Four courses prepared with the precision of an esteemed chef for $15, a rotating menu with profits going to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, merely six seats per dinner and all of it in an apartment at 300 Swift—meet The Black Tile.
Duke’s own Rishabh Jain, a sophomore, has managed to cook up his own take on the dorm restaurant through his own pop-up concept, The Black Tile. The use of dorms as a means of expressing culinary passion isn’t unheard of—Jonah Reider’s Columbia University dorm restaurant as well as Alex Chang and Robert Kronfli’s underground dining operation at the University of Southern California are both prime examples of students using their dorm’s kitchens for a greater purpose than microwaving ramen. They set in place a foundation begging to be built upon.
There’s no question that meals at Divinity Cafe, Sazón or other venues can be considered superior to those of other universities, with the best meal on campus subject to heated debate and speculation. But for those in the know, the Black Tile is the one place where all questions of “best” are erased. All you need to do is book a reservation and head to 300 Swift to Jain’s restaurant.
Jain always had an infatuation with cooking. One can say that he’s been building up to this concept for years. In high school, he often invited family over to try out recipes and taste a variety of dishes whose flavors he believed were worthy of sharing. His upbringing was a large influence in developing his passion—being inspired by his mother’s cooking and approach to cuisine, he decided to experiment in the kitchen.
He learned cooking techniques in high school by watching YouTube videos from Gordon Ramsay, Binging with Babish, Bon Appetit, Munchies and more, all of which would help him refine his craft. Yet all throughout first year, he found himself not cooking at all. So in order to keep in touch with this passion, he decided to revamp his multi-course dinners for students this year, allowing his creativity to flourish once again.
Jain inquired about using a friend’s kitchen at 300 Swift for his cooking, and once he was given the OK, he began to make magic. After he hosted his first dinner in September and was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, he decided to make them a weekly occurrence. The beginnings of the The Black Tile were in motion.
I arrived at 300 Swift a half-hour before our meal began to help Jain with some preparation. In the time I spent assisting him, I got a glimpse into the mind of a truly devoted chef, and one who has a fond appreciation and respect for food and the power manifested within it.
Watching Jain approach mise en place with a distinct tenderness and precision allowed me to recognize how much care he brought to this endeavor—he wanted to be certain that everyone was given an equal experience, each course rooted in exceptional attention to detail and the belief that power lies not in extravagance, but in the quality of ingredients and their preparation. The meal was, for something on a college campus, worthy of praise and the attention of every student attending Duke.
Sitting among five other students and conversing with them built a sense of friendship with strangers even before our journey began. Once we all noticed Jain plating our first course, we knew that it was time to buckle up for the ride. Sure enough, our first course was stunning, an incredible means to begin the experience.
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To outsiders, it might seem a bit too simple: beet, feta cheese and dill oil. I can assure you, however, that it was so much more than that: it was a celebration of simplicity, a dance between ingredients that drew out their quality. It was a semblance on the power of a beet and its earthy flavor. Paired with the blue cheese, it became a dish that asks for you to concentrate on texture and the essence of each individual component. Each bite gave off some irresistible funkiness, with dill oil making the dish shine.
After this came an impressive plating of oyster mushrooms and leeks, finished with truffle oil. Combined, they were an examination and dissection of different textures. There was a powerful synergy between the two, with preparations of the allium allowing for an exploration of how both raw and cooked iterations mix with their fungal partners. Once again, it was a celebration of the flavors manifested within these ingredients, and a thorough examination of the potential harnessed when placing them together.
Up next was perhaps the most notable course of the night, and what I’d consider the main event: scallop with pureed butternut squash, a brunoise of butternut squash with broccoli microgreens and paprika. Here, Jain’s true finesse in the kitchen shone bright, with the scallop cooked until tender and perfectly browned, and the butternut squash providing a developed and complex contrast to an often underappreciated shellfish. It gave off a feeling of warmth, with each bite being better than the last, culminating in one ultimate hurrah where all of the components beautifully harmonized in nuttiness, fishiness, butteriness, and borderline luxuriousness.
We closed the meal with a perfectly portioned cake with buttercream frosting, caramel and macerated figs. It was all you could ask for in a last course. More than anything, it was a victory lap. The cake was decadent enough to warrant its own bakeshop, with its complements acting as wonderful partners in accentuating its own flavor. The figs were the stars here, making juicy and developed complements to the cake. The caramel was glorious, excellently crunchy with a small tinge of opulence from the refinement of the process.
When all is said and done, you’ll leave the table thinking that Jain was a chef who decided to go to college. You’ll be stunned that you went through this process in a kitchen at 300 Swift rather than a private dining club. You’ll realize that what you were given wasn’t merely a meal, but an expression of creativity, a passion for food and the process of developing flavor combinations that you’ll seldom find on a campus of any kind. The walk back to the C1 will make you feel like a changed individual, hungry for more and curious for what Jain will devise next. He changes one course every week, so you’ll never have the same meal twice.
Although it’s not unusual to find yourself wanting to return to a restaurant after a great meal, Jain’s dinners invoke a much more intense sense of longing. Knowing that he’ll be on to greater things beyond Duke in just a few years makes experiencing The Black Tile all the more profound. You’ll want to return before you lose the opportunity to dine at his table again. You’ll want to invest in the Black Tile concept so even more people can experience its intimacy and magic.
But, more than anything, you’ll want to relive the experience of sitting at that counter, absorbing the flavors and sensations manifested within the food, all in the good company of your fellow students taking a well-deserved break from the hustle of a Duke education.