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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Dinner Lab Pops Up in Milwaukee

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Chef Daniel Espinoza's tongue-in-cheek bio on the front of the first Milwaukee Dinner Lab pop-up event's menu describes him as the most huggable Mexican in Chicago. Leaving the event with a belly full of amazing food and drinks, plus plenty of warm fuzzies from Chef Espinoza and the supremely competent staff, I'm inclined to believe that tall claim. Not only did he often talk about how his grandmother's cooking influenced various dishes, he named the menu after her: Anomar, her name backwards. He checked on every table as often as possible and was quick to make small talk, or bring you a PRB tallboy from the cooks' private stash. He genuinely loves putting on these events, and it permeated through his food and the atmosphere. The way Dinner Lab works, though, other chefs will be hosting events, and Chef Espinoza left big shoes to fill. If this dinner was any indication, you should definitely join Dinner Lab.

I was informed of the location the night before the event: Lincoln Warehouse, on 1st and Beecher. Just getting to the event room was a little bit of an adventure, having to take a freight elevator up to the fifth floor. The staff decorated the sparse industrial space with a canopy of strings of light bulbs. Communal tables were set simply with mismatched flatware and carafes of water. Drinks were free-flowing, including a strong poloma with grapefruit, hibiscus and tequila.

Dinner started with a surprise course, one that wasn't on the menu, to celebrate the first MKE event: chilled smoked cucumber soup with crab meat, epazote, and a literal dusting of smoked, dehydrated and powdered onion. This was about as refreshing as you can imagine, with just a hint of the smoke coming through the vibrant cucumber.

I'm a total sucker for ceviche, so the next course was my favorite of the night. Slices of cobia were rolled and served on top of a smooth salsa verde heavy with cilantro, then topped with pickled grape halves, lemon and crumbled spiced chicharron. The fish was supremely fresh and mild, and unlike traditional ceviche, didn't have copious amounts of citrus to cover it up. Thin radish slices and spicy fried pork skins added some crunch. I could eat this dish every day.

When Chef Espinoza described the next course, he called it a “fuck you beet salad,” because of his disdain for typical beet salads served in many restaurants. His take included deep purple beets, purslane, a succulent green that grows wild, pumpkin seeds, and requeson cheese. The dressing included burnt onion that verged right on the edge of being too bitter, especially on spicy greens. Luckily, the requeson cheese was fantastic, and his grandmother is right, this is the cheese that ricotta wants to be.

Next was something I had never heard of, a tlayuda. Chef Espinoza described them as fried masa dough pizzas that usually serve many people. Individually, the thick masa shell reminded me of a sope, and we were told under no circumstances should we use utensils for this one, hands only. Luckily the filling of chicken carnitas in mole and mushroom escabeche stayed put. The mole was rich, dark and complex. Acidity from the escabeche of mushrooms and peppers was well placed to cut through the mole.

The next course was inspired by one of the chef’s favorite dishes, al pastor. Pork tenderloin was stuffed with celery root al pastor and placed it on a bed of grilled pineapple, along with tortilla puree and red guajillo sauce. The combination of pork, charred pineapple and chilies is a magical one, and this dish was firing on all cylinders. The pork was extremely tender and cooked perfectly medium. This would make a great entree-sized dish.

Last was a layered dessert in a mason jar, sided with a warm churro. Inspired by his favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, the chef layered an apple mouse with caramelized cider gelee and walnut compote. Apples, cider, cinnamon, and fried dough? What's not to love about this one? Plus, it came paired with a shot of repasado tequila, so even if you weren't a dessert person, you always had booze.

The night ended with a pinata, in this case, Spider-man. Because, well, why not? At that point, most everyone was at least five drinks in—or many more. Luckily no one was accidentally bashed in the head with the broomstick, and everyone got some Mexican lollipops. It was a fitting end to a somewhat surreal and altogether awesome night.