Dinner Lab

By: Sarah Jaquay

“The best things are eaten with your hands,” notes Chicago-based Chef Danny Espinoza. He was talking about his tostada puerco—a tostada covered with tender pork guacamole, carnitas and Jicama; and he was talking to a large crowd of Northeast Ohioans gathered for the Cleveland launch of New Orleans-based Dinner Lab on July 23 and 24. It’s part of the pop-up dinner concept where a chef throws a party in unique venues without much notice—at least not to the members/diners. Cleveland’s inaugural Dinner Lab was hosted at smARTspace at 78th –an industrial space that was once home to American Greetings’ creative studios. It’s been transformed into a collection of galleries with plenty of room for events.

The way Dinner Lab works: diners pay for an annual membership and receive invitations to pop-up dinners with 48 hours’ notice of venue, culinary theme and the Chef’s name. Dinner Lab is popping up all over America, including Columbus and Cleveland. (No worries Cincinnati—your first one is slated for this fall.) The concept is the dues covers everything: food, alcohol, tax and tip. All guests need to do is show up and provide feedback if they like. The feedback pertains to the “lab” part of the evening. Local or out-of-town chefs experiment with new recipes for some of the courses. If the crowd loves the experiment, the chef may incorporate it into his/her repertoire. Guests may also suggest improvements. The feedback comes from survey cards at each place setting.

Down-to-earth Chef Danny introduced Clevelanders to “Anomar: Modern Mexican Cuisine,” which he describes as “Mexican without the bull—-.” No small portions and no foam where you’re expecting food. When asked what Anomar means, he said it’s his grandmother’s name backwards. Ramona taught this Chicagoan a lot about Mexican cuisine and culture.

Espinoza trained at Kendall College in Chicago and has worked at many respected restaurants including: The Drawing Room, Mexique and the venerable Ausable Club in the Adirondacks. He showed off his chops at smARTspace with five courses. The third was the experiment: fried chicken with a mole of carrots and cilantro grits. My husband and I inhaled the carrot mole, but thought the dish would be better with sautéed chicken. My favorite was the mahi mahi smothered with mole verde sauce. Dessert was a killer: a variation of Mexican cornbread with strawberries, roasted peanuts and goats’ milk caramel.

Ramona wasn’t at the event, but you can bet Clevelanders are boasting about being the first in the neighborhood to experience Anomar cuisine—just hoping you’ll ask about their status as Dinner Lab guinea pigs.

See www.dinnerlab.com for more information.

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