Josh Haner/The New York Times
The Gastronauts’ July dinner was a Cajun meal on a rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The club partook of turducken, blackened Gulf shrimp and jambalaya.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Dishes at the July dinner included root-beer-glazed alligator sausage.
For Mark Garrison, the freshly dismembered octopus squirming on the plate was the biggest challenge. For Zach Zaman, it was the filleted water bug before him. And for Lauren Seebacher, it could have been the cod sperm.
“It was really good, but the best part was that I didn’t know what I was eating when I ate it,” said Ms. Seebacher, 23. “It’s amazing, these things that you hear about that sound frightening, but then you eat them and then it’s like — we went out and we had a whole lamb’s head, and the eyeball was easily the best thing.”
Gathered with about 40 other enthusiastic diners on a sweltering rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on Tuesday night, these were not guests on a stomach-churning television show like “Bizarre Foods” or Anthony Bourdain’s“No Reservations.” They were members of the Gastronauts, a dining club for adventurous eaters that travels to the far reaches of New York City to sample the breadth of the world’s cuisines.
Across the country, dining clubs have proliferated, spurred by a combination of culinary restlessness and the easy connectivity of the Internet. Some take the form of underground restaurants that stage elaborate meals in unlicensed spaces; others are dedicated to preparing or seeking out niche ingredients, like insects or organ meats.
But the Gastronauts are up to something different, organizing monthly pilgrimages to restaurants in ethnic enclaves for carefully curated meals meant to expand both the palate and an appreciation of New York. Their meetings, despite the presence of a border-crossing item or two, generally focus on the authentic cuisine of a culture, not on the intestinal fortitude of the diner.
“It does have a ‘Fear Factor’ element; we like to lead with a headliner” — a truly exotic food — “that will establish our bona fides for the meal,” said Curtiss Calleo, a graphic designer who started the club about four years ago with Ben Pauker, a senior editor at the international affairs journal Foreign Policy. “But it’s really all about exploring new terrain.”
Both men, like many members, have lived overseas and grew up eating a wide range of foods. They met about a decade ago while playing Ultimate Frisbee in Washington, and after both ended up in New York, they began hatching the idea for the club at a dinner party focused on bluefish that Mr. Pauker had caught. The motivation was partly the opportunity to sample more dishes at each sitting.
“There’s only so much that two people can order, so we thought we might amortize the experience by having friends with us,” Mr. Pauker, 34, said one recent Sunday afternoon as he and Mr. Calleo, 41, scouted Peruvian restaurants in Queens for their dinner in August.
Starting with a group of six, the Gastronauts have grown to roughly 475. In packs ranging from about 30 to 90, they have eaten Vietnamese in Brooklyn, West African in the Bronx, Sri Lankan on Staten Island and Uzbek in Queens. The average bill runs about $50 a person, due in cash at meal’s end.
If a desired cultural mainstay is not on the regular menu — like roast guinea pig for the Peruvian event — they ask the restaurant to procure it, or find a supplier themselves. That was how they ended up driving $400 worth of yak meat around Maspeth and Jackson Heights, Queens, for a Nepalese gathering.
The men say they are surprised at how popular and diverse the Gastronauts have become and plan to start a chapter in Washington, where Mr. Pauker has moved back to.
“We thought it would be just a bunch of guys trying to out-gross each other, and we were really worried about that,” Mr. Pauker said.
“But it’s a really nice mix of men and women,” he added, “and it just became a very fun social thing to do on a Tuesday night once a month.”
They have occasionally altered the format, organizing a theme meal at a residence or an underground restaurant, like a reptile dinner with the supper club Whisk and Ladle, or the insect meal that proved such a test for Mr. Zaman.
“One thing I’m kind of afraid of is insects,” owing to a childhood confrontation with a giant water bug, Mr. Zaman, 27, said on the rooftop in Greenpoint. “But I got over that, and ever since that day, nothing has freaked me out. It all has to do with your experience: Everything that we do is someone’s comfort food.”
That night it was the spicy comfort food of the bayou, with a Cajun meal produced by theWhisk and Ladle and another supper club, Reel Tasty, that organizes themed dinners paired with a movie projected onto a neighboring building — a “dinema” experience, Mr. Calleo said to Jason Anello, a co-chef of the group.
It was a relatively tame menu, since the Gastronauts failed to find a legal source of nutria, a rodent popular in Louisiana cooking. Root-beer-glazed alligator sausage was about as crazy as it got. But the meal left the diners, mostly in their 20s and 30s, savoring discussions of their favorite dish over beer and wine, and talking excitedly of meals past and future.
At the end of the night, Ben Raisher, a high school teacher from Long Island, was delighted to find an extra portion of pecan pie ice cream sitting at the bar.
“There are more of those inside,” said Eric Morgan, who had been helping out in the kitchen.
“There are more pralines,” his wife, Aimee Bariteau, a Reel Tasty co-chef, offered.
“You could make a sandwich,” Mr. Morgan said, and Ms. Bariteau added, “Oooooh, a praline sandwich.”
But for Mr. Raisher, who ate his first sushi before he could talk and had been eager to try the wriggling octopus, the ice cream was more than enough…...While your on this site Visit the rest of ”The Lerman Report”