“Most of you have never been in a video cube," says Montgomery Knott, the founder and curator of touring video art and food pop-up Monkey Town.
It's a safe assumption — but it goes without saying that anyone who signs up for his out-of-the-box and into-the-cube dining experience probably is looking to try something new.
The Los Angeles installation, which opened June 1, is being held in a former upholstery warehouse just west of the downtown fashion district. This is the final stop for the experimental cinema-meets-dinner project, which was launched in Brooklyn in 2003 and has since traveled to Denver; Barcelona, Spain; and Austin, Texas.
Inside the industrial venue, almost all of the guests clutch a small, bright green cocktail made of refreshing rum and kaffir lime leaf. The tangy drink is offered upon entry into the wood-paneled and wallpapered room, and it feels like some kind of reward for having battled rush hour traffic in time for the 6:30 p.m. seating (late arrivals are not permitted).
Once everyone has arrived, the group of about 40 participants is led down a hallway into the warehouse space, where a giant, four-sided screen awaits. Playing on the screen is a video installation by artist Theo Angell, and the images projected on each of the four screens represents a different season in Central Park. Guests are invited to stroll around the cube, immersing themselves in the visuals before taking their seats.
Each table is set up for two people to sit side by side, facing the center of the cube. Wine is served in carafes for two. This arrangement seems ideal given that guests are permitted to talk but encouraged to do so quietly and infrequently, so as to respect the art on display.
After being seated, two servers walk around rather robotically with notebook in hand repeating the question. “Dietary restrictions? Dietary restrictions?” The video installations continue with several shorter pieces and finally, the food begins to arrive.
For such a lofty concept, Chef Nick Montgomery’s menu is pleasantly pared-down. The first course is a bowl of heirloom tomatoes tossed in a vinegar dressing with roasted torpedo onions, shaved baby zucchini, wakame (seaweed) and opal basil chiffonade. The second course — fresh cavatelli pasta with chicken confit, cauliflower, almonds and ricotta salata — is hearty and comforting.
Montgomery, who has cooked in such lauded kitchens as New York’s Momofuku and Chicago’s Blackbird, takes inspiration from L.A.’s farmers markets. Thus, the menus will change periodically according to what's in season throughout Monkey Town’s L.A. installation, which runs until Oct. 1.
In the middle of the program every week, live performers enter the cube. During our visit, an Austin-based band called Dallas Acid performed ambient music accompanied by a video installation featuring images of themselves riding in vintage BMWs and sipping poolside bloody marys (yeah, we didn't get it, either — but it was strangely beautiful).
The third course is just as satisfying as the first two. Guests chew on red wine–braised short ribs with roasted radish and crispy shallots as the surrounding screens project images of an animated, keyboard-playing, pipe-smoking wolf.
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Some of the videos are funny. Others are serious and violent. Many are not exactly appetizing — and most seem as if they'd be best enjoyed under the influence of psychedelic substances not included on the menu. Let's be real: A bloodied ax, a dislodged fingernail and an eyeball squirting out liquids aren’t exactly the kind of visuals one wants to see while biting into the tart cherries of a toasted rice custard dessert.
Of course, guests are free to look away from the screen, focusing instead on the well-paired food and wine. In many ways, that's the beauty of Monkey Town: It's equal parts video art installation and restaurant experience — and neither component is compromised for the other, no matter how uncomfortable or delicious.
Five-course menus are available on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. ($80 per person); and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays ($65 per person). Four-course menus are available on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. ($50 per person). Monkey Town L.A., 111 W. 21st St., downtown; monkeytownhq.com.