Last Friday, New Orleans-based dining company Dinner Lab hosted its first Phoenix event, a five-course Vietnamese-inspired pop-up dinner prepared by chef Nini Nguyen, formerly of Sucre (New Orleans) and Eleven Madison Park (NYC). Unfortunately for the brave diners who invested in the company's local debut, Dinner Lab's first Phoenix event was difficult to enjoy.
To get a ticket, diners had to purchase a Dinner Lab subscription, an annual fee of $125. The company has already launched this subscription dining model in major cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and announced its plans to start operations in Phoenix late last year.
It's a cool concept: A subscriber gets access to the full Dinner Lab calendar, including dinners held in more than two dozen cities from coast to coast. Members can then purchase tickets -- for themselves and up to three guests -- to any event in any city.
Tickets to the Viet Nom, Nom, Nom dinner cost $55 per person, according to our dining companions. (We were invited to attend the event.)
Though members can see the date and chef for each event prior to buying a ticket, the exact menu and location remain a secret until about 24 hours before the dinner. On the upside, the ticket price includes food, drink, tax, and tip -- meaning you're free to show up and not have to worry about any additional fees.
For Friday night's event, Dinner Lab chose the Tempe Town Lake pedestrian bridge, the pretty white structure that stretches from the Tempe Center for the Arts to the north side of the water. It's a unique locale; we'd never dined there, and doubted any of the other guests had, either.
But while the night's east-facing diners enjoyed photo-worthy views of downtown Tempe and the sun setting over the Mill Avenue bridge, those facing west gazed upon the piles of dirt and harsh lights of Tempe dam construction. Either way, the incessant beeping of heavy equipment wasn't exactly an enjoyable soundtrack for the dinner.
The event started late and never quite picked up pace. Despite asking the night's second round of diners (the event had staggered arrival times) to show up at 8 p.m. for dinner at 8:30 p.m., Dinner Lab staff didn't serve the first courses from the makeshift kitchen until after 9 p.m. The bowls of canh chua, a sour tamarind and prawn soup, were more than welcome by that time, but also unsatisfying considering the lukewarm temperature and small portion size.
Courses continued to come out of the kitchen about every half hour, an excruciatingly slow pace as increasingly hungry diners scarfed down the small plates, then waited for more.
The staff seemed confused about where to deliver plates for diners with dietary restrictions. Twice we were offered gluten-free plates of food, despite the fact the one diner's peanut allergy at our table was never actually acknowledged. Twice during the meal our server (who was quite friendly, if not all that capable) simply didn't serve us our course until after we'd asked.
Looking at the outdoor makeshift kitchen, located on the south side end of the bridge, it's not that surprising that the quality of chef Nguyen's food didn't quite live up to expectations. With a handful of staff and little equipment, the chef turned out five courses for more than 100 diners.
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We would love to taste that sour tamarind broth again, this time piping hot; We can imagine that a larger portion with more than a single prawn would make for a satisfying start to any meal. And the second course, xoi ga (crispy rice cake with soy sauce chicken), might have been a hit with crispy rice rather than what tasted like the dried out remnants from yesterday's rice cooker. The chicket, though barely warm, had great flavor.
We'd even give the cha ca long vong another try, though our lemongrass-seared fish stretched rather than flaked as it should when fully cooked.
One event may not be enough to rule Dinner Lab either out or in. The company did live up to its promise of delivering "something different from the conventional restaurant experience." With a different venue (which is certain to happen), and better organization (which we hope will happen), the next Dinner Lab event could greatly improve. Or not. It is an experiment, after all.