When Nguyen Tran emailed to tell me about an extravaganza he was setting up at an acquaintance’s house, a special herb dinner in which each of the many courses would involve fresh marijuana, I did not necessarily beg to be included in the feast. The first time I met Tran, on a social-media panel somewhere, he happened to be wearing a banana suit, and he has been known to show up to food events dressed as a tauntaun from “The Empire Strikes Back.” I like his Starry Kitchen, a pan-Asian lunchroom in a downtown office-building food court, and I admire the running pop-up restaurant he mounts with chef Laurent Quenioux. But the notion of an “herb” dinner wasn’t especially my thing. The last time I had sampled this particular herb was many years ago, in the course of reporting a story on Snoop Dogg and his 15 pit bulls, and its culinary uses were not apparent even back then.
But secret restaurants are increasing in importance in Los Angeles, floating dining rooms where you realistically won’t land a table unless you know somebody involved. Transgressive eating has become voguish — I recently endured a dish of French fries greased with whipped pigs’ brains — as has obsessive concentration on a single ingredient, such as the all-soba dinners put on by Common Grains.
The chef in charge
And Quenioux, a Frenchman who has been cooking in Los Angeles since he replaced Joachim Splichal at the long-gone Seventh Street Bistro in the 1980s, is at the center of transgressive-food chic. The menus at his late Bistro K and Bistro LQ were thick with exotica such as duck hearts, jellied blood and Mexican ant eggs, and he often presided over long dinners built around black truffles or shot game. His pop-up at Starry Kitchen has been a good one. If you were going to trust any chef with a nine-course dinner built around a marginal herb, he would be the guy.
Of course, there are differences between attending a suckling-pig feast and attending a dinner devoted to Bob Marley’s favorite herb. You don’t just reserve a table. You fill out a questionnaire designed to weed out unsympathetic clients, so that it sometimes feels as if you are applying to a small liberal arts college rather than arranging to have dinner. My answer to the question “If you could fly/resurrect/bring
any person you could to this dinner, who would you bring and why?”
was 19th century gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, but I wondered whether I should have named somebody more contemporary, like Jeremy Lin or Waka Flocka Flame.
If your application is accepted, the emailed response includes a password to a protected website, a list of suggested wine pairings from Domaine L.A., a warning to bring neither substance nor paraphernalia to the event, and a set of instructions about a set of instructions to come. As relaxed as the laws may be in California, Tran is taking no chances.
So on April Fools’ Day, I found myself skulking around an Encino parking lot, clutching a bottle of chilled Grüner Veltliner and looking for an unmarked van with a sign saying, “Grammar Rodeo,” an obscure “Simpsons” reference, on its dashboard.
Five minutes into the hills, along an intentionally circuitous route, and we were there: a sleekly anonymous midcentury house, its driveway crowded with luxury sedans, its kitchen crowded with aproned cooks as if it were a high-end charity event. A bartender handed me a moonshine cocktail glazed with ganja-infused sesame oil, and I managed to turn away before he saw me wince at the strong whiff of bong water.
Tran had emailed a couple of times about the details of the event, how the point of the dinner was less about intoxication than about discovering how the flavors of the herb played with more traditional Chinese herbs; how the amounts had been adjusted to render the effects of the meal essentially suggestive rather than psychotropic. Tran had said that Quenioux would mostly be using the fresh herb and that he used less than an ounce to prepare nine dishes apiece for 30 people. The kitchen was sober as an operating room; the diners sat at long tables set up in the living room.
Who was there? The usual, I guess, what the media buyers call “young creatives.” The people at my table included a filmmaker, a designer whose food blog I’d read for years, a restaurant consultant, and High Times columnist Elise McDonough, who had written “The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook.”
Don’t eat the garnish
Nobody quite knew what to expect, which is why people were prodding the modish dish of cured duck breast, raw yellowtail and compressed watermelon, trying to figure out whether the cannabis was involved in the melon’s marinade or in the garnish of chopped herbs, and where it might be hiding in an arrangement of papaya, roasted partridge, braised wild boar and baby ginseng.
Quenioux is a fine chef, but you would not be interested, I would imagine, in the Chinese-style composition of spareribs and pork belly cooked with angelica root and goji berries — you can find that in Monterey Park. Nor would you be interested in the galantine of black-skinned silky chicken with pink grapefruit segments if not for the garnish of fresh cannabis leaf. “Don’t eat that,” someone said. “Fresh leaves sometimes have tiny needles sticking out of them, like stinging nettles.”
Cannabis did not seem to be among the garnishes on the plate of spot prawns, whose heads were tempura-fried while still attached to the steamed bodies; it appeared as a flavor really only as part of an epazote puree dotting a shallow bowl of rice porridge with nettles and monkfish. Cannabis-infused butter seeped from an onion-bacon-potato tart served with roast culotte. Dinner finished with a jigger of panna cotta tinged with the burnt-citrus notes of the Chinese herb osmanthus, served with a cannabis-coconut oil “snow.”
“It’s funny,” said the High Times writer. “You hardly tasted the cannabis at all. Usually the problem is the opposite — it has such a strong, sweet-nutty flavor that the trick is covering it up, often with chocolate. Either he’s a really good chef, or I’m missing something.”
Unbuzzed but smiling, unarrested but guilty, we all moved toward the shuttles that would take us back down the hill.