The Tale of the Weed Dinner

This is a different type of post than what you’re used to–but since we’re all hungry for interesting content these days, why not?

About eight years ago, while lazily sifting though the latest entries in my RSS feed reader, I happened upon an article from Los Angeles magazine talking about an upcoming “Weed Dinner” lottery. If you filled out a Google Doc questionnaire (including essay portion), essentially requiring you to wax poetic about why you deserved to go to this event, you might be able to snag an invite from the chef himself.

Well dear readers–I must have written a damn good essay, because I got myself invited to this event. What follows is an old “anonymous” guest post I wrote at the time for a friend’s food/travel blog describing my experience (she’s since taken the blog down).

Yes, I really went, and yes, this really happened; “GRAMMAR RODEO” shuttle vans and all. Please excuse the terrible quality of the pictures–iPhone cameras (and my photography skills) have come a long way in the last decade or so.

There ended up being two “nights” of this dinner–some of the articles/press that came out about it (links sprinkled throughout) cover the one I went to in Encino, some cover the other which was a few weeks later in downtown LA.

I’ve never wanted to officially attach myself to it for various reasons. However, times have changed, we moved away from Los Angeles years ago, and my f**ks given are far fewer these days. Plus, I just passed the 6-year anniversary of this project yesterday (April 16), so why not share (and essentially republish) some of my other culinary-related writing pieces? Enjoy!

A companion and I were lucky enough to win a lottery for a space at a super-secret private dinner hosted and conceived by a local chef/owner, Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles. This dinner was to be a joint (no pun intended) collaboration between his wife Chef Thi Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, and was centered on one very special ingredient: cannabis. It was also about Chinese medicinal herbs, but all anyone was truly focused on was the weed.

After much anticipation and last-minute emails filled with bright, colorful pictures of bubbling pots and tantalizing menus-in-process, the day had finally arrived to catch our shuttle to the secret location where this slightly-taboo event was to be held.

At the rendezvous location, we found several others who looked as if they were on their way to a secret illicit gourmet dinner as well…must be in the right place. The vans arrived, labeled correctly but several minutes late—foreshadowing for the evening ahead. After a bit of a scramble for a seat to get out of the uncomfortably cold wind, we were winding our way up into the hills.

We arrived at a fashionable, yet simple 1-story house tucked up in the hills of Los Angeles with a beautiful view of the slowly darkening early April sky. Along with the other 10 or so first arrivers, we were treated to a cocktail that included rum and cannabis-infused sesame oil –painted mint leaves. As this dinner was trendy beyond trendy, young gentlemen “mixologists” who had volunteered their services for the evening’s events were concocting our drinks.

We mingled, slowly at first, as our cocktails iced our hands and the biting wind iced the rest of our bodies, waiting for the rest of the attendees while we wandered the beautifully landscaped backyard of an unknown benefactor.

Slowly (as would be the theme for the rest of the evening), the remaining guests arrived, and we were eventually escorted inside out of the cold, unseasonable wind. No one remained in corners, partaking of the night’s special ingredient in any other fashion—we were forbidden.

A less-informed guest would have assumed they had arrived for Thanksgiving dinner at a family member’s house—we walked through the kitchen to a beautiful living room set up with rented tables, mismatched chairs sourced from various locations throughout the house, and a picture window with an incredible view near the farthest table. I knew that was the table I wanted, and made a beeline for it.

Other guests whom we had been casually mingling with outside, and a writer for the New Yorker joined us. We soon realized this dinner was less intimate than we had thought—for a “secret, illicit” event, there were photographers, reporters, and writers for almost every guest at the dinner.  We would be interviewed several times for several publications and outlets, especially after each dish. We were also photographed, although we were promised that no identifying features would be published.

As we sat down at the simply decorated tables, we were presented with two documents—one was the final menu, as to be expected at a dinner such as this. The other, which is what is in the accompanying photograph, was a legal waiver for our participation in this event. It was full of cheeky, not-so-serious language, but nevertheless—we signed as we were asked to do.

We were presented with bread and oil while we waited for the first course, but who wants to eat bread when you have multiple courses ahead of you?

Our host, while charming and amicable, was not the most punctual. Our dinner was slated to start at 7:00 in the evening, but as the sun sank lower in the darkening sky, our tummies rumbled for the feast that we could smell, but not yet taste.

My choice to sit near the window was not the best, as it was also farthest from the kitchen, and the last to be served— for every course. It was unfortunate that we did not get to experience the food at its very best, but it was still a unique and memorable meal.

On to the food!

Amuse Bouche: Longan, Winter Melon, Hamachi, Duck Breast

Difficult to eat in its original presentation format, it required more than the simple cocktail fork that had been provided. The inclusion of a utensil that is not functional for its accompanying dish seems even more out of place than the common trope of garnish that is only for “color”.

