For the slightly more serious and adventurous food lover, scoring a meal at a Supper Club or at a “Pop-up” restaurant can be the equivalent of winning playoff tickets to a sports fan. Ordinarily, these types of events are driven by social media notifications, feature popular chefs and provide short notice or short windows of time to make a decision whether or not to attend. Any delay or waffling on the part of the potential attendee can be disappointing as these events can pop up and sell out in a matter of minutes.
This past Friday evening, such an event was hosted in Liberty Station by Dinner Lab, a fast growing membership driven, national dinner club specializing in a pop up dinner concept. Dinner Lab was established in 2011 in the French Quarter of New Orleans and now boasts chapters in 33 cities nationwide. The San Diego chapter is one of the newest and fastest growing memberships and, according to Dinner Lab insiders, new dinner events are held about once per month, with future events anticipated in all regions of San Diego, including North County in the near future.
Membership to Dinner Lab at the modest annual cost of $175 (about the equivalent of a nice meal and drinks for two) includes priority booking for upcoming events. The events feature local chefs, ranging from well-known to undiscovered, unique menus, cocktail pairings and an open bar for the evening, with the cost of individual events ranging from $60 – $75 according to some of the members present at this evening’s dinner.
Each Dinner Lab event features a local chef who prepares a unique menu for the event. While the menus and chefs are posted early so that potential attendees can make an informed decision whether or not to attend, the location of the event remains a well-guarded secret until 24 hours prior to the dinner, adding a bit of mystique and excitement to the overall experience.
For this dinner, Chef Nick Brune was recruited. Chef Nick is a southern Louisiana (Baton Rouge) native and current executive chef of The Local Habit, a Hillcrest Cali-Creole inspired eatery featuring organic foods made from scratch using seasonally available, local produce, house cured meats and homemade breads. Chef Nick is also the co-founder of Eco Caters with locations in San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a primarily self-taught cook from the heart of “flavor country” with line experience in such well known New Orleans establishments as Mr. B’s Bistro and Commander’s Palace and extensive catering and event planning experience throughout Los Angeles for a wide variety of high end and celebrity clientele.
Present at this evening’s dinner were about 75 guests. The venue was a brick clad space (very much in keeping with the type of construction usually found in the Southern Louisiana region) with an industrial feel that allowed plenty of room for the guests to mix and mingle and which appeared to require a minimum of both preparation and clean up.
For this event, two specialty cocktails, including the New Orleans classic Sazerac were served as well as an array of beer and wine. The bar was open and available throughout the evening’s festivities.
Folding tables and chairs are set up for the dinner and each diner is provided a menu containing the evening’s courses as well as a “review” card, allowing them to write down their thoughts about each of the evening’s courses. This diner feedback is shared with the Dinner Lab staff and the guest chef so that future experiences can be appropriately enhanced.
The open kitchen concept for the dinner is designed to allow diners a “behind the scenes” look at the preparation of the food and accessibility to the guest chef and staff that are preparing and serving their meals. The spartan nature of the kitchen setup adds a bit of a higher degree of difficulty for the participating chefs, creating almost a competition like atmosphere where the meals are prepared with unfamiliar equipment in an unfamiliar space, thereby showcasing the versatility of the participating chefs.
The evening’s fare started out with a warm spinach salad containing pepper bacon and topped with a chevre (goat cheese) stuffed roasted pepper and apple cider vinaigrette. This had the perfect amount of acid and oil to help marry the flavors while the round, full flavor of the roasted pepper married nicely with the herbed chevre filling, all accented by the slight saltiness of the bacon pieces.
By far, the most anticipated and arguably the most enjoyable dish of the night were the frog’s legs. Many in attendance had never seen a cooked frog’s leg before, let alone eaten one. According to Dinner Lab members Jessica and Matt, this was the most “adventurous” menu they had seen of the four dinners they had attended to date. “Some of the other dinners have been very traditional California type menus. The frog legs aren’t something you can get anywhere, so we’re are really excited about that!”
As they should have been. Frog legs are traditionally served southern fried. They have what can be best described as a fishy chicken flavor with a firm, almost lump crab like texture, which the frying process tends to help both disguise and bind together. In keeping with the “Cali” version of the night’s theme, the frog legs served this evening were sans batter, roasted and, surprisingly, had no distinguishable fishy flavor. Chef Nick attributed this to a 24 hour marinating period in salt, which helped to pull the fishiness out of the legs that would ordinarily be battered over in a traditional fried preparation. The light aromatic hint of anise on the dish, contributed by the tarragon, combined with the delicate texture and flavor of the meat for a completely unique amphibian imbibing experience.
Next to anything “Blackened”, BBQ Shrimp may be one of the most quintessential, rustic gourmet, New Orleans style dishes known. The flavor profile is heavily dependent on Worcestershire sauce and a lot of butter. In fact, Chef Nick relayed while interacting with our dinner table that at one of the restaurants that he worked at in New Orlean’s, they went through 70,000 lbs. of butter a year while making this dish.
These grilled Baja shrimp soaked in a southern style, unique sweet and sour type “BBQ” sauce were both a flavor bomb and a delicate seafood dish rolled into one. The bread was not gratuitous — it was a necessary component to not missing a drop of the sauce that rolled off of the shrimp.
Gumbo is as integral to the Cajun/Creole diet as the rice that it sits upon. A stew type mÃ©lange of ingredients that can range from okra and both domestic and wild game to the more popular variants that include seafood spanning the spectrum from crawfish to crab, there is nary a minute, night or day, in that region where you won’t find someone talking about the gumbo they just had or will be having in the immediate future.
The version presented by Chef Nick for the dinner contained shrimp, cod, andouille sausage (the quintessential Cajun spiced and smoked pork sausage) and clam broth. It was creamy and jam packed with cooked down, melded seafood flavor and Cajun spices, all held slightly in check by the accompanying steamed rice. This is southern Louisiana comfort food at its best.
The dessert of Buttermilk Pie topped with a strawberry gel was a great way to cleanse the palate at the end of a flavorful, spicy, seafood-y type of night. Once again, the dish asserted its southern roots while boasting the freshness of California local ingredients.
Mission accomplished! Four servers, one event coordinator, one guest chef, three back of house (kitchen) staff, a guy with a hipster hat and Mr. Excitable in the back was the final count for those providing great fare and service in a low key environment with seemingly well-received results, as the exit polls showed.
Dinner Lab may be onto something here. With the concept comes the innate understanding that not every food lover has the time or ability to track down individual pop up or supper club events, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less adventurous or thrill seeking in terms of wanting unique dining options. Problem solved. Through Dinner Lab, adventure seeking diners can now enjoy a variety of unique food offerings prepared by Chefs willing to take the challenge by simply checking their inbox for the notification of the upcoming events. Cheers, my friends!
Operating in 33 U.S. cities