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Pop-up Restaurants

Life Underground: Hidden Dinner at the Vagrancy Project

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Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 12:22 PM
click to enlarge Spot Prawn, Escabeche, Cauliflower, Peas - J. CABRAL
  • J. Cabral
  • Spot Prawn, Escabeche, Cauliflower, Peas

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.

click to enlarge The Dinner Table - J. CABRAL
  • J. Cabral
  • The Dinner Table

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.

click to enlarge Miles Thompson - J. CABRAL
  • J. Cabral
  • Miles Thompson

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.

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