It’s a good thing I Ubered to the “secret” dinner with chef Mei Lin at a Mount Washington home. The historically registered 1940s abode sits on a hilltop street that is tiny and winding, even by Mount Washington standards. But the setting made this PlaceInvaders dinner feel all the more secret and special.
Started in New York in 2014 by two food and travel fans, PlaceInvaders is a traveling pop-up that holds small brunch and dinner parties with big chefs in unique homes in a few major cities, including Los Angeles. Like other secret or underground dining gatherings, the event address is not made public and is sent to attendees the day of the event.
PlaceInvaders’ latest L.A. series included a wine-paired, multicourse dinner by Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef season 12 and head of hotly anticipated Arts District restaurant Nightshade. The evening was set at the Wolford House, a midcentury modern home built by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé James De Long in the late 1940s.
Two dozen or so of us began the evening mingling mostly in the backyard, which had a lovely view of the mountains and downtown L.A. in the distance. A refreshing orange cocktail was poured and we nibbled on tray-passed Kumamoto oysters with kimchi ice and addicting baby corn elote with chili miso aioli and furikake. Mei Lin came in and out of the kitchen just a few steps away to plate the various dishes and get our mouths watering.
We eventually took our seats at a long table in the cozy living room. Many people in attendance were food lovers, Mei Lin fans or both, who purchased tickets for the evening so they could experience something a little different. The woman next me was a professed “chef stalker” from Calabasas; she also had a ticket for PlaceInvaders’ dinner with Kismet and Madcapra chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson the following night.
After a multicourse meal from Lin, it’s easy to see why she won Top Chef and why Nightshade is one of the most anticipated restaurants this year. Each dish had different, bold flavors, but all the dishes were delicious and unique from one another.
“I kind of draw from all over,” Lin says of her inspiration, “whether it’s going to a museum and seeing a piece of art or just going out for dinner.”
Lin’s cooking is also globally influenced, from her Chinese upbringing to her recent world travels.
The first two courses were kanpachi ceviche, with coconut vinaigrette and coriander, and mapo tofu lasagna, both of which will be on Nightshade’s menu. The fish was perfectly prepared and complemented well by the light and frothy coconut vinaigrette. The hearty mapo tofu lasagna was the standout, combining an Italian staple and a Szechuan staple into an elevated dish that surprises and enraptures the taste buds. Lin made a tofu cream and spiced ragu and layered them with pasta and a little Parmesan cheese. She used less chili oil than she normally would, since she “didn’t want to blow people’s palates out.”
“I don’t like that word ‘fusion’ but it’s a lot of what I do,” Lin says. “I like modernizing a dish that is very familiar to you. I went to a Szechuan restaurant and had mapo tofu, which is something I grew up on anyway. And I just thought, let me just put this in pasta form.”
Next came large, mostly tender Wagyu short ribs with black garlic maple glaze — a riff on something Lin plans for Nightshade with a different protein. For dessert, Lin served what she describes as a “deconstructed lemon meringue pie” — crumble topped with Meyer lemon curd, a light whipped cream and sorrel.
Lin came out of the kitchen to raves and to explain a bit more about the meal and Nightshade, which she hopes will open mid-August.
Lin defines Nightshade as “fine food in a casual setting” and says the menu is about 75 percent set right now.
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“I think I’m staying true to myself and what I like to cook,” she says. “What I’m trying to do is create craveable food that people will come back for.”
PlaceInvaders likes to partner with charities, so $18 from each dinner ticket went to AIDS research nonprofit (RED) as part of its annual fundraising campaign EAT (RED) SAVE LIVES.
PlaceInvaders again invades L.A. — downtown this time — on July 14, but a chef isn’t booked yet, so check the website for updates.
PlaceInvaders, (805) 991-7901, placeinvaders.com.