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Self Portrait

BY Krista Simmons | March 21, 2019 | Feature Features

Global flavors with a California twist define Mei Lin's dynamic Arts District destination.
Hanging gardens float over the dining room.

There’s nothing more magnetic than a woman who’s confident in who she is, and Mei Lin exudes that sense of self in both the kitchen and the concept of her Arts District restaurant, Nightshade. Every detail—from the curated social channels to the custom-made ceramics—reads as a personal narrative from Lin, whom many know from her win on Bravo’s Top Chef. But at Nightshade, there’s a depth and draw to her culinary perspective that reaches far beyond the screen.

Instead of taking the typical path after her victory (cookbook, product line, restaurant, rinse, repeat), Lin flew relatively under the radar for a couple of years, hosting a handful of pop-ups. She paused on potential contracts, invested in her education through extensive world travel and even did a stint cooking for The Queen herself, Oprah Winfrey.

That journey of self-discovery is evident at Nightshade. The Asian-Angeleno flavors are bright, feminine and foreign. Lin’s menu has range; it runs from eloquently restrained to big and bold when it needs to be. And it works. A perfect example is the Kanpachi. Paper-thin shingles of kohlrabi are layered atop amberjack, purple radish kimchi and shiso leaf in a plating that looks like the scales of a majestic white dragon. If you’re a Korean barbecue fan, you’ll recognize the broth underneath as dongchimi, which comes in most barchan spreads. The delicate daikon and napa cabbage brine has a clarity that awakens your palate for what’s to come, which includes more of this wonderful balance of sweet and sour flavors.

Lin is crafting several vinegars in-house, including a revelatory coconut vinegar that’s combined with cilantro oil and coconut milk to make a Thai-style vinaigrette for the sweet East Coast scallop crudo topped with crispy ginger. These bright, vegetal notes are something that takeout-obsessed palates might not recognize as quintessentially Chinese because of how Chinese-American cuisine has evolved stateside, but those are the flavors Lin grew up with. Born in Guangdong, the Cantonese province of China that borders Hong Kong and Macau, she spent her childhood in the suburbs of Detroit. For this child of Chinese-American restaurateurs, the kitchen is clearly a second home.

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