Monday, June 30, 2014

@DinnerLab: A First-Timer's Experience in Nashville

Disclaimer:  I purchased my own Dinner Lab membership, so this review is purely my own.  I'd love if you would use my referral link to sign up/learn more about Dinner Lab, so I can earn $ towards future events!

Recently, Dan and I had our first Dinner Lab experience.  Recommended by my friends at work, we paid for a subscription to Dinner Lab events, and made a reservation for Chef Ryan Haigler's "The Market Room: Taste + Technique + Tradition" meal.  Chef Ryan is part of a current chef's tour for Dinner Lab, competing for a chance to get funding for his own restaurant.

Menu, Scorecard, and the Chef!

The way Dinner Lab works: It's basically, as Forbes put it, a modern-day supper club.  You pay for a year-long subscription ($100-200 depending on where you live), and they e-mail you about upcoming events.  You then make a reservation (they sell out fast), ranging from $50-95 per person.  Your meal price includes a minimum of five courses, an open bar, and gratuity.  They e-mail you the venue location 24 hours in advance (lovely mystery!) and then you just show up and give your name.

The venue was 506 Events Gallery, located in what appears to be a former industrial building converted to the space and some apartment lofts.  It was near the river, and there wasn't much else around but public works buildings and other industrial complex stuff.  Unique, to be sure!

We kicked off with a half hour of cocktails and mingling.  It's open seating, so it's nice to get to know the people around you.  Dan had some beer (note: they pour it in little glasses unless you ask for can/bottle) and I had the Planter's Punch.  I love that Chef Ryan was raised in the Lowcountry, because this punch reminded me of Savannah!

Soon, it was time to eat!  We kicked off with a first course of Burnt Pepper Sambuca Sausage, paired with a pilsener beer from Germany.  Chef Ryan has been hunting/butchering pretty much since he could walk, and he ran the butcher program at Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico for two years.  As we ate this delicious sausage, complemented by pickled giardiniera and fresh mustard, he recounted how he learned to make sausage from his grandmother the old-school way, filling casings using an old cow's horn!  This was definitely a delicious course.  Dan felt that with the pickles a pairing with a more tart beer would have been even better.

I was a little nervous about the second course, a Chilled Avocado & Yogurt Soup.  The thing is, I don't I don't like cold soup, or green stuff.  But with the cayenne crema on this, the cold soup had a spicy kick to it that kept me from thinking, "I'm a carnivore trying to be polite and taste this green stuff."  I had more than a few spoonfuls!  As people who know me will tell you, that is a surprise unto itself.

I don't eat a lot of seafood, but I was excited about the Crab & Mascarpone Crepe.  Crab is one of the few seafood meats I eat, so long as I don't have to get it out of a shell.  Dan was skeptical about this course, but he was pleasantly surprised; he cleaned his plate!  The filling was slightly warmed,and the pepper & spring onion jelly on top was delicious.  Seriously, I'd eat it on toast.

The main course (you read menus ahead of time) is what sold me on the meal.  Black Garlic Stuffed Pork Shoulder, served on a Carolina grit cake with braised greens and pot likker liaison.  The pork was so tender, you didn't need a knife.  The grit cake was delicious, and surprisingly not soggy from everything else going on the plate.  The course was paired with a California Chardonnay.

Dan and I were both floored by dessert.  iPhone photos simply don't do it justice.  Peanut Butter & Jelly Cheesecake, with a blueberry-jalapeƱo jam, peanut butter candy, and malted marshmallow?  DIVINE.  You could hear people's spoons clinking against the little jars as they scraped every last bit into their mouths.  The guy next to me (originally from Iowa) and I agreed that the filling reminded us of a tasty Midwest peanut butter sheet cake.

Throughout the meal, you fill out comment cards on each of the courses.  Was it tasty, creative, restaurant-worthy?  It feels kind of weird judging a chef's meal, given we aren't trained like they are... but these ratings and comments are the constructive criticism they gain to improve their craft.  I think that's why they come to Dinner Lab.  It's great exposure, but it allows experimentation without too much risk.

On the way home, Dan and I discussed this first experience with Dinner Lab.  First, we discussed how the portion sizes were perfect; after five courses and plenty of drinks, we both felt full but not stuffed.  Second, we thought that Chef Ryan Haigler absolutely nailed it.  The meal was creative, but not overly pretentious.  It reminded us of the time we each spent near Savannah.  Lastly, we both agreed we want to do this again.  When we did the mental math, it was cheaper than other upscale dining experiences we've had in the past.  It's a great way to taste unique flavors and live out foodie fantasies.

Dinner Lab is currently available in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, DC, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and St. Louis.

Disclaimer:  I purchased my own Dinner Lab membership, so this review is purely my own.  I'd love if you would use my referral link to sign up/learn more about Dinner Lab, so I can earn $ towards future events!

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  1. I've never heard of Dinner Lab before, but it sounds like a fun concept! Looks like y'all had a great time :)

    XX, SS || A Little Seersucker Sass

  2. That first course looks delicious. I'm glad you posted about this. I was curious about it after seeing your instagram photos.

  3. It is really neat! It's also expanding very quickly as it becomes more and more popular. I feel like they've been adding 5 cities a year or something like that. I think the cost of capital is low given you don't have to own a space, pay a ton of chef salaries, etc.

  4. Yeah! And for each event, they will list at the bottom of the sign-up which allergies (usually nut, treenut, shellfish and gluten) and vegetarian/pescatarian preferences they can accomodate.

  5. Wow! They accommodate allergies?! That's super rare.

  6. Only certain allergies for certain meals, since the menus are set up with a theme and chef's specialty. But yes, they can usually accommodate if they are told in advance! A girl next to us had the vegetarian version of all our food. Slightly different, but in the same spirit and flavor profile.


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