Dinner Lab: Signal Fire
Dinner Lab is a national members-only supper club, which means that even if the food is terrible, you will always feel cool saying "yeah, I'm a member there". After you join, you have access to a calendar of upcoming events in your city, which you can then buy tickets to. Each dinner takes place in a unique and unexpected setting, like a parking garage, art gallery or cemetery. Okay, not at cemeteries (I don't think). The dinners are captained by either one of Dinner Lab's traveling chefs or a local "unsung hero" chef. To join in St. Louis costs $129 annually, then each dinner is around $55 per person.The price seemed steep, but I decided it was worth it for a year. And I really wanted to be able to talk about it then say, "Oh, but you're not a member, are you?"
For the inaugural St. Louis Dinner Lab, we had chef Chris Bailey of Portland, Oregon in town to make our wildest dreams come true. His dinner was to be an Asian-inspired meal called "Signal Fire". The surprise location was at 2720 Cherokee Street, an artsy/grungy event hall with a concert venue and bar on the first floor. Not only was this going to be my first Dinner Lab, but it was also my first time on Cherokee! #suburbanite
Doors opened at 7:00pm for drinks and schmoozing, and dinner started at 7:30. There's open seating, so we scoped out the best seat for photo taking and leaned the chair against the table to reserve our spots. I felt like I was back in grade school.
At each spot was a menu, some background on the chef and a Guest Chef Feedback form where you can review each course, write what you'd expect to pay and a few other things. I am pretty sure I saw my sister rating Chris himself as "super hot".
After a good thirty minutes of drinking, the dinner commenced. To start off, we were given [symple_highlight color="blue"]Fried Rice Crackers[/symple_highlight] with a salted prune powder on top. They were like an Asian potato chip, so they were a great bar snack/amuse bouche. Crunchy and salty. Perfect with booze.
The first course was a [symple_highlight color="blue"]broccoli beef[/symple_highlight], sort of. Chris took all the flavors of the typical broccoli beef and turned it into a light starter. A beef tartare sat over a hoisin-based sauce and was topped with crispy grains and fermented broccoli stems, which added a nice crunch. This marks the first time I've had an Asian-style beef tartare that I actually enjoyed.
I played paparazzi as the team of chefs worked to prepare our next course, a [symple_highlight color="blue"]Golden Coconut Curry[/symple_highlight]. Look at that teamwork! They're delicately putting young root vegetables, brown butter solids and whipped coconut milk on those plates.
When the servers put down the plates, I thought this was the whole dish. A curry without any curry to be seen. How modern! Perhaps when I bite into a potato, curry will come oozing out? No, it turns out I'm just not a very good listener. Another round of servers walked out with small jars of one of the most aromatic curries I've had the pleasure of smelling. Tumeric, ginger, Thai red chiles fluttered about my nostrils. Galangal, the sexy, exotic cousin of ginger called my name.
This was one of those dishes that hushed our table for a few minutes. The tender vegetables were very good, but I just couldn't get enough of that curry. Just look at it! It doesn't get much more golden than that. The galangal's potency really turned it up a notch, I think. Gotta love that galangal.
Here's Chef Bailey throwing down garnish like a boss as he and the team work on the [symple_highlight color="blue"]Carrot Sweet 'n' Sour[/symple_highlight]. Talking with Chris throughout, he explained that he's very much into letting vegetables shine on their own, not unlike the chefs at Niche here in St. Louis. The dish's name made me think it was going to be a play on Chinese food, but it was more Korean than anything. The carrots were sous vide in carrot juice then finished on site with a reduction of carrot juice, orange juice, soy sauce and gochujang (Korean chile paste, yo).
They were served with a quick carrot kimchi and a carrot top raita, which is an Indian yogurt sauce. The gochujang and Thai chiles made this a fairly spicy dish, so that raita came in handy. Making a carrot dish that can stand on its own like this is no easy feat; kudos, chef.
Seeing as Chris' aunt had a Thai restaurant when he was growing up, it's no surprise to see [symple_highlight color="blue"]Pla Yang[/symple_highlight] show up on his menu. The trout was stuffed with Issan Thai sausage, roasted whole, then served with a charred lime. I was surprised that each person got their own trout, but I was more surprised that it had crispy skin and was still tender and juicy, seeing as there wasn't really a kitchen there. Chris told me that they seared these in cast iron pans at their off-site kitchen, then moved them to a smoker box to finish them on-site. Aside from the sausage, the fish was not heavily seasoned, which allowed us to taste the natural flavor of the trout. I squirted some of the charred lime on about halfway through and I am definitely adding charred citrus to my fish cooking.
I stepped away from the table for a few minutes and when I returned, I saw bubble tea! Glorious. I'm a bubble tea fiend. I'd get it every few days at this place right under my apartment in Singapore. When I left, they went out of business. Not saying I kept them afloat...but I might have. Utilizing the oversized straw, I took a huge gulp and quickly realized that while this looked like a normal bubble tea, it was just a glass of bourbon mixed with milk punch. What a pleasant surprise. I've now started requesting tapioca pearls in my cocktails whenever I go out.
The meal culminated with a [symple_highlight color="blue"]Thai style ice cream sandwich[/symple_highlight], which needs some explaining. In most of Southeast Asia, the ice cream vendors that are on the streets serve the ice cream not in cones or cups, but between pieces of bread. The have loaves of bread and big blocks of ice cream and just cut off a 'slice' of whatever flavor you want. It looks like this.
For this dish, the slice of bread was replaced by the most buttery piece of brioche I've ever had in my life, toasted until just the right mix of crunchy and soft. It may have actually just been two slices of frozen butter. Between those two buttery layers of deliciousness laid a block of black sesame ice cream. If you're into black sesame, which I am because I'm cultured and shit, this would have blown you away. As if that wasn't enough, it was topped with candied cilantro (genius) and held in place by an equally unhealthy coconut jam. This was a top notch dessert.
If all the Dinner Lab meals are like this, I'm ecstatic to be a member. The whole event reminded me of being back at the cafeteria in high school, except with a lot more alcohol and fine food. If you're into drinking as much as you want, eating creative and delicious foods created by local and traveling chefs, and/or meeting new people, I highly suggest you join Dinner Lab. Sign up here! The next event is a modern Mexican meal called Anomar by chef Danny Espinoza. I'll be the guy with a camera there; say hi!