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Plate passing takes center stage

Dining out always has elements of theater about it.

By stripping away formal trappings like waitstaff, menus and even the restaurant dining room, Ripe Catering's family suppers veer from the traditional script. The result is not an absence of drama. Instead, it's more like the difference between performance art and a normal play.

Although they're no longer the original, invitation-only affairs, an air of mystery still surrounds Ripe proceedings. You can make a reservation via e-mail or over the phone (to speak to areal person, try calling in the afternoon). Either way, plan ahead, as prime nights fill up weeks ahead of time.

Like a secret agent, you receive your instructions a few days before the event. Take a left, take a right. Park. Walk up the dark, uneven street until you see a chain-link fence. Follow the pathway past the old shed. Don't be late.

You enter a big, working kitchen, filled with long tables. Ripe's suppers are not for misanthropes: Forty-two people sit together, passing communal vessels of food from hand to hand.

No one greets you at the door. People are milling around. This mild chaos forces diners to speak to one another: Is there a coat rack? Yes. Is there assigned seating? Yes. How do I get wine? There's a little counter where you can order wine by the glass or bottle. You don't know what's for dinner until you sit down at the table, but with advance warning, vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions are accommodated.

The night of my visit, we landed the best seats in the house, at the end of the last table by the door. Seated smack in the middle of the kitchen, we could watch chef Tommy Habetz crumbling huge handfuls of cheese over the salad and pouring a giant steaming kettle of pasta into a colander.

Ingredients, rather than culinary sleight of hand, steal the limelight here. The huge bowl of salad, from which I helped myself and then passed to the right, showcased robust, ruffled leaves of purple and green winter lettuce, with walnuts, pears, and an exceptionally mild and creamy blue cheese.

Sharing food this way elicits family memories, some of festive holiday feasts, some not so happy. One man toward the end of our table said nervously, as the salad slowly headed his way, 'Is anyone here from a big family?' There was plenty of food. We passed the bowls around a second time. We ate it all.

Next I was handed a huge platter of pasta, of a simple, uniform brown. Linguini with chicken liver ragu, read the menu card by my plate. A harmonious mix of cheese, garlic and red pepper flecks brought out the earthy, comfortable flavor of chicken liver. The general consensus of the guests was 'Mmm.' Once again, we cleaned our plates. Which is fortunate, because you only get one.

Terra-cotta platters of rock cod arrived. Baked with tomatoes, capers, and olives, it was OK, but É Up to this point, everything seemed like a buildup, and even though there was nothing technically wrong with the fish, the spark just wasn't there. Nor was it in the roasted Yukon gold potatoes, cooked just right, but too plain.

Braised romaine topped with pine nuts and currants brought a unique texture and a bite of vinegar to the plate. Spirits at the table seemed to flag slightly with the main course, and platters went back with pieces of cold fish on them.

Dessert is served in individual portions. We had slices of pie with a buttery crust, smooth caramel custard and billows of whipped cream. Slices of blood oranges added color, while the citrus cut through the sugar and cream.

As a final symbol that this is not a restaurant, you're asked to discreetly drop your money in a jar on your way out the door, instead of crassly exchanging funds with your host.

The success of all this stagecraft hinges on the quality of the food, which is mostly top-notch. But in moments of doubt, one has to wonder: Why don't they just hang a sign on the door? And more important, why is there a used toothbrush in the bathroom? Isn't that taking audience participation a little too far?