Mei Lin is in R&D mode for her new Los Angeles restaurant Nightshade: She’s aiming to open this summer, so she’s been cooking at a test kitchen, soliciting honest feedback from folks she describes as “friends and random strangers.” And maybe because she went through the gauntlet on her way to winning the 12th season of Top Chef, but Lin is casual when describing just how honest she wants her guinea pigs to be: “It’s okay, you can tell me if it sucks or whatever.”
It probably doesn’t, though. Lin cut her teeth at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Vegas, and then spent over three years at Michael Voltaggio’s molecular-leaning LA restaurant Ink, where her work earned her an Eater Young Gun award in 2014.
On Top Chef, she stood out for her sophisticated techniques and beautiful plating, and after the show — and after Ink — she’s been serving up gorgeous plates at events around the country. She’s also been traveling extensively, eating (and photographing) her way through food destinations like Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, France, and Spain.
Nightshade has been long in the works. Shortly after winning Top Chef, everyone wanted to know when Lin would open her first restaurant. Back in 2015 she confirmed she wanted to open a place in LA. Over three years later, the time has finally come — and instantly the conversation around the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year has shifted.
Lin describes her restaurant as “approachable” — “it’s fine food in a casual setting,” she says. She’s hesitant to put additional labels on the food, so she’s taken to describing it as “modern LA”: Her cooking will be “drawing a lot from the different cultures from L.A.”
The menu is still in development — hence the R&D meals for strangers — but Lin shouts out a General Tso’s octopus entree as an example. The dish will have “very much the same flavor that you’ll find from your Chinese take-out,” but with poached octopus as the base protein.
“So I’m in the same style, with totally different accoutrements… [the dish is] just done in a totally different style.”
She’s also working on a coconut ceviche with scallops, and Sichuan-style hot chicken that was inspired by a recent trip to Nashville. It will come with Japanese milk bread and pickles. “I’m just using everything I’ve learned and applying, experimenting — whether it’s a French, Italian, Asian, or an American technique. Whatever. It’s just gotta taste good.”
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He’s happy to play and juxtapose flavors, cultural influences, and techniques, but Lin believes her style is dependent more on learning than on borrowing. “Ultimately, my aim is to recreate dishes I’ve come to love over the course of my career and lifetime, learning how to do things the traditional ways, but infusing new flavors and maybe some non-conventional techniques to achieve my ideal version of it,” she says.
“I’ll learn how to perfect the traditional and classical way to make something so that I have a firm understanding and respect for the process. Then I experiment to see how a new element to the process or a new ingredient might affect it differently, and work on it until it’s where I want it to be.”
Hers is an expansive, inclusive point of view, and one that seems utterly of its place. Los Angeles, known as much for its Koreatown restaurants as its high-end sushi omakases, for its stellar tacos and pristine produce, maybe even demands an approach like Lin’s. Lin will find good company among the most exciting new openings in town, whether in the invigorating cacophony of David Chang’s Majordomo or the Japan-meets-California-meets-Surrealism artistry of Dave Beran’s Dialogue.
And she’s part of a chef-vanguard making the Arts District a major dining hub this year — already home to runaway hit Bestia, the Arts District will soon be home to eagerly awaited restaurants like Jessica Largey’s debut restaurant Simone, Enrique Olvera’s first Los Angeles outpost, and Ori Menashe’s Bavel.
And obsessives who latched to Lin’s idea for a congee shop (revealed in that 2015 interview above) won’t be disappointed, either. While Nightshade certainly isn’t congee-focused, Lin has been workshopping a congee with truffled Dungeness crab. And she’s got something exciting up her sleeve.
“It’s gonna happen,” she says of her congee shop. “I can’t really say when, but, I’m definitely planning on it.”