It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!
The warehouse at 2839 North Robertson St. is a cavernous former paper mill filled with a few dusty artist studios and a large expanse of lumber piled next to a forklift. On a recent Friday night, just after dusk, a police cruiser was parked in front of the building, providing security, with its blue light silently flashing.
A handful of people stood outside, heads tilted up, gazing at the building. Their reflections, caught in the flashers, played like shadow puppets on the wall.
Among them was Brian Bordainick, our host for the evening, who at that moment was acting like a crossing guard trying to usher the group inside. The night’s event -- a sit-down, five-course Bolivian dinner set on folding tables among the building materials -- was about to begin.
This is Dinner Lab, an underground supper club that strips away the typical restaurant trappings and replaces it with a pop-up experience that’s like the dining equivalent of a rave.
Participants learn of the dinners mostly through word of mouth, or its 21st century cousin, Twitter. Reservations are made online and paid in advance. The menu is posted, but the location isn’t disclosed until the night before or the day of, when an address, a map and a phone number arrive in participants’ inboxes.
The focus is global cuisine enjoyed in random places. The rooftop of a parking garage, an under-construction townhouse and a gutted office suite inside a downtown skyscraper were recent venues. Korean, Ethiopian and Peruvian cuisine were recent menus.
Though experimental dining clubs similar in concept are popping up in other cities around the country, Dinner Lab is the only place in this area you’ll likely ever nibble Bolivian beef tongue with yellow aji peppers from a disposable bamboo carton while sitting at a folding table in a deserted warehouse with Foster the People playing in the background.
At the Bolivian dinner, which I attended with two friends, the chef was a native of La Paz who moved to New Orleans six years ago and speaks little English.
Using a bullhorn, and speaking in Spanish, she introduced her food to the crowd seated in the hollowed space. After each sentence, she’d hand the bullhorn to a man next to her, who roughly translated.
The first course was soltero, a tomato and corn salad with queso fresco. In the dim candlelight, it was hard to see the dish in detail, but each forkful was fresh and bright.
It was followed by a stewed chicken drumstick flavorful from a vinegary, garlic-onion marinade.
The beef tongue was the third course, and nearly indistinguishable in taste or texture from pot roast. One of my dinner companions refused to touch it.
Deep fried pork ribs came next, and after struggling with the plastic fork and knife, almost everyone at my table was licking the juice from their fingers as they gnawed the meat off the bone.
The ribs came alongside a chewy bed of chuno, freeze-dried Andean potato dumplings that oddly tasted like cold corn.
The meal ended with a small cup of a sweet-nutty quinoa pudding.
All of this we ate while seated at two parallel rows of tables set up in a rectangular area delineated by tea light candles on the floor.
There’s no assigned seating at Dinner Lab; the idea is to encourage mixing and mingling.
When we first arrived, my friends and I wandered off to explore the room, and, like musical chairs, nearly missed out on a place to sit. We eventually found three seats next to an architect, a sculptor (who lives inside the old paper mill) and a commercial bank lender.
“It’s sort of like fight club meets food, but without the violence,” said Bordainick, 27.
Dinner Lab was conceived by Bordainick last year with Dirty Coast T-shirt company founder Blake Haney; chef Francisco “Paco” Robert; tech guru Ravi Prakash; financial officer Bryson Aust, and attorney Zach Kupperman, “who makes sure we don’t go to jail,” Bordainick said.
Wine and beer flow freely, and meals are served in spaces that sometimes don’t have electricity or proper restrooms. (One Dinner Lab I attended only had a portable toilet outside, but it did have a sink, soap and running water).
The venture, though, is above board, Bordainick contends. The business operates as a private club.
Dinners cost about $45 to $50, which includes alcohol and tip. The events currently are open to the public, but organizers soon will move to a membership-only model, so the menus can be tailored to various preferences.
The idea, Bordainick said, is for members to build a profile on the Dinner Lab website, listing their level of adventurousness in terms of food, venue and price.
“We want to be like your Pandora station for dinner,” he said.
Meals are prepared in a $15,000 travel kitchen set up at each site. Some of the chefs are trained professionals, while others are accomplished home cooks.
Jae Jung, a native of Korea and a line cook at Domenica restaurant, prepared the recent Korean meal, while Lalita Kaewsawang, a native of Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, cooked the Oct. 3 Thai dinner.
Robert, Dinner Lab’s chief culinary officer, works with each chef to make sure things run smoothly and stay within budget.
“There is so much culinary talent in this city, and our goal is give them a platform,” Bordainick said. “I’ve never met a sous chef, saucier or line cook who wanted to just be a sous chef, saucier or line cook.”
Bordainick moved to New Orleans several years ago to teach history at Carver High School through Teach for America. His day job these days is with a nonprofit that works in education. Dinner Lab is his passion project.
“I’m probably the most dangerous driver in the city of New Orleans,” he joked. “I’m always driving around with my cell phone taking pictures of for-lease signs. I’m always looking for interesting places where we can eat.”
Though each venue creates a different experience, there are some constants. Utensils are plastic, plates are bamboo, and wine and water are served in clear Solo cups. Candles provide most of the illumination, shrinking even a vast warehouse space into an intimate dining room.
After the meal, the whole operation is packed up and removed, disappearing the next day like Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.
“It’s kind of like a return to the roots of why dinner is so important to me,” Bordainick said. “What we’re trying to do is create an experience, just for one night. Interesting people, interesting food, interesting space. And when it’s done, it’s gone. And you look back, you think, did that happen?”