SOTTO TERRA: PR dinner that MADE NO SENSE

sotto terra
Dear Food Diary:

So a couple weeks ago, I get the invite above. I’ve seen George Duran on the Food Network and was excited to see what new foodie project they had in mind. The words “intimate Italian restaurant”, “delicious four course meal” and “sangria” tickled my appetite. I accepted immediately. To hype it even more, I was told that this “exclusive” underground restaurant was only open for 5 days. Not only was I allowed to bring a guest, but they offered my readers a dinner for two though a giveaway.
sotto terra 1
We arrived at this beautiful brownstone, eager and hungry. Excited and happy to bring my friend J along for what I promised to be an awesome night of great food and new friends. But instead of an “exclusive dinner”, we were unknowingly part of a “focus group dinner”. 

Here’s how it all went down…
sotto terra 2
As we entered the warm living room, we were greeted by George’s special sangria, watermelon and cucumber gazpacho shots and bites of endives with goat cheese, orange, walnuts and balsamic reduction (which I didn’t care for since I don’t like goat cheese). 
sotto terra 3
The hosts were eager to chat with every guest and made sure we were taken care of drink wise. At this point I’m still not quite sure the purpose of it all. So I asked George if this was something that would lead to his “underground supper club” or a buzz for a “future restaurant opening”? He vaguely answered maybe and no, smiled and quickly changed the topic. He was very welcoming and friendly, making me believe this was his home. I requested a sneak peak of  “his” kitchen and our fancy dinner, but that was nicely rejected. Same thing with Phil Lempert, who was obviously knowledgeable about food in general, but never specific about why we were gathered here. 
sotto terra 4
As we were escorted downstairs to the main dining room, the setting once again reminded me of supper clubs I’ve attended. Since this was only here for 5 days, I felt honored to be “chosen”, but puzzled by the invite and how I would be of any help in all this (I mean after all, there’s no free meal). I kept asking my friend J, I wonder what this is all about…
sotto terra 5
The hosts sat on both ends and conversation was guided mostly by Phil. The topic revolved around food obviously, our preferences, childhood favorites, food memories. Then the focus shifted to healthy eating, fresh and local, seasonal, reading our labels, so on and so forth. Sort of like a Food Inc. panel if you will. I pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. George would bring up, his time spent in France as a chef, his recipes, food and family. At this point, I’m thinking, maybe the two of them are into some Food Revolution movement like Jamie Oliver. Trying to change the way America is eating and thinking about food, which made sense to have bloggers there to contribute and spread the word.
sotto terra 6
Our dinner started with a Strawberry Arugula Salad, balsamic vinaigrette, goat cheese and hints of mint. I kindly pushed the goat cheese to the side and ate the rest. Simple and fresh. Easy to put together and very healthy.
sotto terra 8
For our main course, we were served Double Stacked “traditional” Italian Lasagna, with pepperoni, seasoned beef, sausage and four cheeses. George talked about how easy it was to make lasagna in big batches and share or have it as leftover. Plus his twist of adding pepperoni, the way he likes it most, bla bla bla… I was excited, but a couple bites later, I began to doubt George’s recipe and his ability as a chef. The pasta was soft and there was little meat and cheese. It wasn’t very flavorful, and I’ve definitely had better. It wasn’t gross nor inedible by any means, but nothing to be inviting bloggers to blog about either. There was a lot of questions revolving what we thought of it and my friend J felt obligated, out of respect for the “chef present” to finish it all. I left it about 1/2 of it, but since all conversation was guided, I didn’t have a chance to tell J it was ok not to clean her plate.
sotto terra 7
The Herb Cheesy Garlic Bread used a nutty whole wheat bread, George emphasized on eating whole grain and using fresh herbs. The bread was nice and chewy loaded with salty cheese and extra garlic. I had 2 pieces, since I liked it better than the lasagna. 
sotto terra 9
The palate cleanser was a much welcomed Mojito Granita Shot. Very refreshing.
sotto terra 10
The Razzleberry Pie a la mode looked great. But aside from the ice cream, the berry filling and crunch were super sweet. I left most of it behind. I noticed Phil didn’t have any at all. Which was odd, but I’m still naive and oblivious to the situation. 
sotto terra 11
The night ended with a giveaway of George’s cookbook, which I was wondering how good it was based on our meal so far. Then came the final surprise and reveal…


THE CATCH FOR ALL THIS!?
Well apparently, our main course and dessert, the lasagna and pie came from “Marie Callender’s” FROZEN BOXED MEALS. All George did was a la Semi-homemade style of stacking the lasagna and sprinkling fresh herb, then putting the pie in individual cups and topping it with vanilla ice cream. At least that explains why it wasn’t the amazing dinner I was expecting. I had a good laugh about it. Took a while to sink in, the whole night seemed like such a long and elaborate set up. I was a bit annoyed and truly disappointed/shocked, that George would be part of this at all. Specially the misleading way he talked about “his” favorite way to make lasagna, the ingredients, sharing with family and friends bla bla bla. Oh, and we were all being filmed! (J and I walked out without signing any waver. So I better not see us in any promo video). George said goodbye to us and hoped we weren’t “upset” about this whole thing. 


IRONIC
Our “guided” conversation was ALL based on eating better, feeding our kids, the concern of childhood obesity, farmers, eating fresh and local, seasonal ingredients, CSA… and the list goes on. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. We brought up reading labels while we shop and being aware of what we eat, Phil and George agreed, yet this FROZEN MEAL/DESSERT had exactly what we were afraid of, ingredients I can’t pronounce nor understand. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Maybe they thought that psychologically, if we are thinking/talking about good food, happy food memories, our tastebuds would be distracted? LOL so silly


FINAL THOUGHT
As bloggers we get invited to a lot of press/PR events/dinners and what not. Some turn out great, others like this one, not so much. I guess what I don’t understand is who’s genius idea was to bring in bloggers into this. Obviously we love food, we spend all our time, effort and money finding what’s above average. We don’t eat to live, we live to eat. Feeding me free food doesn’t automatically equate to great review. I’ll always keep it honest for myself and my readers, otherwise there’s no point to all this. I do advertising by day, thank you very much, at night, blogging is a passion and hobby. I won’t promote products I won’t eat myself. Either, they were too confident about their products or just didn’t believe in our palates and tastebuds. To make it even worse, a “giveway” that sounded like lavish dinner for my readers wasn’t a classy move either. If I accept an invite and it turns out bad, that’s fine, it was mine time, I can live with that. But having me promote it and then give my readers/winners frozen food isn’t called for.


Overall (some dishes aside), it was an alright evening. Good service, friendly hosts and guests, plenty of wine and sangria. Nothing tasted absolutely horrible, nor amazing. I wasn’t mad per se, but didn’t leave a happy camper either. This was a bit distasteful (pun intended!).


I’m NOT their target consumer and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it. I’m not saying I ONLY eat/write about healthy and organic foods, but what unhealthy stuff I choose to eat/write, at least I was aware of it and it was my decision to do so.


LESSON LEARNED: when the invite sounds too good to be true, ALWAYS ask questions and double check!