Dinner Lab (http://www.dinnerlab.com/) is a concept that is brand new to Austin and only exists here and in New Orleans. It’s a membership-only dining experience that showcases up-and-coming and relative unknown chefs by letting them cook a multi-course meal in an off-the-beaten path type of setting.
I first heard about Dinner Lab from my friend Jen (who by the way has now bought a shaker for her apartment) who got wind of it from living in New Orleans. I took barely a glance and their website before I was PayPal-ing the $100 annual membership fee and had signed up for the inaugural dinner. The theme was “North Korean” with food by Chef Jae Jung who currently cooks in New Orelans. The location of dinner wasn’t released until the night before the event and as my friend Kelly and I pulled up to the specified address we were a little confused: Delta Lumber Millworks, a wood shop and lumber mill on East 5th Street.
As we walked through the front offices and back into the warehouse, we followed strung-up twinkle lights to three long set tables, a makeshift bar and three folding tables set up for the make-shift kitchen. Music was playing from someone’s iPhone plugged into a portable speaker, the garage doors flanking the back of the building were opened and the drinks were flowing.
Chef Jung was introduced and she talked a little of her personal history growing up in Korea and the differences in Korean cooking between regions, then the dishes started coming out one by one. They were very well-timed, the staff was all extremely attentive without being intrusive or annoying and I give props to whoever made the playlist because it crushed. Here’s the menu:
Goolin Mandoo (Pyongan Province): pork dumpling, beef consomme and caramelized spring onion
Goosoo Muchim (Pyongyang City): cilantro and watercress salad, walnut, sesame vinegarette
DMZ Kimchi Trio: North Korean style, South Korean style, mustard green kimchi; brisket, tofu, and sweet potato
Hyeju Bibimbap (Hwanghae-namdo Province): seven grain rice bowl with duck breast, bean sprouts, summer squash, rehydrated pyo go mushroom, bok choy, mushroom cured egg yolk, spring onion emulsion
Hotteok: cinnamon-laced pan-fried pastry with green tea caramel, black pepper creme fraiche and Korean chili paste paired with cinnamon punch
I loved every single dish, and really the only qualm I had was that since everything was prepped prior to dinner, the Hotteok was fried prematurely and was a little chewy by the time it got to us, but that black pepper creme fraiche was ridiculously good so I didn’t care. I can’t say the same for the woman sitting next to me… pretentious foodies! Each dish was well-conceived and had great balance. None felt too heavy and I couldn’t get enough of the mushroom cured egg yolk. It had the consistency of a gel (so sort of medium boiled?) and had such great flavor.
Overall it was one of the most amazing dining experiences of my life. The atmosphere, the mystery of where the dinner will take place, the creativity in the dishes, the unlimited drinks, plus it all feels like some awesome underground club that I barely want to share on here because it’s kind of an awesome secret. Plus, it’s affordable: tickets were $50/each, with all drinks/food/gratuity included, which is less than I spend at a lot of amazing restaurants here in Austin. And it gives unrecognized chefs a chance to shine at whatever type of cuisine they want, not necessarily what they cook at their respective restaurants. There was just this energy in the room the entire night that made you SO excited about killer food and good company. I left feeling full and so so happy. Tickets have been bought for next Saturday’s event “The Duck”. Stay tuned.