Nevertheless, the dish was interesting (if not a bit cold), though I would have liked a more tender duck breast (mine was dried out and lukewarm) given the delicateness of everything else on the plate. Varying textures is important, but not when it requires deconstruction of the dish and various utensils simply to be able to break it down into bite-size portions. This fact goes doubly when you consider that this was intended to be an amuse-bouche. These large portions were another trend that continued through the evening.

Mr. Tran is consistent, but perhaps not in the right areas. And before you ask, no, there was no cannabis in this dish. Only about half the dishes presented to us over the span of the evening actually contained cannabis. Again, quantity over quality.

First Course: Papaya Soup with American Ginseng, Wild Boar, Partridge, Salsify

“Soup you say? Doesn’t look like soup to me.”  Me either.

This was how the dish was originally presented, and we were forced to wait for the rounds to be made AGAIN to include the broth. I understand the intent of the chef to keep the ingredients as intact as possible until right when the diner is about to eat, but given the layout and mechanics of running this event, our table ended up having to stare at what you see for a long time until the broth could be distributed AND the chef could explain the dish to us.

Mr. Tran is lucky that this was one of his best dishes of the night, as I was not happy to watch others finish their dishes before we even began ours.

Flavors and textures balanced well, and the papaya was a surprise success for me (I am usually not akin to whole pieces of fruit in soup with meat). The chef made it a point to emphasize the rarity and specialness of the American ginseng, but the broth as well as the bold ingredients made the ginseng hard to even detect. I did finish this whole bowl, but it would be one of the last courses I would (and could) finish completely.

This was the second dish not to include cannabis. Wasn’t that the reason we were here?

Second Course: Silky Bantam Chicken, Pigeon Skin, Avocado, Pink Grapefruit, Cannabis Leaves, Citrus Oil, Pickled Beets, Solomon’s Seal

Not one of my favorites. I ended up leaving most of this one on the plate, only sampling tastes to get the experience.

The chicken and most of the ingredients were put into a roulade/sushi type of roll, which seemed dry. The highlight was the fried pigeon skin (seen on top), but fried anything is good. There were cannabis leaves in the “salad” looking portion, and I did consume some (as did my companion), but as growers as well as partakers, we were not impressed. Cannabis leaves taste much like regular leaves off of any plant, and most of the “good stuff” isn’t even in the leaves.

It was after this course that my companion and I realized we needed to start pacing ourselves and “triage” the best parts of each dish, because we were already very full, and we had many more courses to go.

Alright Mr. Tran, let’s see if you can redeem yourself with the next one.

Third Course: Spare Ribs, Angelica Root, Wolfberries, Bergamot Glazed Pork Belly, Green Apple, Green Garlic, Cauliflower Gremolata

Pork belly. Those two words often conjure images of glistening, golden brown meat that when eaten, melts in your mouth like chocolate that’s been sitting in the car on a warm day.

Instead, we were treated to a mouthful of lukewarm, dry pork belly that had been so over seasoned that it was impossible to even discern any other flavor besides bergamot. My taste buds were so blown out that I had to drink both my water as well as my companion’s in an attempt to cleanse my palate to taste the other components of the dish. I was disappointed, to say the least.

The spare rib, however, was good—but not great. This dish seemed to have a lot of potential, but fell flat when it came to execution. Perhaps the dish sat too long on the line, as was the downfall of many of our other culinary experiences that night. I did finish my spare rib, but resignedly left much of the pork belly. Even the server who cleared my plate seemed perplexed at the amount left behind.

It was at this point that I started to feel a bit…sad.

I had so looked forward to this experience, and now, hopelessly behind schedule and with very few of the dishes being exemplary or even containing the ingredient that this whole event was designed around, it was not shaping up to be the evening I had envisioned. I leaned over and whispered as much to my companion, and while shocked at first, we later realized we were in agreement the whole time.

Fourth Course: Spot Prawns, Herbal Lobster “jus”, Head Tempura, Favas, Peas

I love food. I love the colors, the smells, and the tastes. I love that it is art for all 5 senses to appreciate—not many other types of art can say the same.

However, I do have one exception: I do not like food that looks back at me. I have struggled with the ethics of eating what was once living, as many of us do. When I saw “Head Tempura” on the menu before attending the event, I knew that would be one thing I would not sample.

I try to approach these types of culinary experiences as an exception–I must try a bit of everything, just as the chef conceived it, in order to truly experience the vision of the dish—even if it is something I do not normally like to eat.

Head tempura didn’t make the cut. Well, not completely.

The spot prawns themselves were a bit underdone for my tastes—surprising, considering the over doneness of the preceding dishes. The peas were okay, but I have never been a pea fan—my companion appreciated them. Favas were excellent—a great illustration of my rule, as I do not eat them normally.

