Dinner Lab: Nini Nguyen
This is a big post, and I mean that both figuratively and literally. If you stick with it until the end, I've got my first video and my first promotion.
Since my girlfriend was not in town this past Valentine's Day, I decided to spend the evening at Dinner Lab's How to Nguyen at Lovewith chef Nini Nguyen. Nguyen's pedigree includes working at Sucre and Coquette in New Orleans, followed by Three Michelin Star (!) Eleven Madison Park in NYC. She's a pastry chef by trade, but as you'll see, she's an all around badass in the kitchen.
The meal took place at NHB Knife Works, a factory just behind Civil Life Brewery churning out handmade artisan knives with stunningly beautiful handles, as you can see below.
In typical Dinner Lab fashion, Nini and her team cooked out in the open so the diners could watch.
The meal, in her own words, was supposed to feel classy and heartfelt, a series of romantic dishes meant to be enjoyed with your loved one. Or, in my case, your camera. Her first course was [symple_highlight color="blue"]The Egg[/symple_highlight], highlighting the 5-minute soft boiled egg. A half moon of whipped homemade creme fraiche served as a creamy base, countered by "grainola", a crunchy mixed of puffed rice, quinoa, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, shallots and garlic. A sexy, savory take on granola that left us all wondering where this subtle garlic taste was coming from. Pickled onions and toasted brioche were added and, finally, a dollop of caviar.
Nini's second course may have been the healthiest I've ever had at a Dinner Lab. It looked like it was just a mound of vegetables, but the taste was anything but plain. In her take on a Coquette dish, Nini makes a raw cashew puree and dots it with her nicoise olive brittle - something I know I've never had before. She dehydrates, candies, then crumbles olives, turning them into what I would call an olive candy. Incredibly creative and equally delicious. The mixed vegetables are blanched in salt water then dressed with a very tart meyer lemon vinaigrette. Wonderfully balanced dish.
The main course for the evening was [symple_highlight color="blue"]"Honey and Spice"[/symple_highlight], an ode to Nini's love of pork and the mix of sweet and savory. Perfectly cooked honey glazed pork loin was topped with a somewhat bitter coffee crumble (another favorite of mine from the evening) that made the main really pop. It was accompanied by a creamy squash "ravioli", but who cares when you've got a giant piece of pork?!
Me and this next course? Love at first sight. I knew I would like it before I even tasted it. Nini's [symple_highlight color="blue"]Hot Triple Cream[/symple_highlight] started with her making sheets of puff pastry and baking them in cupcake tins, something I've never thought about doing. She followed that up with whipping the brie and piping it into the pastry, then reheating the cheese grenade, making this a handheld and absolutely amazing version of brie en croute. I'd put it up there with Gerard Craft's gougères and Dia's cheese bread as far as baked cheesy puffs go.
While I would have happily eaten that by itself, she wasn't done. Honey was drizzled over the puff pastries when ready to serve and served with toasted baguette, candied black walnuts, and a caramelized onion mostarda.
The evening's grand finale was Nini's vision to create a dish with the beauty of white chocolate and strawberries without actually using white chocolate. I imagine that if this dish was plated on a stark white or black plate, it would look stunning. She made (white) meringue tubes that were filled with a sumptuous dark chocolate cremeaux, which I thought was brilliant.
Accompanying the chocolate tube were freshly chopped strawberries and an ice cream made from steeping cocoa nibs in milk and cream, allowing it to keep its white color.
Dinner Lab has been 3/3 with out of town chefs so far, in my mind. We've had modern Asian food from Chris Bailey, upscale Mexican from Danny Espinoza, and now this sexy/romantic meal from Nini Nguyen.
I've had a lot of questions asked about what Dinner Lab is like, is it worth the subscription, etc. Because of all the questions, Dinner Lab has been kind enough to offer a promotion available exclusively through Whiskey and Soba. If you use this link, you can buy tickets to their upcoming "CLASH OF THE CRAWFISH", Saturday, March 14th at 2pm, without being a member. It's $35 per person and is a great opportunity to meet the Dinner Lab crew and see how fun their events are. Check it out! You won't regret it.