7/15/2013 01:09:00 PM

Dinner Lab Sweetens the Austin Supper Club Scene

On Saturday The Carillon’s pastry chef, Plinio Sandalio, wooed about 60 diners with an all-dessert, eight-course tasting menu at one of Dinner Lab’s soft launches in Austin. But before you go thinking that if you’ve tried one supper club you’ve tried 'em all, the Lab isn’t your average supper social. The members-only dining experience features top-notch, under-the-radar chefs who don’t get as much play or press as executive chefs, and it always takes place in an unusual location, from the floor of a paper mill to a motorcycle dealership. Dinner Lab sends you a secret email with the secret locale the day before the dinner, adding to the fun.
Saturday’s feast took place on the top floor of a club on Dirty Sixth, with communal tables set out and Sandalio and his team spinning sweets in the DJ area. The progressive dinner started out with more savory desserts and made its way to the truly desserty. Each course came with a specialty cocktail or coffee drink (or sometimes both) from Anvil bartender and Greenway Coffee Company’s David Buehrer, from Houston.

And what were the goodies? We had a sweet spot for the savory side. For example, the foie gras panna cotta with spicy gochujang (like a buttery sriracha) and crispy amaranth started the evening off right, as did the sparkling Gamay served alongside it. The bacon ice cream on the grapefruit financier with savory avocado mousse and cumin corn nuts stole the course. But the star of the night was Sandalio’s take on fried green tomatoes: a green-tomato “hot pocket” topped with onion jam and cilantro syrup, served with a refreshing barley tea. As sugary as the onion jam tasted, Sandalio said he didn’t use any of the refined stuff to prepare it, instead cooking down 10 pounds of onions to two pints over three hours.

The move to the true desserts featured a Carillon favorite, the strawberries-gone-wild plate of strawberry sorbet, strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, Green Chartreuse cremeux, vanilla sponge and chocolate paper. And things got even crazier on the chocolate pot de crème, with tonka bean ice cream (tonka bean is illegal in the U.S. because of its carcinogenic problems, but Sandalio used the extract, which tastes like a richer vanilla). The evening finished with fusion Bolivian-Argentinian alfajores, a shortbread cookie filled with manjar cream, dulce de leche and coconut. The cookie was Sandalio’s mother’s favorite, and since she just passed away, the chef wanted to make an homage in her honor. With the last course, we all took a shot of a somewhat bitter Italian liqueur just released in the U.S. called Braulio.

You may have missed out on dessert, but there are plenty more dinners where that came from. Dinner Lab, which started in New Orleans, has planned several more soft launches in April and an official launch in May. Once things get going, there will be six to eight dinners per month. A $100 membership in the club gets you and a guest access to the tickets, and each dinner ranges in price from about $35 to $85. Upcoming dinners in July include chef Rich Okamoto from New York doing an izakaya Japanese dinner, chef Julio-Cesar Florez of Llama’s trailer doing Peruvian and Dinner Lab’s own chef Brandon Byrd doing regional Mexican (each course will be from a different region in Mexico).

Here's a pictorial look at Saturday’s desserts.

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