I typically don’t go to pop-up special dinner events because by definition they are pop-ups with limited duration, which practically means I don’t get to go to those events again even though I fall in love with the dining experience. When Seaport FoodLab nearby where my wife Jun and I live announced that they were doing special dinner series with some acclaimed chefs from the country, I was somewhat on the fences for that exactly same reason. When one of the chefs being featuring in the events is a star in Los Angeles, which unfortunately thus far has eluded the reach of my culinary journey, I decided to give it a try and purchased two tickets on Resy (at $100 per person) for Jun and myself for a Friday dinner. Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl has been that mecca of California cool vibe with cult followings thanks to the cafe’s offering of various seasonal dishes focusing on the freshness of ingredients. Of course, New York City has a lot of those “seasonal” restaurants too, but I was certainly intrigued to see an LA’s chef’s point of view. Her dinner series at Seaport Food Lab was also being publicized as a preview of her upcoming new project called Tel in LA. Overall, we had a delicious dinner but I also discovered that these pop-up dinners, especially where they serve a large number of diners at the same time with the same menus, also lose its charm. When Jun and I showed up, we were led to one of several long communal tables that were absolutely packed with other diners. There were probably close to 70-80 diners based on my estimate. Because everyone is eating the same dishes, the whole dining session felt like, in Jun’s words, an assembly line with no individuality for each group of diners. I didn’t expect this event to have this many diners, and was actually hoping that it was limited to a smaller number of people (30 at most) to create a more intimate atmosphere. Instead, Jun and I had to scream at each other across the communal table just to be heard.
What about the food itself? The menu at the event featured several small, shareable plates, largely divided into five courses. The focus is definitely on vegetables, with only one meat (quail) and seafood (sturgeon) dish. There were more hits than misses, but we both felt that the dishes were a little bit predictable. Is that due to our experience having been to so many restaurants with similar concepts? Perhaps so, but honestly we did expect to be wowed. Some winners in the beginning included citrusy eggplant dip with marketable vegetables (first course), dry cooked russet potato (second course), and crispy Jerusalem artichokes (third course). There was no question that the best dish of the night was the oven roasted cabbage and avocado seed tahini that came out in the third course. We both loved the balance of flavor and texture in the dish with different ingredients working harmoniously together, and it perfectly complemented the fried quail in intense shwarma spices next to it. .
On the other hand, we didn’t understand what the flatbread (first course) came out so greasy which was not eased by creamed yoghurt that was placed next to it for dipping. Frisee salad (second course) was surprisingly boring, and we definitely expected sturgeon (fourth course) to be more memorable as it was the only fish course of the night. On the other hand, the combination of braised tomatoes in pomegranate molasses and koda farm rice with pickled rose hips dill did have a pretty interesting textural effect that I hadn’t quite experienced before but eventually grew on me over time. The dessert of labne milk custard with honey braised stone fruit was another standout dish of the night, with a delightful but not overly sweet flavor that we both liked plenty about. The small wine selections were (not surprisingly for a dinner event with this type of theme) skewed toward organic and biodynamic varieties, although we did have a serviceable bottle to share along with some cocktails.
I’m very much curious to know what the actual Sqirl can offer next time I visit LA. Would I be wowed by the real restaurant where I get to pick the dishes myself instead of being served mass-produced ones? Perhaps. Until then, all I can say is that chef Koslow does have a sense of putting together dishes with seasonality that are more crowd-pleasers than mind-blowing winners. It is nice to have these acclaimed chefs from out of town show up and do their own things every once in a while, but I also believe that they’d better display a full arsenal of their skills than play it safe in these ventures.
- Creativity: 7.5/10
- Execution: 8.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: 203 Front Street, New York, NY 10038
Telephone: (212) 233-8640