Has the age of the pop-up restaurant already passed its prime? These days, when a seat at LudoBites garners the same demand as playoff tickets at Staples Center and Wolvesmouth chef Craig Thornton finds himself rebuffing weekly offers from Vegas investors looking to commercialize his underground dinners into a multimillion-dollar endeavor, that statement might not be seen as much of a stretch.
Yet here we are in the thick of it: Ten strangers gathered in the chilly evening air outside a nondescript East Hollywood apartment complex, waiting to attend another dinner reserved via email and housed in a space with which we are not remotely familiar.
Miles Thompson, a former Son of a Gun chef who launched his first underground dinner club called the Vagrancy Project earlier this month, buzzes us in upstairs. He runs the events out of his own apartment, a small one-bedroom with a long black table and a set of mix-n-match chairs running the length of the living room.
Half a decade ago, the idea of a chef leaving a critically celebrated restaurant to run dinners out of his home might have sounded like an ill-conceived weekend hobby. Now, it's evolved into something else entirely. More than just being a open-ended venue for chefs to express their ideas, the pop-up/underground dinner has become a legitimate career move, akin to your new favorite band letting the world download their latest album via Soundcloud.
The 23-year-old Thompson, the latest chef to undertake this path, trained under Alex Decker at West Hollywood's Nobu before joining the kitchen crew at Animal in 2010. He later was instrumental in helping Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo open Son of a Gun, their most recent restaurant, in 2011. He's a former child actor too. His first on-screen appearance came when he was 13, around the same time he started working in kitchens. You might even recognize him from his supporting role in the indie rom-com You and Me and Everyone We Know, which won the Caméra d'Or award at Cannes in 2005.
When you enter his apartment, Thompson offers to take your coat and chats about that morning's produce find, which might make you forget that he is in the midst of orchestrating a 11-course meal that will span the next three hours. His workspace? A narrow kitchen as spacious as a college dorm room, swagged out with a few top-shelf kitchen tools. The secret, he will tell you, is mastering the art of mise-en-place -- setting the scene, so to speak -- ensuring that anything that can be prepped beforehand is ready and lying less than an arm's reach away.
A few glasses of wine later, the courses begin to trickle out. There is a thumb-sized chipotle pepper stuffed with creamy salt cod, paired with a heap of shaved asparagus and minced Spanish chorizo. There is a crispy square of roasted goat rib, not much larger than postage stamp, lying atop layers of kimchi tofu mousse and drizzled with aromatic scallion oil. It's around the third course -- a block of buttery foie gras terrine wrapped in a single celery leaf and painted with sauces scented by Ras-el-hanout and lavender -- that it hits you. This is some deadly serious cooking.
Aubrey Huestead, who during the day serves as wine director for Son of a Gun (he was also a general manager at San Francisco hot spot Mission Street Chinese during its pop-up days), maneuvers between seats, refilling glasses with a funky, unfiltered Prosecco he picked up on the drive over. Huestead acts as the dinner's manager, helping with coursing and other kitchen duties. The men aim to launch a restaurant of their own in the near future, one that doesn't take place in Thompson's apartment, of course, and one that will focus almost entirely on moderately priced tasting menus, taking bistronomic cues from places like Le Chateaubriand in Paris and Brooklyn Fare in New York. Their current dinners follow the pay-as-you-like format, a method that doesn't garner much profit but rather is aimed toward the larger objective of attracting attention to the team's efforts.
Next there is butter-poached lobster smeared with what Thompson calls fromage noir, a deep purple paste made from sheep's milk cheese blended with squid ink and almonds; a complex molé raised on a dairy farm. A bowl of crimson-hued hibiscus broth, bracingly tart and unsweetened, arrives later -- the kind of thing you pray doesn't end up down the front of your shirt. In the middle swims a delicate fillet of rouget, dabbed with sweet pickled cucumbers and sword lettuce purée.
There are lamb necks, too, a special at Lindy and Grundy's earlier that week, braised until they dissolve into distinct strands, pressed into warm squares, dotted with cotija cream, then spooned with a mixture of soy sauce, espresso and dashi that mimicked, in an odd way, a classic demi-glace. The little cubes of neon green opposite the meat? Green tomatoes cured in limeade.
But the plate that stuck in the mind the most, even after two compelling desserts -- a dense, wine-enriched version of red velvet cake smeared with mascarpone, and a Bavarian cream topped with tangles of blood orange confit and brown butter sauce -- was Thompson's ode to the humble "toad in a hole." It's apparently his girlfriend's favorite breakfast. Some girls get flowers, others get entire dishes.
On the bottom was a layer of oversized of tricolore tapioca pearls, chewy and dense, fortified with a rich, hay-colored gravy made from egg yolks and miso, and flecked with sheets of prosciutto di Parma and shaved Parmesan. On top was a fluffy meringue, singed until it browned and crackled like the outer edges of a fried egg. Was that boba and eggs for breakfast? You could hear almost hear the joy erupting from the SGV.
In some ways, a dinner like Thompson's recalls of the early days of food trucks, the summer of Kogi love as it was, when a Twitter-equipped populace embraced with reckless abandon every truck that rolled onto the scene. In hindsight, we learned that not every mobile food vendor was deserving of such praise, though some assuredly were. We learned the distinguishing traits of the higher and lower forms of food truck.
There's a divide among this popular surplus of illicit dinners that's becoming more apparent, too. The mediocre ones -- and there certainly is no shortage of those -- show that novelty of secrecy wears off in the face of lackluster cooking. It's only the best ones, run by ambitious chefs in unpretentious settings, that can elicit the thrill of watching talent in ascension; the culinary equivalent of catching a No Age show at The Smell circa 2007.
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SHOW ME HOW
After just under a month cooking on his own, Miles Thompson has already made clear what side of that stage he intends to occupy.
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