Dinner with Strangers
As a child of the decade that birthed the term "stranger danger"—and a thousand related after-school specials—I just did something that flies in the face of my upbringing: I went to the apartment of people I'd never met, in a place I'd never been, to eat with 10 perfect strangers.
I'd started to hear things—very, very good things—about a certain EatWith.A "global community that invites you to dine in homes," it launched last February in Israel and Spain, and has since expanded into 31 countries and 15 US cities, with many more outposts to come. So in the not-too-distant future, you may well visit—and/or inhabit—an EatWith-colonized territory where you can go online, find a good-looking homemade meal, fill out a profile (mammal-avoidant Urdu speaker? mayo-phobic spice lover? get as detailed as you want), pay the suggested donation ($17-$150) and show up hungry at the appointed time and place.
And here's the key: An EatWith rep has likely been there already to assess the cleanliness, yumminess and—yes, ma—the safety factor. (If so, you'll find an "EatWith Verified" icon in the profile, and even if not, other guests may have been there and written reviews.) Hosts, for their part, are granted a million-dollar insurance policy—in case, I suppose, Charlie Sheen, Courtney Love and every last member of the Wolf Pack sign up for the same dinner, whether Flautas in Flagstaff, Brazilian in Barcelona, or anything in between.
For me, couscous in Crown Heights was the big draw. And shortly after I signed up, my inbox informed me that "Ron + Leetal want to EatWith you too!" I was surprisingly relieved, and not a little curious about what would have happened had my prospective hosts turned me down. So I went to the FAQ on that very topic:
What happens if my booking request is declined or expires?
…You can contact the host to find out what happened [all contact happens through the site, by the way; not through your personal email]. The host might not have been available to check your request within 24 hours. He or she may also not have been able to cater to your needs (as stated in your profile, e.g., you may be a vegan and the host only does BBQ events). But don't get discouraged. Look for other offerings in that location. We promise you will find something special just for you! You can also contact us for assistance in booking or to get recommendations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now extra grateful to have a place at the table, I used the directions in the confirmation email to find an out-of-the-way, old-school Brooklyn apartment building where—though comforted to see someone by the front door who looked as tentative as I felt (clearly, the guy was another EatWith guest)—I was shamed by what he had in hand: a bottle of wine.
What was I, raised in a barn?
I felt slightly less mortified when I figured out that almost everyone else in attendance had showed up empty-handed—in fairness, after paying $86 to be there in the first place—but my note to self that night was to err on the side of generosity next time.
Apparently, I got over my shame just fine: 15 minutes in, I was already Power-Vac-ing my way through course after course of what was unequivocally one of the best meals of my life. Granted—like a surprising number of EatWith hosts—mine were professional foodies. Known for small-batch, hugely addictive harissa and other Middle Eastern goodness, the duo behind NY Shuk—28-year-old Leetal and 32-year-old Ron Arazi—grew up in Israel on a mix of Turkish, Iraqi, Moroccan and Lebanese food, thanks to their family backgrounds. "We feel that this type of food just feels and tastes better at home, where you feel relaxed," says Leetal. "We enjoy having guests in our home so why not share with them what we enjoy most of all?"
And the night of our dinner, "what we enjoy most of all" translated to the following: a cured lemon and arak cocktail; freshly baked challah with slada de chizo (braised carrots, cilantro, parsley, lemon and l'ekama, a spice-and-oil mix that was also given to us as a parting gift, and that didn't last 24 hours in my possession); sautéed carrots rubbed with l'ekama; baked beetroot with herbs and walnuts; matbucha (tomato and garlic salad); chirchi (roasted squash, raisins and spices); oranges and black olives with harissa; charred red pepper salad; garlic-sautéed cauliflower with "Ronesco" (Ron's twist on romesco) and a Lebanese green onion salad; Jerusalem artichoke and fresh turmeric; pickled fennel and carrots; and stuffed puff pastry.
Then came the star of the show: hand-rolled couscous, served in my case with Tunisian-style black spinach (I'm EDWRR's resident vegetarian) and in the case of everyone else, ka'aboorot (a seemingly fabulous chicken dish), plus chickpea stew and baked pumpkin with caramelized onion and tanzeya (slow-cooked dried fruit and spices).
Evidently, someone then slipped us a collective mickey and pumped our stomachs, because there's no other possible explanation for how anyone managed dessert: Turkish coffee-flavored chocolate pudding with whipped cream and pistachios, plus milk chocolate and honey truffles, sage butter cookies and homemade marzipan.
Of course, however spectacular the food, the company made the meal. From the baker to the businesswoman, everyone in this international crowd of 20-somethings to 40-somethings was interesting and friendly—and had all kinds of crazy commonalities. At first, I thought the craziest was that there were two Anglo-Israeli documentarian/video producer guys sitting directly across the table from each other. But here's what was even crazier: When I wanted to set one of them up with a friend, I learned she'd already been fixed up with him. By someone else at the table. At which point I realized: Ron and Leetal should have hung the same framed Yeats quote that so many Irish pubs do:
"There are no strangers here, only friends that have not yet met."