Barbecue in Texas is about smoked ribs and brisket and chicken — cooked low and slow and lathered in a sweet and tangy sauce — a dripping mess of tender goodness.
So understand the skepticism, when at a recent dinner, a course was introduced as “BBQ Bass.”
Barbecued bass just didn’t sound right; kind of like steamed steak.
My suspicions continued as the bass arrived at the table, a tidy little rectangle of fish wearing a cap of crispy skin, swimming in a thin, orange-colored sauce, a reduction of hot and sweet peppers flavored in part with slices of fennel stalk.
One bite determined the texture was perfect, the flavor flawless.
“But it’s a little misleading to say barbecue,” says tablemate George Duncan, an investments guy in Fort Worth. “It’s really good, but it’s not barbecue.”
Certainly not in the traditional sense, but then again, neither was the locale. The velvety fish and four other courses were being served up in a vacant mechanic’s garage that had been transformed into a pop-up restaurant for Dinner Lab, a dining experience as nontraditional as the food and venue — and a concept that is thriving in cities across the U.S., including Dallas.
Dinner Labs, born and still booming in New Orleans, are culinary one-night stands, restaurants set up in secret and in interesting locations featuring up-and-coming chefs showcasing their skills and creativity.
It works like this: Dinner Lab, or DL, members pay an annual fee (about $125 in Dallas) and are sent monthly emails describing an upcoming event, its chef and his/her menu. Members decide if they would like to attend and buy tickets. Speed counts: Those who can’t commit to a quick click are often left out — seats sell in a hurry.
The location is kept quiet until a day or two before — we all like surprises, right? — because, well, that’s the way DL likes it.
The most recent Dallas Dinner Lab was in an abandoned, beat-up garage (without air-conditioning and with cars buzzing by) in the Bishop Arts District.
While thunderstorms churned to the west, it was still and humid in Dallas and borderline swampy inside the building, which had garage doors open in the front and back to lure a breeze — but Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating.
The building was filled with tables to seat 96 diners, closely bordered by a makeshift kitchen/serving station and a well-stocked bar, breathing life into its gray, cinder block walls — where belt hooks and chains still hung and a busted clock was stuck on 9:30 — at least for an evening.
Diner Danny Clark was amused by the location.
“I used to work for UPS in this area, and I was in this building when it was a transmission shop, Butch’s,” Clark says.
The unique spot was in line with other DL locations — scouts scour the streets for buildings to lease — in other cities, which have held dinners in a button factory, a motorcycle dealership, a Mardi Gras float warehouse, a guitar shop, a theater stage and a pedestrian bridge.
That’s part of the novelty, including the butcher-paper tablecloths, plastic cups and sturdy bamboo plates.
The diners also double as amateur food critics for the evening. Feedback cards and pencils are provided so that each course, the venue, the wine pairings — even the table talk — get rated. Comments are encouraged.
There is no assigned seating, but with a room full of like-minded foodies, you’re guaranteed an evening of interesting and passionate conversations.
James Lynn, director of event operations for the Renaissance Dallas hotel, says he began attending DLs because of the food.
“When my wife, Katie, and I first started, it was the main reason; but, we quickly realized that there was much more to the event. The ability to sit at a table of foodie strangers in an unusual setting is as interesting, if not more, than the food alone,” Lynn says. “It seems to always be a thought-provoking debate on the car ride home to see which of the three — venue, company or food — was the most intriguing of the night. The food is what brings us all together but not the reason we stay or keep coming back.”
And make no mistake — the DLs are wildly popular. Dallas held its first event in October and the group has grown to between 350 and 400 members.
Dinner Lab is the brainchild of Brian Bordainick, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in New York and moved to New Orleans in 2007 as part of the Teach for America program.
A University of Georgia graduate and social studies teacher, Bordainick ended up at George Washington Carver High School in the Ninth Ward and was quickly moved into the position of athletic director.
Carver, the school that produced NFL Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Bordainick inherited a program on life support, one without an adequate place for students to practice or play.
“The school system there was a little messed up,” Bordainick says.
In 2008, he formed a nonprofit — the 9th Ward Field of Dreams — to raise money to build a new stadium for the school, a long, but eventually rewarding, endeavor. The stadium, which will serve the Ninth Ward community — and fittingly named the Marshall Faulk Field of Dreams Stadium — is on pace to open this fall.
While the nonprofit kept him busy, Bordainick says, the idea for Dinner Lab had long been “floating out there...it had always been sort of a work in progress.”
He traces his idea for Dinner Lab to his years growing up in suburban New York.
“So much of my upbringing...I learned at the dinner table,” Bordainick says.
He was raised in Spring Valley, about 20 miles north of Manhattan, the son of educators.
Because his parents were often busy at dinner time — “they’d kill me if they knew I was telling you this” — he says they would often leave him $20 for an evening meal.
“So I’d pocket the money and go eat at a friend’s house,” says Bordainick, explaining that the majority of them “were first-generation Americans.”
“Sometimes it was Indian, sometimes it was Asian, but it was always good.”
In New Orleans, he found a city that was loaded with “amazing French and Creole food” — but was lacking a bit for after-hour eaters. He and his buddies wanted more options and began throwing around ideas, which morphed into the concept for Dinner Lab.
“New Orleans had the right conditions,” Bordainick says.
