In my ongoing quest to discover unique food in unique places, I've joined a members only dinner club here in Los Angeles called Dinner Lab. I didn't have to eat fish heads or pig eyes for entry into this club, but I did have to fill out an application with some of my eating preferences and guess what a sombrero wearing penguin might say when he walked into a Mexican restaurant. It appears I know my Mexican Happy Feet friends, but I'm also guessing my credit card cleared the annual fee just as well, and like that, I'm a proud Dinner Lab member.
Dinner Lab was created in New Orleans by some friends who were frustrated, and hungry, late at night in the Big Easy. Without a lot of great dining options, they started late night pop ups wherever they could find space - the less legal, the more exciting. With some noodling and a little future planning, the foodie friends eventually created the membership based dining club, Dinner Lab.
Dinner Lab is now in 10 cities and growing quickly. Membership has already been capped in LA at 400, but they're currently looking at retooling the seatings from 2 per event to 3, which will allow them to take more members, so stay tuned for more info.
How it works is an email is sent to members announcing a new event. Each event has a different chef, different menu and is in a different location. Locations aren't revealed until a few days before and they're often a big part of the allure since they're usually in a place you wouldn't normally dine like warehouses, art galleries, old retail space, and in my case, we were in a former plane hangar, east of downtown. If you're interested in the meal outlined in the email, you go online to buy your ticket. You can buy a seat for you and up to one other person. Most of the dinners have been selling out in hours, if not minutes. The dinners are reasonably priced around $60, which usually includes 5 courses, alcohol and tip, which is fairly reasonable for cooking of this caliber, not to mention creativity and quantity.
My first dinner was labeled A Filipino Christmas Story since the guest chef was Ashley Guzman, a Filipino chef anxious to share her holiday cuisine and traditions with us.
Once the location was revealed, we headed east and found ourselves driving past Skid Row, down a quiet street and beyond a graffiti filled gate. Just past the gate was a lit opening where we were greeted, checked in and then entered our unique dining space after walking past a series of old cars.
There were two seatings that included 30 people at 7pm and another 30 people at 7:30pm. There was a range of drinks from which to choose including two cocktails, 2 white wines, 2 reds and 2 beers. Cocktail hour was for a half hour and we were able to roam the space, talk to the chefs, inspect the food (ok, maybe that was just me) and choose our seat.
The people we sat with were all food enthusiasts as you might imagine and an extremely upbeat, energetic bunch, happy to be there. Ages ran the gamut, but were mostly concentrated in the 30s and 40s.
There was a menu with details on each dish, as well as some drink pairings, along with a comment card to critique each dish, giving the chef and Dinner Lab great feedback for future events.
Servers delivered all dishes, as well as filled water and drink orders. We started with patatas lumpia, or Filipino egg roll. It can be difficult to make an egg roll really stand out, but the flash frying produced a crisp roll that let the potato and beef inside speak and the sinimak vinegar sauce brightened the dish for a great beginning.
The friendly servers then brought us pancit bihon which was a bowl full of rice noodles with some unique ingredients like longaniza, a delicious smoked sausage similar to chorizo, and calamansi, a citrus fruit used in many Filipino dishes. I liked a lot of the ingredients individually but felt like there was a great unifier missing - broth or sauce?
We then received bowls of Sinigang, a sour tamarind and fish head soup that included large pieces of pork belly. Warm, salty, sweet, savory, delicious. We received a recommended beer pairing with this dish of a San Miguel lager, giving richness and depth to the entire course.
Already filling, we then received a sizable portion of adobo. A wonderfully succulent soy braised chicken laid a top garlic rice and pickled green papaya atchara produced a lightness that elevated the dish.
Our final course was a unique Bibingka. A banana leaf steamed rice cake was dusted with coconut and topped with cream cheese for a real wow closer. This nearly savory dessert was paired with a sweet Sago at Gulaman, think brown sugar, vanilla, caramel for the perfect ending to an exciting meal and new dining club.
If you're interested in joining Dinner Lab yourself, you can use this link here to sign up and you'll get $20 off your first dinner, and so will I. Not too bad.