Dinner Lab Brings Unique Dining To Phoenix, With A Hint Of Mystery

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Thursday, July 16, 2015 - 5:23pm
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - 3:39pm
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(Jimmy Jenkins/ KJZZ News)
Chef Chris McKinley puts the finishing touches on a dish.
(Jimmy Jenkins/ KJZZ News)
Finished plates of tuna tataki.
(Jimmy Jenkins/ KJZZ News)
Minutes after Dinner Lab the place is empty, like it was never there.

Are you tired of going to the usual places for dinner with the same old uninspired menus? Well, there’s a hot new restaurant in town — but it only exists for a few hours once a month.

In what may be the latest sign that the Phoenix food scene has arrived, Dinner Lab has come to town. For a fee, you can become a member of the New Orleans-based club and receive invites to a calendar of pop-up dinners in more than 30 cities around the country. Members get access to the dinner dates and can purchase tickets ranging from $50-$80 for each meal. But the exact location and menu are kept secret until the day before the event.

Kelly Valentine runs the events and looks for non-traditional spaces to host the dinners. The first Phoenix Dinner Lab was held on Tempe Town Lake Bridge. The dinner I attended in June was at the historic Ice House downtown.

“We look for something off the beaten path, we look for something cool,” Valentine said. “Something else that’s pretty unique about us is we don’t have a catering kitchen.”

So that means in addition the tables, chairs and bar, they also build out a kitchen wherever they go. Most of the prep work is done offsite. The food is then brought to the Dinner Lab location where an army of cooks and servers apply the finishing touches. 

Chris McKinley was the guest chef at the most recent Phoenix dinner. Dinner Lab hires famous names from out of town as well as local up-and-coming chefs like McKinley to design and execute meals they wouldn’t normally get a chance to create.

“It’s just a really ideal thing,” McKinley said. “You just let chefs be chefs. There’s no guidelines. There was no like ‘Hey, would you like to do this? But you can only cook this. You can only do this. You can only do that.’ They said, ‘Have fun with it.’”  

McKinley reveled in creating a five-course menu with no boundaries. His menu started with Tuna Tataki and ended with a labor-intensive foie gras torchon. 

“I cooked it. After I cooked it, I froze it, took it out of the freezer and then I cured it for a week in a sugar cure,” McKinley said as he plates the dish. “So you have allspice, cinnamon, a lot of really nice aromatics in there to get you going. And just for a little savory we’re going to top it off with a little fennel pollen.”

More than a hundred people sit elbow to elbow with no frills place settings to enjoy McKinley’s high-end menu that featured locally sourced produce paired with spirits and wine. 

Sandy Novick and Paul Schierer are Dinner Lab members. They got an email 24 hours prior to the event telling them where and when to be, which they say is a lot more fun than their usual routine.

“Just the possibility of a new and interesting place to eat rather than going to a standard restaurant,” Novick said.

Schierer said, “It’s pretty clearly not stuff that we would normally try anywhere else, so it broadens our horizons.”

For Sandy, the biggest hit was the beet and merguez sausage tortoloni.

“I had never had this particular sausage,” she said. “It was very, very tasty — really tasty.”

After a final moonshine toast, the guests fill out comment cards to give Chef McKinley some feedback. 

He’s emboldened by the fact that so many people showed up not knowing what they were going to eat.

“I love, at the end of the day, seeing all these people smiling and happy and just stoked over what we did,” he said. “:And all we did was serve food, bring people together.”

Less than 30 minutes after the guests leave, the tables are gone and the chefs are packing up their knives.

Dinner Lab will return to Phoenix, but no one will ever eat at this restaurant again.

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