The first Dinner Lab was on Aug. 18, 2012, on a rooftop parking garage in downtown New Orleans, where 75 people dined on Indian street food from Ravi Prakash, the company’s chief technology officer.
“It was delicious,” Bordainick recalls.
From there, they began to search for talented, little-known and adventurous chefs, challenging them to serve their best meals without the benefit of a professional kitchen.
“We want to be that springboard to the universe for someone who is talented,” Bordainick says.
The first year DL did about 80 events, and this year the company is on pace to do more than 600 events, says Edie Feinstein, Dinner Lab’s marketing and public relations director.
From New Orleans, Dinner Lab expanded to Austin, Nashville then New York City.
After debuting in Kansas City and Portland on May 9, there are now Dinner Labs in 32 cities with more than 18,000 members. Coming next: Cleveland, Raleigh and Indianapolis.
Future plans could include permanent Dinner Lab restaurants and an enhanced digital presence of culinary-based content.
“Restaurants would be a great potential spin out for us, and we’ve got some fun technology-enabled ideas for the future,” Bordainick says. “We’ve worked really hard to assemble the network of alternative locations and chefs that we currently possess, so now, we’d like to begin the process of taking this network digital and giving our community the ability to interact with it.”
All because, Bordainick says, “We bring together people for food.”
Which brings us back to the barbecued bass.
Chef Kyle McClelland of the Dallas-based Proof + Pantry was testing an idea for his new restaurant, La Madrina, which is scheduled to open this summer in the Highland Park area.
His concept, according to the menu each diner received, was “inspired by Mexican ingredients and French techniques” and “aims to bring together the elevated techniques of France with the harmonious, approachable flavors.”
Course one was a delightfully fresh crab salad, touched with cilantro and celery and topped with an edible flower.
“That would be great on a crispy wonton,” diner Duncan says, scribbling down notes.
While the opinions varied on most of the dishes — the garlic consomme was delicate, bordering on bland, and the flank steak tacos, though cooked to a perfect medium rare, could have used a touch of heat in the mango-jicama salsa — everyone agreed that the barbecued bass was “fabulous” and “delicious.”
McClelland later explained to the diners, almost apologetically, that the fish itself was not barbecued.
“The barbecue was the sauce,” he says.
The sauce was so tasty — sweet with a spicy afterburn of heat — that diners put down their forks for spoons to ladle up every drop.
“I could drink this sauce,” says Allison Kaplan, a Dallas businesswoman. “It’s that good.”
Most of the food I’ve tasted at my three Dinner Lab experiences have been outstanding, outside of the rock-hard ball of “Toasted Rice” ice cream served as a dessert during a meal of Korean-Japanese inspired cuisine. One diner was so intent on tasting it that he grabbed a ball and dipped it in sake, hoping to melt away the hardened shell.
It did not.
There were no such frustrations at the meal that chef Blaine Staniford said he spent six months perfecting.
Like all chefs working with DL, Staniford, of the Grace and Little Red Wasp restaurants in Fort Worth, is under contract with the company and followed up his Dallas Dinner Lab with an encore in Austin.
Staniford’s first course at the Dallas DL, served in a photo studio in the Design District, featured cream-fed scrambled eggs dusted with smoked trout, and yes, it was that good.
The main course was a fork-tender lamb shank that left diners yearning to recreate the recipe at home.
Lynn says he experimented “with lamb for about a month,” including its accompanying cauliflower puree, golden raisins and capers in brown butter.
Lynn, a man who acknowledges he gets excited when the new Bon Appetit magazine arrives in the mail, says, “Dinner Lab inspires me on a whole different level than BA. To be able to taste and smell and feel the new ingredients or combinations encourages and excites my passion for food way more than a well-lit picture in a magazine.”
Both Staniford and McClelland love the concept of DL.
“It’s a great opportunity for chefs to try new ideas,” McClelland says.
Says Staniford: “It gives chefs a chance to experiment outside of their normal kitchens and reach possible new clients. It’s also a great experience; you don’t know what kind of curveballs might be thrown at you, given that you’re not aware of the space until the day of. It’s a total adrenaline rush.”
He didn’t say much about the comment cards, which are provided to the chefs: “Some of it I will agree with and some I don’t.”
The results are also sent to DL members in an easy-to-read bar graph.
Bordainick says that, in its rawest form, Dinner Lab is a partnership between the diners and the chef. The data the chefs receive is simply a tool to help them make creative decisions.
“We’re not food critics...we’re just trying to provide an objective platform,” Bordainick says. “We hope the experience they are getting is extremely valuable.”
As for Bordainick and his DL team, they are benefiting, as well. Revenue is projected to reach between $12 million and $15 million this year, Bordanick says.
Never, he says, did he see the success coming.
“When you look at the logistical challenges...most people say you’re nuts,” Bordainick says. “But the core of what we’re doing resonates with people — for sure.”
Dinner Lab facts
Food epidemic: DLs are in 32 cities (at press time) with more than 18,000 members, the five biggest being: New Orleans, New York, Austin, Nashville and Washington, D.C.
Age factor: Brian Bordainick thought the original demographic would be for 20-somethings, but the average DL age is 35-38.
Coming to Cowtown? While the Dallas Dinner Lab is based in the city to the east, “members encompass Dallas, Fort Worth and the surrounding areas, so we’d like to do events in both places and cool spots in between.”
Interested? Visit http://dinnerlab.com to sign up. Dallas DL memberships are $125 (member and guest).