An Underground Marijuana Dinner Party Grows In New York

Photo Credit: Liz Hafalia

There are many reasons for eating marijuana instead of smoking it—edibles give you a different sort of high, they say, and certainly delay the drug’s psychoactive effects, and pose no harm to your lungs—but flavor has not traditionally been one of them. The edibles of yore were concocted more for their potency than for their taste. Now, as weed becomes decriminalized and even legal in a handful of states, there’s a burgeoning interest in something new: really good food that will also get you high. In Oregon, there’s Laurie Wolf, the “Martha Stewart of edibles,” renowned for her cannabis recipes; in California, the über-hip chef Vanessa Lavorato sells beautiful chocolate caramels and other bonbons laced with THC, and co-hosts a Viceland show called “Bong Appétit.” (A recent episode featured Joan Nathan, the reigning Jewish-American cookbook queen, making matzo balls with fresh cannabis leaves, minced like any other herb. “It smells like parsley, absolutely,” she said.) Holden Jagger, the co-founder of Altered Plates, a “culinary collective” in Los Angeles, describes himself as a “ganjier”—a sommelier of weed. In cities like Portland and L.A., it’s not hard to find a dinner—whether a one-time special event or as part of a recurring supper-club series—featuring restaurant-quality dishes that just happen to incorporate cannabis.

In New York, where possession of a small amount of marijuana is as punishable as a traffic violation, and distribution of even a single joint is considered a misdemeanor, the options are much more limited, and concertedly Prohibition-style. Which is why, a couple of Fridays ago, just before 6 P.M., I found myself in an alley behind a large building, the exact location of which I’ve been asked not to disclose (I’d been told where to go only a few hours earlier), waiting to be let in to a “curated cannabis” dinner. Near a small motorboat parked on a trailer, a couple dozen guests milled about, growing impatient as it grew colder and six o’clock came and went. “You guys wanna smoke?” said a bearded redhead to his three friends. They disappeared behind the boat, and soon the smell of marijuana wafted through the air.

Finally, the door to the building opened and a man led us up a few flights of stairs to a plant-filled loft (used for shooting cooking videos, I later learned) outfitted with long rectangular tables and a big open kitchen, where the chef Miguel Trinidad was hard at work. Trinidad, who runs two popular Filipino restaurants in the East Village, is also partners in an edibles company called 99th Floor. He and his friend Doug Cohen, a branding expert (and the guy who had let us in, it turned out), are developing a line of cannabis-infused candy, condiments, coffee, and ice cream, which will eventually be for sale in any state that allows recreational marijuana use. Every few months, they throw invitation-only dinner parties at which the food is infused with weed; this one, called “Higher Love,” was also Filipino themed. (When I asked Trinidad, who is Dominican-American, how he’d ended up a Filipino chef, he said, with a glint in his eye, “Filipino women.”)

The meal began with a drink—“Infused cocktail,” the menu read, “kombucha and rum based.” I sipped it cautiously. It was herbaceous, though I wouldn’t have identified the herb as cannabis. My prior experience with edibles was limited—a nibble of a friend’s gummy, half of a truffle purchased from a roving vendor in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park—so, before the dinner, I had consulted with David Weiner, one of the founders of a new “media startup” called Gossamer (slogan: “For people who also smoke weed”). He and his business partner, Verena von Pfetten, had thrown a dinner of their own a few weeks before, but theirs—prepared by the chef Gerardo Gonzalez at his loosely Mexican-Californian restaurant, Lalito, in Chinatown, with guests including the “High Maintenance” co-creator Katja Blichfeld—had been completely above board. The food (chayote squash panzanella, a Brie-cheese flan) featured CBD, or cannabidiol, a chemical compound found in both marijuana and hemp. Unlike THC, the most famous chemical compound in marijuana, CBD is not psychoactive, but it’s considered by some to have relaxing and even medicinal properties, and, as long as it’s extracted from hemp, it’s basically legal everywhere. Weiner had heard about the 99th Floor dinners, and he warned me that Trinidad would be serving each person about twenty milligrams of THC during the course of the meal. Two and a half to three milligrams is roughly equivalent to a stiff drink, he said.

Weiner and von Pfetten were working on “A Sensible Guide to Being Too High,” and he offered me this tip: set an alarm for an hour. “Tell yourself that you’re not gonna freak out until then,” he said. “Usually within an hour you’ll get distracted or move on to being giggly or sleepy.”

