In March 2012, chef/owner Andy Trousdale of Le Bistro in Lighthouse Point, an expat from northern England, was discussing the dullness of the South Florida food scene with his longtime friend and customer Chris Blad. Caesar salads, steaks, tuna tartares, pastas — these could be interchanged on almost any menu at any local restaurant. Blad was tired of eating them. Trousdale was tired of cooking them. That sparked an idea: Why not start a food club? The two decided to round up some adventurous eaters to give Trousdale the opportunity to play and cook anything his little heart desired. Trousdale's wife and partner, Elin, came up with the name Funky Food Club, and Blad created a blog — funkyfoodclub.blogspot.com.
Unlike a trendy secret dining club you might find in a big city, this club is open to anyone. Previous Le Bistro customers sometimes join in, and if you're brave enough to experiment, just make a reservation. For $50, guests get to sample whatever interesting concoctions Trousdale decides to combine. He does know his stuff — he worked in British restaurants, on a high-end yacht, and as a professor at the Art Institute before founding Le Bistro, but the restaurant has twice been featured on Gordon Ramsay's TV show Kitchen Nightmares.
For most dinners, Trousdale gets inspiration by walking around the grocery store and picking up whatever piques his interest. No matter how strange some of the ingredients, one rule of the club is that Trousdale can't just torture the diners for his own amusement; he has to be willing to eat anything he prepares. He admits, "I don't always love everything," but then again, "Not everything is weird." For him, the club is "a way to get away from the same boring old foods."
Another founding principle is to encourage discussion about the meal. Half the fun of the club meetings is the conversation about it. The point is to critique it constructively: what works, what doesn't. "The goal is to be more of a social event with the food being the focus, but in a very different manner from the normal restaurant experience," Trousdale says.
On April 10, 2012, a dozen fearless eaters — mostly Le Bistro regulars — turned up at the restaurant to see what Trousdale had in store. Since then, some have left and other newbies have jumped in their places, but the dinners have pretty much consisted of that same core group.
On December 12, I showed up alone to see what this whole thing was about. The atmosphere felt like someone's small but modern home: oil paintings on the wall, long drapes over the windows, a small foyer, white tablecloths, a single fresh flower on each table. Around 20 guests of mixed ages, marital statuses, and backgrounds stood around chatting and drinking wines they brought themselves. That's part of the deal: $50 for dinner and BYOB. The group often tries to meet when the restaurant is closed for business, so Trousdale can spend more time relaxing over the course of the dinner, but on this particular night, the restaurant was open to the public, and a couple of other tables were occupied by diners quietly eating their meals.
The mixed crowd was a friendly bunch, and within seconds, I was a part of the club. They all warned me/bragged about the last month's dinner, when Trousdale had prepared "black chicken" — served nearly whole, with the claw hanging off the edge of the plate. No one in the group knew anyone else who had ever set eyes upon, let alone eaten, such a creature.
We were told to sit before the first course was served. As the dishes were brought out, the metallic smell of innards wafted about. The table erupted.
"Liver!" shouted one guest.
"Ugh. I don't do liver," said another.
"I've never had it," someone else chimed in.
A bowl of what looked like battered, fried green beans, topped with a thick, creamy, white sauce — yogurt, crème fraîche, sour cream? — was covered in some sort of reddish gravy and something that resembled quartered mushrooms. I took a bite. No surprise: offal. The metallic taste juxtaposed some sort of spicy element, which contrasted with something fresh and herbal, something tangy and creamy, and the obvious fried green beans. Not being one for the metallic, urine-like flavor of innards, I almost gagged.
Trousdale, who would pop in and out of the kitchen throughout the meal like a jovial host, explained that the odd combination was something he had christened Nouveau Poutine. Instead of traditional poutine — Canadian street food that resembles cheese fries, with potatoes covered in gray and cheese curds — Trousdale's dish consisted of French-fried green beans topped with beef kidney gravy, crumbled goat cheese, parsley sour cream, and habanero. The woman next to me loved it. Me, not so much.
Another woman, seated across from me, a self-pronounced "unadventurous eater," was here for her fourth dinner. She said the regulars had developed a dining friendship: They chat about different kinds of foods they've tried and different happenings in life. "I'm not the kind of person who orders the weirdest thing on the menu," she said. "I stick to things I know I like, because I don't want to get stuck with a dish that is terrible." This was her first experience with kidneys.
Next, the seafood course arrived. It was a giant fried ball of something — fish? shrimp? — over asparagus, topped with a creamy green sauce and something that resembled crushed walnuts. I split open the ball. Definitely shrimp — with a homemade tartar sauce. Tasty. Thank God. Turned out to be a shrimp cake over asparagus salmon salad with an herbed tartar sauce, walnuts, and wheat germ. Like any self-respecting English chef, Trousdale had taken the tartar sauce quite seriously, having added his own blend of fresh herbs.
Anticipation built as we waited for the entrée. What if it was some kind of nightmarish fowl? Then again, what if it wasn't?
Then it came: white meat encased around soft cheese of some sort and very obviously canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, plus Brussels sprouts and roasted sweet potatoes on the side. Tame compared to black chicken, but it was, on some level, a relief, and the portion was huge. Most of the ingredients were easily discerned upon one bite: pork, cream cheese, and a bit of goat cheese. The big surprise came with the veggies. A white substance mixed in had a strange pillowy texture and sweetness — marshmallows. Trousdale explained that he was inspired by Thanksgiving while cooking the dish.
Then Trousdale informed newbies that the "funkiest" course tends to be dessert. After the whole poutine experience and the marshmallows, I was nervous. First sight didn't help. Out came a white chunk of something with what appeared to be Twizzlers stuffed inside, along with raisins and something else on top of an orange-hued red sauce. It looked like some strange, candy-filled loaf, and it completely freaked me out.
Luckily, it tasted better than it looked: It was harmless ice cream — with red licorice, raisins, chocolate chips, and raspberries sprinkled around... and some sort of coulis.
"I taste tomato!" exclaimed one of the guests.
Trousdale giggled. "It's a toasted almond candy lasagna with rum-soaked raisins, chocolate chips, red liquorice, and ice cream with a tomato raspberry coulis. Remember, tomato is a fruit," he said in his comically dry English tone.
In all honesty, although the idea of the dish is different, the flavors would not have been so weird had he not made the tomato coulis like a tomato sauce — with onions, garlic, and white wine. Trousdale quipped, "I kind of just pulled that one out of my ass." You think?
The next meeting of the Funky Food Club is January 22. Call 954-946-9240 for reservations — if you dare.