Now for the head—I resigned myself to eating a bit of the inside parts, but could not commit as fully as some of my fellow diners who were able to consume the entire thing without so much as a hesitation. My companion enjoyed the “wiggly bits” off of both of our dishes, but neither one of us finished the dish completely, which disappointed my companion, as that was their most-anticipated course.

We were halfway through this monstrosity, and my “pre-gaming” as we were advised to do before arriving on premises, had worn off. Almost none of the preceding dishes had ANY cannabis in them, and the one that did provided nothing to me in terms of effects.

I was full and I was sober. If Mr. Tran wanted us to be able to eat all of the rest of this, he needed to step up his game in terms of “motivation”.

Enter courses 5 & 6.

Fifth Course: Monkfish, Congee, Cannabis Epazote Pesto, Nettles, Shiso, Young Carrots.

Now this was a dish my companion and I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Judging from our fellow diners’ reactions, they enjoyed it immensely as well.

The monkfish was delicate and simple, a perfect compliment to that gorgeous green cannabis pesto-infused congee resting underneath the rest of the components. I may not have finished the rest of the dish, but I did finish every drop of that congee.

Earlier in this saga, I had complained that the chef’s first cannabis-containing dish was weak and ineffective in terms of what we expect out of an “edible”, as we call them. I cannot say the same for this one. The high came about 10 minutes after my first bite of congee—a warm, fuzzy feeling washed over my body and I became less concerned about the speed at which the *very-behind-schedule* dinner was progressing. I also felt better that this dinner was not going to be a total wash, as did my companion.

We were however, very full at this point. Triaging components became not just a suggestion, but also a method for survival. Our fellow diners began to start to have problems finishing their dishes as well.

I felt a twinge of guilt every time a plate containing plenty of good food was cleared. Unfortunately, they don’t provide doggie bags at these types of events, and I’m not that much of a trendsetter to ask for one anyway.

Course Six: Beef Culotte, Onion Bacon Cannabis Tart, Sunchoke, Morels

My favorite picture of the bunch, which works out nicely, as this was my favorite meal. I mourn the fact that it came so late in the meal, as I would have eaten every bit had it come earlier (or had I not eaten so much of everything else).

The beef was medium-rare, with a gorgeously rich red wine-based reduction with which to eat it. I left far too much of it on my plate than I would have, but that is because I needed to eat every last bit of that tart.

And the reason for that is—that tart was CHOCK FULL of cannabis. I need to learn how to make my own cannabis tarts, although I fear if I did I would grow to 600 pounds and be unable to form sentences coherently on a constant basis.

It was amazingly light and yet rich, and of course—got us all rather “buzzed”. My mouth waters looking at the picture and remembering its deliciousness. I would eat ALL the tarts ever, given the chance.

I ignored the sunchokes and most of the morels at this point, simply so that I could eat tart. My only criticism of the tart would be that it was somewhat cold due to the problems I’ve mentioned several times with service, but even poor temperature control couldn’t ruin the tart for me.

Course Seven: Osmanthus Panna Cotta, Rhubarb, Frozen Cream, Blood Orange Sorbet, Cannabis Soil

Our host informed us when we were presented with the dish that the rhubarb was supposed to be at the bottom of the glass with the panna cotta, as the strong rhubarb would overpower the delicate osmanthus if that were on top. I agree with him for the most part, the dish would have been better the other way around, but it was still very good panna cotta. The sorbet was as good as sorbet usually is, but it wasn’t anything extraordinary.

I must have missed the part where they included random asparagus, which perplexed not only me, but also my companion (but not enough to deter its consumption for my companion). I skipped the asparagus because I was too busy mixing the cannabis “soil” (the lighter granular-looking substance next to the glass) into the panna cotta. You may ask yourself, “What the heck does cannabis soil taste like?” Like eating cannabis in granular form. Seriously.

I skipped most of the little drips and drops on the plate, as I was uncomfortably full at this point. We were presented with one more gift, however we would have to wait until the next day to consume these, as our stomachs were much too full to even contemplate eating one more bite.

Course Eight: Chocolate Truffle Box, Steam

First reaction? Not a box.

Second reaction? Not steam.

We popped one of the jars open to see what the “steam” inside was—it smelled like someone had taken one big drag off of a joint or pipe and blown it into each jar. We were told that it was “stevia” smoke, but I remain doubtful.

We didn’t eat our truffles until the next day, as at that point anything we were being handed (which also included an un-pictured mini Bundt cake) as we walked out the door was going straight into my bag instead of my mouth.

Overall, it was an extraordinary event that I doubt my companion or I will ever have the opportunity to attend the likes of again. We were so tired and full by the end that our spirits were a bit dampened, but it was truly not something to regret.