At the 99th Floor dinner, determined not to get to this point, I took tiny, ginger sips of the cocktail. A few minutes later, as plates of crudo were served—slippery pink slices of a fish called corvina, often used in ceviche, which had been cured in a Filipino cane-sugar vinegar called pinakurat—Trinidad explained that each course contained between two and five milligrams of THC. The strain he’d used was OG Kush, which he described as “piney” and complementary to salty foods. If the meal’s cumulative twenty milligrams seemed like too much, he said, we might not want to eat all of everything. The crudo (two milligrams) was delicious and beautiful: salty, fruity, a little spicy, tart, dressed with delicate shreds of pickled daikon and green papaya and frothy coconut mignonette foam. There was THC tincture in the vinegar, and the fish had also been painted with a little canna-coconut oil (coconut oil, as opposed to olive or canola, Trinidad told me, allows for faster THC absorption), but in such a complicated and unfamiliar dish I couldn’t detect its flavor. I left two of the four pieces of fish untouched, watching wistfully as a server whisked my plate away.

Next up was a Filipino play on vitello tonnato, with three thinly sliced pieces of cold veal loin, a mousse made with smoked bangus (also known as milkfish, a Filipino staple), toasted shallots, and fried capers (two to three milligrams). The veal had been brushed with canna-coconut oil, which the capers had also been fried in. I ate a piece of the sweet, chewy meat, swiping it through the mousse and a pile of the briny, salty capers. I cut a second piece in two and ate one half, then the other, and used all of my willpower to leave the third piece untouched, feeling incredibly wasteful.

I had consumed, I figured, about four milligrams of THC at this point, but I wasn’t feeling anything yet. Meanwhile, at the other end of my table, the guy who had led the group to smoke beforehand, behind the boat outside, seemed blissed out, looking around slowly as he smiled and stroked his beard, his eyes red, his lids low. Bowls of a brothy dish called “pancit Isabela” contained five milligrams of THC, but if Trinidad explained which ingredients were the potent ones—the soft tangles of noodles; the beef broth; the quail egg; the sweet-sausage crumble; the carrots—I was too busy slurping to listen. “How you guys feeling?” Trinidad asked, as the fourth course landed on the table. “We feeling niiiiiiiiiiice,” a woman at my table called back. The pearly Israeli couscous and peas on our plates, Trinidad said, had been tossed in canna-butter, and the slow-cooked pork belly, seasoned with star anise, fermented black bean, and tamari, had been braised in canna-oil and canna-butter. As I dragged a forkful of vinegary, fatty pork through the rich sauce, the THC hit me seemingly all at once. The chattering voices of people around me suddenly sounded much louder. The skin around my temples started to feel tight.

Dessert was an airy chocolate torte with a dollop of something called “Sans Rival cream,” a play on a traditional Filipino confection, which tasted so intensely of marijuana that I wondered if it contained ground buds of it. “This cake is amazing,” my husband said. We ate in silence for a few minutes. “Amazing,” he repeated. A woman sitting near us started cackling maniacally.

Trinidad and Doug Cohen came over to chat, and I asked them why they had chosen the OG Kush as the strain to cook with. “Whatever we can get,” Trinidad replied, laughing. “It’s not like being in San Francisco.” He plans the dinners around a given strain’s distinct flavor. A strain called Tangerine, for example, “opens up your nose”; its notes of citrus are good for salad dressing. Cohen started to explain the science of ingesting versus smoking weed, but I couldn’t focus; I gazed past him into the distance. Was a fire alarm going off? No one else seemed to hear anything. When the last plates had been cleared, the servers passed out small tins with the 99th Floor logo on them: a party favor of infused hard candies. “Each candy has five milligrams,” Trinidad explained, “so you can decide how much more fun you want to have tonight, or if you’ve had enough.” He wrapped it up: “We try to destigmatize cannabis through the language of food.” Never heard such loud applause at a dinner, my notes say.

As we left the alley in search of a cab, all I could think of was more food; that piney OG Kush, apparently, had given me a classic case of the munchies. I felt happily, hazily stuck in the rhythm and pleasure of eating, and a bit unsatisfied thinking of the courses I hadn’t finished. Wouldn’t it have been better to get high before dinner? I wouldn’t have left a scrap on my plate. Maybe the guy who had smoked behind the boat had had the right idea. Maybe the dinner should have been preceded by a cocktail hour, with mixed nuts toasted in canna-oil (Laurie Wolf has a recipe), to get the process started sooner. In L.A., I later learned, several outfits, including Altered Plates, with its “ganjier,” offer dinners with marijuana pairings: guests are invited to smoke or vape while eating, with different strains carefully selected to complement each course, like wine.

As we got into a taxi, my husband convinced me gently that, no, it wouldn’t make sense to go have another dinner. Driving home on the B.Q.E., I did the same thing I do every time I’m on the B.Q.E.: peered into the windows of the apartment buildings closest to the highway, catching snippets of otherwise inaccessible rooms and feeling deliciously, harmlessly voyeuristic and delighted to live in a dense and mysterious city. This time, the pleasure felt expansive and more profound, hitting me deep in my gut. When we got to our apartment, I rushed into the kitchen. Gnawing on a stale bagel, I wrote in my notes. It’s so sweet.