadows of a dark hooded jacket. I broke away from the stranger, ready to scream, when the man pulled back his hood and said, “Are you with Roman Brio?”
“Right here! Party of two!” Roman waved his chubby hand as if we’d been waiting for our table at Babbo’s bar.
“So nice to meet you, Mr. Brio,” the young man said with a slight accent. He had dark, almond-shaped eyes and a shy smile, which he flashed as he gestured us forward. “Please allow me to seat you.”
I noticed a waiter’s black pants and white apron under the young man’s jacket. “So he’s our waiter?” I whispered to Roman. “This is his job?”
“I’m sure he’s a waiter at a real restaurant,” Roman replied. “Tonight’s probably his night off, and he’s getting paid cash to moonlight for this event.”
The young man led us across Northern. We passed the huge redbrick Town Hall and turned onto a residential block filled with newly built two- and three-family town houses. But we weren’t going to those houses. We turned abruptly instead into a narrow alley that ran behind the Town Hall.
Tiny weathered clapboard houses lined both sides of this short, shadowy block. The buildings were so close to each other, they muffled the noise of the traffic on Northern. For a moment, given the age of the structures and the abrupt quiet, I felt as though I were back in my own Village neighborhood.
Roman sniffed the air. “Charcoal.”
The smell tickled my nose, too, along with the scent of hot sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.
“I think we’re getting warm,” Roman said with a quaver in his voice.
Halfway down the block we stopped in front of a small, gray-shingled house with a gambrel roof like an old barn. A single, tiny window covered with scarlet curtains faced the alley.
While the youth opened the unlocked front door, I glanced up the block and spied the men who’d been loitering in front of the Taiwan Center. Were they fellow dinner guests?
I was about to ask our waiter but never got the chance. He hustled us into a foyer, and a wave of cooking scents washed over us: Indian and Asian spices, seared meat, and a peppery smell that woke up my tear ducts.
“Positively delightful!” Roman closed his eyes and waved his hands like a parfumeur experiencing a riot of new scents.
We were ushered into a cozy living room with powder-blue walls covered with family photos. Floor lamps gave the space a soft glow. At the far end of the room was a nook of a dining space. A long, narrow table started in that small room and flowed out of it, reaching well into the living room. It was set for ten. Three couples were already seated, sipping wine and speaking with a stocky man who stood over them. As we entered, the well-dressed group turned in their seats to greet Roman, who seemed to know them all.
“This is Clare Cosi, everyone. She’s the manager of the Village Blend.”
In a rush, everyone shouted their names. They were all Caucasian and appeared to be prosperous professionals in their thirties and forties. One man stood out, however. Younger than the rest, I recognized him from the uncannily accurate caricature on his Web site.
“Chef Perry!” Roman said, “Clare’s been dying to meet you.”
Ack. So much for subtlety.
Neville Perry stood up. I quickly stepped forward and offered my hand. He shook it firmly.
“I’m flattered to meet a fan.”
Wearing a Levi’s jacket over a loose Hawaiian shirt, the chef was no older than thirty. His spiky hair was platinum blond (obviously bleached, since his goatee was dark brown), and I noticed the glint of a silver loop in his ear. The striking contrast of perfectly even white teeth against a salon-perfect tan screamed Hollywood. So did the way his shirt was open at the neck to flaunt as much bronzed flesh as possible.
His eyes were the pale-green color of honeydew melon, and they checked me out so quickly from head to toe I would have missed it if I hadn’t been watching.
“So, Clare…” He smiled. “Were you a fan of my canceled reality show, my defunct restaurant, or my Prodigal Chef blog?”
“Oh, all three,” I said, surprised by the dry humor in the man’s tone. Self-deprecation was the last thing I expected from this guy.
“Well, that’s really nice of you to say. Have any favorite episodes? Or dishes?”
“It’s really your Web site that’s got my attention lately.”
“That’s great, too.” Neville glanced at Roman. “I’m happy you’re socializing with someone besides your gossip-mongering, yellow journalist buddies.” Neville slapped his forehead. “Wait a minute! I forgot. You’re one of those gossip-mongering, yellow journalists, aren’t you?”
“Oh, Neville. You’re jealous because I actually get paid for my writing. By the way, I’ve been wondering. What do you do for a living?”
Chef Perry winked at me. “I wonder if our food critic gets paid by the word or by the pound?”
Roman rolled his eyes. “Ersatz cheese is sold by the pound, Neville. That would be your department.”
Our escort reappeared, minus his hooded jacket, bearing a tray of wine. Roman accepted a glass, sniffed it with theatrical trepidation, then took a sip and made a face.
Perry lifted his chin in my direction. “I’ll bet Clare doesn’t think my blogs are crap.”
Roman raised a finger. “I didn’t say crap. I said ersatz cheese. There is a minor difference. Considering your reputation, it’s one you should recognize.”
Though the men were throwing comments as prickly as cactus leaves, I didn’t get the impression Neville Perry actually disliked Roman.
“Man, I hope we eat soon.” Perry glanced at his bling-heavy watch. “These aromas are making me ravenous.”
“Anything to clean my palate of this subpar wine,” Roman said, plopping his glass on the table.
“We’re still waiting for someone to arrive,” said one of the other guests.
Just then a loud voice boomed from the foyer. “I’m here, all! Start ringing the dinner bell!”
Roman looked as though he’d just sampled something more displeasing than the “subpar” wine. He turned to Neville. “Well, Perry, it appears you’re not the only show biz chef to taint us with his presence this evening.”
“Oh my God. Rafe Chastain is here,” burbled a woman at the table.
I knew Chastain by reputation, but I never expected the Adventure Channel’s infamous Exotic Food Hunter at Large to show up at a place like this. The man looked much the same as he did on my TV: a leanly muscled charmer with a face well lined from years spent under the harsh sun (not to mention his decades of hard living, if the man’s reputation for drinking, drugging, and daring was accurate). He wore his Egyptian cotton shirt open at the collar and rolled up at the sleeves, and his long legs sported tight black denims over pointed snakeskin boots.
Chastain’s television travels had taken him all over the world in search of new culinary experiences, which often involved eating the kind of stuff I’d run away from, not put in my mouth. We’re talking bugs, snakes, lizards, rats, along with the occasional feast of entrails, gizzards, and other questionable parts of animals, domesticated and wild.
I’d seen the show once or twice but was more familiar with the serious culinary articles he’d written for the New Yorker, GQ, and Food & Wine.
Intimidated by the celebrity’s entrance, no one rose to greet him. Mostly they just gawked, as if the man were still on display behind their high-def screens. Out of politeness I stepped forward.
“Hello, Mr. Chastain, my name’s Clare-”
“Nice to meet you, honey.” He gripped my hand, glanced down my blouse, and looked right past me. “Where’s the booze?”