There’s a parade of late-aughts indie rock songs pumping through the inset wall speakers at a sleek, minimalist office space and studio that also happens to be where Top Chef winner Mei Lin has been busy testing dishes for Nightshade. The upcoming Arts District restaurant, slated to open some time this summer, is still awaiting its own commercial kitchen, which Lin is importing directly from Europe.
In the meantime this open kitchen space is a handy place to listen to tunes and put the finishing touches on Nightshade’s menu. Recently Eater had the opportunity to sit down inside the testing space, taste some of Lin’s dishes, and learn more about what the Top Chef winner has planned for her first restaurant.
Nightshade’s Arts District space, which used to be Cerveteca, will eventually boast a full bar and about 60 seats. Lin personally helped design the color palette and pick the seating, and she’s particularly excited about the custom-order Electrolux stove destined to go into the new kitchen. Unfortunately, that piece is also part of what’s holding up the opening. There is hope that the opening won’t be delayed past August, though with LA’s unpredictable permitting system, it’s hard to be confident on any particular date. Mei Lin’s pretty calm about it, especially since this is her first restaurant since winning Top Chef and leaving the tutelage of Ink and Spago.
The 2014 Eater Young Gun isn’t aiming for an easy-to-classify menu either, drawing from a wealth of travel and dining experiences over the past few years. So far the menu looks like it has a modernist slant with a tilt toward fresh seafood and Asian flavors. There’s a whiff of New Romanticism or avant garde-ness that any fan of New York City’s Wildair or Estela, or LA’s Trois Mec, might recognize.
Still, there’s a certain crave-worthiness and familiarity with Lin’s early dishes, which she’s certain will make it onto Nightshade’s menu. She started with a tight rendition of beef tartare, dotted with a black garlic sauce, egg yolk “jam”, and covered with radish flowers. The colorful garnish hides an otherwise tasty and well-executed classic, giving it the feeling of a wrapped present. Fresh sliced razor clams dot a grim ceramic bowl before they swim in puddle of a bright but gently creamy coconut vinaigrette.
Lin threw in an extra razor clam dish with a tangy passionfruit and chive sauce. There’s a starkness to the plating that’s buoyed by near-extreme color, and acid that seems to permeate a lot of the starters. The final fresh seafood dish was a cuttlefish melange with more of that black garlic and those radish flowers. It looks very similar to the tartare and one wonders if that plating will change to avoid any perceived confusion.
Elsewhere a simple lasagna gets a hefty dose of Sichuan peppercorns, because instead of a traditional ragu, Lin flavors the pork-like mapo tofu. It’s that unexpected stroke Lin seems to be striving for in Nightshade’s dishes. Later, she places a whole deep-fried soft-shell crab over a browned puck of crab and shrimp that has been melded into a thick bread slice.
Finally, Lin’s sous chef Max Boothanakit plates a rum raisin kakigori covered in a vanilla sabayon and brûléed meringue chips. The dish feels like a surprise, something easy to share and indicative of Lin’s creative approach across an entire meal. With luck, the dessert will end up on the first bill of fare, along with the other six dishes Lin has whipped up. And with a little more luck, Nightshade itself should open by August in the Arts District.
Nightshade. 923 E 3rd Street #109. Los Angeles, CA