“Honestly, it was just one of those lightbulb moments,” Lin says of her mapo tofu lasagna.

By Andy Wang
December 19, 2018
Frank Wonho Lee

Mei Lin won season 12 of Top Chef in 2015, and the anticipation for the L.A. culinary superstar to open her own restaurant has been building ever since.

The moment is finally here. Reservations will go live Thursday morning for Lin’s Nightshade, a restaurant in L.A.’s Arts District that will open in early January with dishes like mapo tofu lasagna and Dungeness crab congee.

“The food here is reminiscent of the things I grew up eating, just reimagined,” Lin says.

Lin was born in China and moved to Michigan when she was three months old. Her parents worked for a family-owned Chinese-American restaurant but ate straight-up Chinese food at home. Lin was a kid who liked to experiment in the kitchen. She remembers making ramen in a rice cooker when she was maybe six years old. She used the rice cooker because her mom wouldn’t let her touch the stove at the time.

Frank Wonho Lee

Lin later learned how to cook many more things when she went to work with her dad. She would go on to work for Michael Symon in Detroit, Marcus Samuelsson in Chicago, and Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas before moving to L.A. and being part of the opening team at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink.

After winning Top Chef, she criss-crossed the world for culinary inspiration. And she’s had a lot of time to let great ideas form inside her head.

“Honestly, it was just one of those lightbulb moments,” Lin says of how she created her mapo tofu lasagna with tofu cream and pork ragu.

Meanwhile, a trip to Nashville resulted in Lin coming up with Sichuan hot quail. Time spent in Mexico, where she staged at restaurants to prepare for the Top Chef finale in San Miguel de Allende and then revisited after her victory, made her want to cook mole at Nightshade. So she’s making mole with seasonal fruits. Her latest version includes persimmons, and the mole will be served with sunchokes and seeded granola. Lin plans to use other fruits like strawberries for mole in the summer.

Frank Wonho Lee

Nightshade will also have clams on the half shell with a passion-fruit vinaigrette. Lin is in the process of fine-tuning General Tso’s octopus. She really likes congee, and you can expect her Dungeness crab congee to be a soul-warming winter dish.

Lin eventually plans to serve large-format dishes like Peking duck, which also means she’ll be making har gow tortellini en Peking duck brodo.

“I just thought, ‘What are we going to do with all these bones?’” she says. “The obvious thing to do is make a stock. One of the things I love making is pasta. Shrimp goes really well with duck, so I just decided to make a har gow-flavored tortellini and a Peking duck consomme.”

While a lot of Lin's dishes have Chinese influences, Nightshade is ultimately a modern Angeleno restaurant. Lin had a lot of offers to open restaurants elsewhere after winning Top Chef, but she was committed to L.A., where she loves the diversity and flavor-over-fuss vibe of the food scene. Now she’s got a restaurant in a red-hot dining neighborhood that already includes Bestia, Bavel, Simone, and Guerrilla Tacos. An Enrique Olvera restaurant and an outpost of Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat are on the way.

“We saw a lot of spaces before finding this one,” Lin says. “And once we we walked into the space we were like, ‘This is it.’”

Nightshade is in the middle of a big building that is mostly occupied by offices and live-work space. The restaurant’s entrance is in an alley. The previous tenant in the Nightshade space was a Mexican restaurant, Cerveteca, with a dark, industrial-feeling interior.

Frank Wonho Lee

Lin saw the potential for a fresh start here. She had the bricks painted white and also lightened up the space with woods, marble, emerald-green banquettes, and hanging plants. She custom-ordered an Electrolux stove. She set up Nightshade with a pastry area that’s in front of the semi-exposed kitchen and behind counter seating, so guests can see the plating of their desserts up close.

“Yeah, this is it,” Lin says as she walks us around her 60-seat restaurant. “This is the little baby here.”

It’s 10:30 a.m. Lin had returned to Nightshade after finishing work at 2 a.m. and getting little sleep. This baby needs a lot of attention, and Lin is ready to work some 16-hour days as she prepares for her opening while most of L.A. is on vacation.

There are a lot of details to focus on beyond Lin’s cooking. Nightshade will have low-ABV cocktails and wine-cooler collaborations with Portland’s Union Wine Co., but the restaurant will also be getting its own custom barrel of Maker’s Mark in the near future. Nightshade is collaborating on tea with Portland’s Steven Smith Teamaker, and Lin wants to have tableside tea service.

“We’ll make matcha to order,” she says. “We’ll have a Hong Kong-style milk tea and the option of adding cheese foam to your tea. The Hong Kong milk tea is a blend I made with Smith.”

Nightshade will also feature coffee from Coffee Manufactory and ceramics from local artisans like Match Stoneware and Ren•Vois. The restaurant will initially only open for dinner, but Lin has another tea blend she made with Smith that she plans to serve once the restaurant starts brunch.

Nightshade is a lot of different things, but one thing it isn’t, Lin says, is “too frou frou.” Despite all her experience and accomplishments, she’s not looking to do fine dining.

“My goal is just to put out tasty food that people come back for, things that are comforting,” she says. “More and more, that’s the kind of food that I go back to eating.”

Nightshade, 923 E. 3rd St. #109, Los Angeles

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