Nightshade and Blackship: Dining Review

THR Nightshade_Food Inset - THR - H 2019
Victoria Wall Harris
Blackship offers Japanese-Italian invention undercut by front-of-house mistakes. Nightshade's a groundbreaking, if still evolving, Asian-Western experiment gone right.

Downtown L.A.'s Nightshade and West Hollywood's Blackship both launch with a bold but risky culinary leap by blending Asian and Italian cuisines.

Every so often, a crop of splashy Los Angeles restaurants opens with similar points of view — for example, the neo-Mediterranean of Kismet and Bavel. Right now, the convergence is Italian influences through an irreverent Asian lens, at Nightshade in the Arts District and Blackship in West Hollywood.

Not only are these places thematically allied, but Nightshade's Mei Lin (a 2015 Top Chef winner and former sous chef at Ink) and Blackship's Keiichi Kurobe (former sous chef at Hinoki & the Bird) are friends who tested out their concepts side by side at pop-up dinners over the past year.

"Fusion" may seem an unfashionable descriptor these days. Yet its unapologetic blending of history, geography and identity can be L.A. at its best, and China-born Lin and Japanese-American Kurobe bear that out. Both center much of their amalgamating effort on pasta, that beloved dish of long-disputed East-West origin but uncontested global domination.

At the back-alley, up-a-loading-dock Nightshade, the knockout is a lasagna featuring a spiced ground pork reminiscent of Sichuan-style dan dan noodles and a melty tofu in lieu of cheese. Lin's squid ink bucatini with cuttlefish, meanwhile, is injected with a wonderfully fermented funk by Korean chile paste.

Italian isn't the only referent here. There's a curiosity toward comfort foods of all stripes, like a compelling riff on Nashville hot chicken involving quail and Japanese milk bread. The elegantly heart-clogging prawn toast is situated in a shallow pool of Cantonese curry that rivals the long-hailed variation over at Son of a Gun. To be sure, the Asian-Western crossover doesn't always work: spacatelli is overwhelmed by the one-two punch of its nori and seaweed-dashi butter, and Lin's underwhelming take on the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Onion is accompanied by a coconut dip that does little for it.

Moody, low-ceilinged Blackship soars with a delicate dish of gnocchi in brown butter dashi, then walks a tightrope of execution — succeeding and flailing on different visits — with a tortellini in which Japanese fried chicken is served both beside and inside the pasta. Kurobe also serves an outstanding swordfish with saffron dashi.

There's a stark difference in dining experiences between a chef with proper support and one without. The staff at Nightshade is downright anal in its spry service, explaining every last component of a dish. Blackship service, meanwhile, runs from the merely awkward to the outright incompetent, as when several unfinished dishes are cleared without asking.

Unabashed fusion can be forced. It can be silly. Yet as both Blackship and especially Nightshade remind us, it's where L.A.'s most dynamic culinary work is done. There are bound to be missteps when exploring new terrain, but these shouldn't deter anyone from experiencing Lin's and Kurobe's innovations.

8512 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 310-734-7553
Full bar; dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Recommended: Gnocchi ($22), swordfish ($33), pork chop ($42)
Best table: Center of the dining room with a view of open kitchen

923 E. 3rd St., #109 (in an alley between 2nd and 3rd streets), L.A.; 213-626-8888
Full bar; dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Recommended: Green jade tomatoes ($16), lasagna ($25), shrimp toast ($26)
Best table: Corner spot by the front window, away from overly bright open kitchen

This review is based on multiple visits. Reservations are made under another name. Meals are covered by THR.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.