Cleveland is lucky to have a number of wonderful, well-established dining events that have built up right alongside our bountiful food scene. They range from chef-driven Dinner in the Dark events to farm-chic Plated Landscape banquets and everything in between. Last week, our fair city welcomed in a new outfit, Dinner Lab, which launched back in 2012 and now holds events in about 35 cities.
Every organization has its own twist, and Dinner Lab is no different. The roving fete bills itself as an underground dinner club that unites diners with emerging culinary talent in unexpected places. Unlike most of the pop-ups we know and love, this one features out-of-town talent, usually an up-and-coming chef who is working toward opening a place of his or her own.
"In terms of the chefs, we typically try to take the second in command, like the sous chef or really talented line cook at a top restaurant, who is looking to showcase their own menu," explains Hallie Dietsch, the group's director of human resources.
In our case, that talent was Daniel Espinoza, an enthusiastic chef with Mexican roots who has worked in Chicago restaurants like Mexique and the former Drawing Room. He described his five-course menu, which he prepared from an open makeshift kitchen, as "Mod Mex without the bullshit" — food that was inspired by his grandmother's soulful cooking.
"These are not actual recipes of hers, but food is very nostalgic," he told the room of about 60. "How can I make her food in a more upscale way while never forgetting about the flavors or sugar-coating the spices?"
The "unexpected" setting was an open industrial warehouse space in the 78th Street Studios. Guests learn of the location just one day before the event. To attend, diners must be a member (or guest of a member) of Dinner Lab by paying an annual fee of $125 as well as the ticket price of $60. In more established cities like Columbus, Austin and Chicago, tickets routinely sell out within hours.
Frequent attendees of events like these know they can look forward to long lines at the bar (if there even is one), interminable waits for food that often is lukewarm when it does finally arrive, and meals that drag on for hours on end, punctuated by self-congratulatory speeches that only serve to push back the end time.
Dinner Lab feels different. Two bartenders easily kept pace with the crowd, which arrives gradually over the 30-minute cocktail hour. For the ticket price, guests enjoyed an open bar serving a house cocktail and multiple types of beer and wine. That was in addition to the beverages served throughout the meal.
We selected seats at communal tables where guests were eager to introduce themselves and get to know one another. Following a brief introduction from the chef and organizer, the main event began almost immediately. Before our table introductions were done, we were digging into a refreshing ceviche-style calamari salad that was bright, tart and a wee bit spicy. Tender squid rings and tentacles, shaved fennel and small nuggets of chorizo swam in a creamy chile-spiked dressing.
Our second course was a riot of texture, flavor and pleasure. A crispy tostada was smeared with creamy guacamole, piled high with shredded braised pork, and garnished with a tangle of jicama ribbons, turned pink from the hibiscus vinegar used to pickle them. The third course taught us that mole need not be dark, earthy and chocolaty. Espinoza's version, made from caramelized carrots, nuts and chiles, was fruity, tropical and intense. It sauced two crispy little filets of panko fried chicken, which themselves sat in cilantro-spiked grits. It's a dish everybody at the table would pay for in a restaurant without hesitation. I know because that's a question on the feedback card that every guest is asked to fill out. The practice, a recurring feature of these Dinner Lab events, provides vital feedback for the chefs, who rely on it for future events and, down the road, their own restaurant.
We enjoyed a meaty flank of mahi-mahi on a tart and spicy salsa verde, followed by a sweet and savory vanilla sponge cake capped with strawberry foam and spicy peanuts and macerated strawberries. And just like that the event was over, clocking in at a little over two hours. Given the price, pace and portion size, it's easy to see why these dinners are a hit.
Next up for Cleveland are events on August 18 and 19. Both the chef and location are as yet unannounced. Go to dinnerlab.com to sign up.