St. Louis is no stranger to underground dining. You may remember the secret dinners that got Juniper chef John Perkins started here in town, which turned into the dining club Entre. There hasn't been much of that lately, but New Orleans-based Dinner Lab is about to change that.
The company started in August 2012 as a way to provide late-night dining options. The "secret" dinners were at midnight, which Dinner Lab figured out pretty quickly wasn't a good business model.
"All our diners showed up drunk," laughs co-owner Brian Bordainick.
The current design grew out of feedback from New Orleans chefs, who wanted to be able to experiment and try out new things -- Dinner Lab provides the venue and the audience. "But when we say experimental and new, it's not necessarily molecular gastronomy or the newest ideas, just things not traditionally offered," Bordainick says.
It's a club, so you may incur a yearly fee for access to the calendar; event tickets are generally around $60 for a five or more course meal, including tax, gratuity and alcohol. Bordainick says the extra layer of fees isn't to make Dinner Lab feel velvet-rope exclusive, but rather to subsidize the costs of getting venues, serving staff and the like.
"When we first started expanding, we looked outside of New Orleans to really large, massive cities -- the ones that always come to mind when you think about culinary places. That was really cool and we needed to do it, but as we look at this next wave of cities, we wanted to find places that resemble the vibe of New Orleans," he says. "[St. Louis is] just starting to break into what's happening in food, and there's a lot of excitement from people."
The program uses about half of its chefs from St. Louis, and then half of them will be from other markets, who have gotten a certain requirement of customer feedback and go on the road for Dinner Lab. Bordainick says this allows St. Louis to experience chefs and ideas from other cities, and at the same time export St. Louis' culinary stars to new places.
The first St. Louis Dinner Lab will be August 14, featuring New Orleans chef Mario Rodriguez. He's classically trained, but this menu is based on he and his Colombian father's favorite recipes. He'll be serving caldo de costilla de res (braised short ribs with consomme and yucca), ensalada de chayote y quinoa (jicama, sultanas with arbol de chile vinaigrette and cilantro), gallina sudada (hen with garbanzo polenta and "llajwa"), sancocho de pescado y albondigas (fish-head stew with crab dumplings, charred corn and achiote) and panetela ligera con dulce de leche helado (six-egg cake croutons with condensed milk ice cream, blackberry granita and a pistachio meringue).
You can join Dinner Lab or find more information here.
"It's just a fun way to interact and experiment with food," Bordainick says. "Our thought is that in dining, the narrative is starting to change. People aren't necessarily looking for this really stuffy white-cloth restaurant -- they're looking for amazing food."
Gut Check is always hungry for tips and feedback. E-mail the author at Nancy.Stiles@RiverfrontTimes.com.
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