Pop-ups are fairly common events in Houston, where a variety of chefs (often in conjunction with bartenders and sommeliers) band together to throw a one-time meal. Pop-ups have been used as fundraisers, helped chefs launch restaurants and functioned as creative outlets that allow chefs to cook different meals than what is normally served at their own restaurants.
Dinner Lab puts a few twists on the pop-up idea, bringing in out-of-town chefs to execute meals based on personal stories and backgrounds. (Local chefs may be featured as well and then invited to show off their talents in other cities.)
The meals are not held inside traditional restaurants. Dinner Lab instead opts for eclectic venues. In other cities, dinners have been hosted in abandoned churches, museums, motorcycle dealerships and boxing gyms. One dinner was held on a helipad.
The other twist is that one must have a membership in order to receive invitations to attend these events. The fee is $125 and can be purchased online. A member can bring one guest.
That fee would buy a very nice one-time dinner, but what the membership gets you are several opportunities throughout the year to attend these curated experiences. Most dinners range from $50 to $90 per member, depending on type of experience, chef and what's being served. Dinner Lab expects to start offering these events approximately every two weeks.
The unique setup also eliminates the need for closing out the bill at the end of the meal. One can simply enjoy the experience. It feels rather civil to not be presented with a bill at the end--more like a big dinner with friends.
The venues are kept secret. The day before the event, members receive an email with the location and directions. The first Houston Dinner Labs were held this past Friday and Saturday night at Maker Space. Maker Space is a warehouse in East Houston that normally offers arts and crafts classes, as well as workshop time. I was invited to come check it out as a hosted media guest.
The featured chef for this inaugural run was Mario Rodriguez and the dinner's theme was "Sabor de Colombia" in honor of his heritage. It was a progression through some of his Columbian father's favorite dishes. Rodriguez was most recently based in New Orleans and his résumé includes La Petite Grocery, as well as Fatty Crab and Gramercy Tavern in New York.
The warehouse doors on the night of our visit were wide open and there were lots of big fans to ensure that the August heat didn't distract from dinner. The airy environment was actually quite enjoyable. We lined up for the makeshift bar area (which normally functions as the warehouse office) where a selection of South American wines and beers were served. Servers refilled all drinks as needed during the dinner, and there were specific drink pairings for two of the five courses.
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Diners were also given scorecards to fill out during the meal to rate the dishes and pairings. We started with a light consommé called caldo de costilla de res that included bits of braised short rib and cubes of yucca that managed to stay a bit crispy keeping the otherwise simple soup interesting.
The second course was a texture fest, a cool salad where coyote squash mingled with red pickled grapes on a bed of red quinoa brightened by chile de arbol vinaigrette. Although it on paper it read like too complicated of a flavor profile to make a good pairing, a Manzanilla sour really did work well. The tea, lemon and honey flavors danced along with the quinoa salad in a complicated tango.
The third course was a riff on pollo sudado, or Columbian chicken stew, which arrived snugly ensconced in a banana leaf. Unwrapping the package revealed a prize akin to a squarish chicken tamale drizzled with creamy avocado sauce. Garbanzo polenta successfully stood in for masa. It was the high point of the dinner.
A little mysterious jar on the table came into play, for it held llajwa, a Bolivian hot sauce made with locoto peppers, tomatoes and an herb that's similar to cilantro called quillquiña. Diners at our end of the table put a tentative amount on the pollo sudado at first, but then, despite the heat, added more as they became addicted to the heady flavors. The jar had a lot less left in it by the time we were done and we wished for jars of our own so we could douse scrambled eggs with it in the morning.
Following that was sancocho de pescado, a fish stew studded with sweet potato, charred corn and enhanced with achiote. It was warm, comforting and, paired with an Argentinean Torrontes, successful, but boy that pollo sudado was a tough act to follow.
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Wrapping up was panetela ligera con helado, which translates to "light sponge cake with ice cream." While Rodriguez's father was from Columbia, his grandmother was an Ecuadorian who made meringues and cakes. This dessert was obviously an homage to her. The cake had been cut into little cubes and was served alongside dulce de leche ice cream. The best part? The crunchy little bites of baked meringue strewn throughout.
Is it worth $125 a year to be able to attend dinners like this one? It depends on what you value. If you're really into food, enjoy dining alongside people who are equally passionate and knowledgeable about cuisine and want to experience it in an eclectic environment; it's a hands-down "yes."
The next Dinner Lab event will be on October 3 and is called "Made In Thailand." It features chef Lalita Kaewsawang. The menu features, among other things, her rendition of her grandmother's red curry chicken.
If you're interested in learning more or joining, visit the Dinner Lab web site.