Social Dining Surrender

Dinner Lab Austin pops up with unconventional dishes

For introverted food lovers, Dinner Lab’s tagline “membership-based, social dining experiment that unites undiscovered chefs with adventurous diners” might be intimidating to the degree of panic, despite a little twinge of burning curiosity. Last Saturday evening, I joined in.

We dined, communally, with strangers, with no preconceived notion of the space or menu or tablemates. And loved it. Sure, Dinner Lab diners must be adventurous eaters open to evenings of wild culinary abandon, but these aren’t Andrew Zimmern-level wacky dishes. Instead, the premise is undiscovered cooks and chefs with a vision and a chance to make unusual and interesting food for an open-minded crowd. A winning combination to be sure.

Dinner Lab hosts membership-based pop-up dinners at non-restaurant locations - parking garages, meadows, or former venues of various types - in 10 cities across the country, including Austin. Our local branch membership is $100 annually and that fee gives access to the event details, for which tickets can be purchased online. Interestingly, all of the fees (including tip) are included in the cost of the ticket (usually between $50-95), so that no cash or card exchange takes place at the event, easing the tension that money matters can inspire. The format of each event changes, often as a result of the location, with most being sit-down, and some designed as happy hours with hors d'oeuvres.

Courtesy of Jane Ko of Taste of Koko

My friend and I sat at a table for eight, among many more tables of the same size placed throughout the venue. The space, formerly the Verona restaurant, and before that Carraba’s, is part of the newly redeveloped Linc, formerly known as Lincoln Village shopping center. Hosts greeted us at the door, checked our names off the list, and gestured to the bar where our welcome drink, an Elderberry Old Fashioned, would be served. We suddenly felt part of a secret underground club of cool people. No “hangry” bench-warmers, no “let’s hurry and stuff our gullets and make the movie” people. The group, which seemed to hover under 100 people spread amongst their designated tables, waited patiently and seemingly happily, with pop tunes bopping in the background, for quite some time before the crew came to get the foodie games started.

Janelle Reynolds, one of the two local winners on the 2013 season of Food Network's Chopped, is currently serving as chef de cuisine for Dinner Lab Austin. She, along with the front of the house manager, explained that our guest chef for the evening was chef Chris Sorter, the chef de cuisine for Nashville’s Dinner Lab. His bio card shed light on our impending experience: ”Combining his skills of approachable cuisine with Midwestern class, his food is such a paradox of rustic and refined that there’s going to be brains and bellies exploding all over the walls.” We the guests were also asked to fill out the comment cards as the five courses progressed, so that Sorter could glean feedback from the diners regarding both his menu hits and misses.

Courtesy of Jane Ko of Taste of Koko

On the flip side of the bio card was the night’s menu, a welcomed sight. The first and second courses were my favorites, though most of our table preferred the last three.

1) Grilled Sardines - lemon pesto, fennel conserva, and grilled shisito peppers

2) Mouclade - mussels laden with dill & leek cream and pickled fresno chow chow; paired with Le Chiffre - Tanqueray, Lillet, Strega, lemon

3) Porchetta - rolled pork collar and belly, house-made Hawaiian roll, jam, arugula and radish salad; paired with Crispin Hard Apple Cider

4) Manhattan - braised short rib, lobster gravy, truffled pomme puree, atop a circular cut-out piece of toasted white bread; paired with Limoux Chardonnay 2010

5) Bone Marrow Crème Brûlée - glazed with balsamic reduction and almond tuile

My first Dinner Lab experience began at 8pm and when we finally looked at the time, our entire table was shocked to see it pushing 11pm. The rich conversation, from people of many backgrounds, ranged from irreverent but good-natured jokes to backyard garden stories to To Kill a Mockingbird and, of course, back to food. Overall, the menu was well-executed (despite a few oddities and edits which were mentioned on our power-wielding rating cards) and a few of the dishes were restaurant-worthy. We would go back, willing to surrender ourselves to the surprisingly fun social dining experiment, whenever and wherever the next Dinner Lab experience happens to pop up.

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Dinner Lab, pop-up dinner, Linc, Janelle Reynolds, Chris Sorter, Chopped, sardines

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