One Month In, Mei Lin Lost Her Voice But Sells Tons of Mapo Tofu Lasagna Each Night

Mei Lin plating beef tartare at 3D Systems on Melrose

The Eater Young Gun and ‘Top Chef’ winner discusses the first 30 days at her restaurant Nightshade

Welcome to back to One Month In, a periodic series in which Eater editors connect with chefs and restaurateurs about their first month of operation. Now up, Nightshade, one of LA’s most anticipated restaurants and one of the hottest tables in the city.

Opening month is always an exciting and stressful time for a restaurant, especially one that was as hotly anticipated as Nightshade. We sat down with owner and chef Mei Lin on Monday, January 28 following her first few weeks of opening. The restaurant is officially closed, but Lin is on the premise handling shipments and preparing for the week. Over the course of our conversation, we hear about the restaurant’s early challenges, the menu’s most popular dishes, and how Lin plans to improve moving forward.

On last weekend’s business: We had our busiest weekend with 170 covers on Saturday. Three weeks in it’s really intense for a restaurant our size to do that many covers. It’s pretty much like doing three turns. We’re able to do that because we have such a small menu at the moment, so we’re going to be efficient. Once we start doing larger format dishes, it’ll take longer to turn the tables, ticket times will be longer, and we’re not going to be able to do as many covers.

On the hoarse voice: I actually lost my voice about two-and-a-half weeks ago. I literally got sick two days before opening. I got really sick but I was still here prepping after doing friends and family service on December 30. I had a fever and chills, and thought to myself, this is fucking insane. I spent the next two days in bed, wrapped up with layers and just taking Dayquil and Nyquil. I had coughing fits and eventually lost my voice, and I haven’t recovered since. I’m expediting as well, calling out tickets, so there’s no time to rest my voice. It sounds like a nightmare. Maybe it’ll stay like this forever.

On some of the early service issues: It’s a new restaurant so there are a lot of things we need to improve on. From my perspective, things are efficient, but as I watch our servers move, our service could be a lot better. I read all the Yelp reviews, and they seem to show that our service is lacking a bit, though not everyone has the same experience. We were fortunate to have five nights of friends and family, which not a lot of restaurants get to do. We just need more training on the service side. In terms of the kitchen, I’m pretty happy with how the cooks have been doing. We have just four line cooks, which means we’re actually short two cooks right now.

On noticing all of the little things as the owner: Since we have an open kitchen at Nightshade, I can see everything that’s happening in the dining room. I can see how often waters are getting refills. I start noticing all the little details, like wondering why this floor is scuffed up or which flowers need to get replaced. When it’s your place, you want to make sure everything is perfect.

Nightshade Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee
Mapo tofu lasagna at Nightshade

On the top-sellers on the menu: The best-selling dish is the mapo tofu lasagna, which means about 40 orders every night. It’s crazy because of the amount of labor that goes into making it — we almost can’t keep up. The second best is the shrimp toast while the third is the tom yum onion, which is on almost every table. Everyone wants to put it on their Instagram. I’m biased but every single dish is on there for a reason, because it evokes some kind of memory, at least for me. The ultimate goal is to create a comforting, crave-able menu that people will want to come back for. We have so many repeat customers already, which is so surprising.

On the difficulty of getting a table: We’re only opening reservations 30 days in advance. There’s still lots of time slots that are easy to get, like at 5:30 or 10 p.m.

On the subject of check averages: Check averages could be a little bit higher. Last night we had a table order four things. It’s a good amount if you’re getting in and out, and I sometimes order like that. Lots of people are ordering the cocktails, which is great, but we’re not selling a lot of wine yet.

On the large format dishes coming soon: We’re doing a whole roast duck beginning on Chinese New Year. We serve it sort of bossam-style. The duck itself is Cantonese-style starting with stuffed whole Liberty ducks seasoned with cinnamon, clove, five spice, etc. We marinate and cure it for a day then dip it in maltose syrup before letting it hang for eight days. When we roast it, it comes out this gorgeous golden brown hue. It’s served with pickles, hoisin, lettuce wraps, betal leaves, and some kind of seasonal jam. I still need to go to the market to figure out what kind of jam it’ll be. We’re hoping to price it less than $150.

Nightshade Arts District Mei Lin

Source: LA Eater