by Dustin K. Britt
December 23, 2018
Much has been written about Snap Pea Catering’s pop-up supper club, where the elite meet not only to eat, but to revel in the unique imagination of owner and executive chef Jacob Boehm in any number of non-traditional locales from bridges, to gardens to warehouses.
Dozens of Snap Pea Underground’s dinners have enchanted foodies across the triangle through a precise union of cuisine, venue, and theme.
Boehm moved past the already complex “theme development” and delved into scripted, narrative storytelling last August, inviting diner-spectators into castle Macbeth (staged in The Fruit in Durham) to feast and imbibe alongside the infamous murderous scots while some of the areas finest actors present the Bard’s tragedy just a few candles away.
December’s pop-up was just as theatrical. But rather than bumping shoulders with carnivorous monarchs, we learned some technical tricks of the trade.
More than a hundred eager diners poured into Carolina Performing Arts’s CURRENT Artspace + Studio, the black box a complete void save for two long banquet tables and a the dim, golden glow of a couple dozen hanging bulbs.
Local theatre lighting authority Chrissie Munich employed CURRENT’s high-tech lighting grid to demonstrate the eight major functions of lighting design. This master class in illumination features music, mixed by Hampton Short, further illustrating each concept. Boehm--with a longtime passion for lighting design--was our master of ceremonies, describing the connection between each dish, lighting cue, and musical selection. Theatre folk may have noticed the menu’s unique card stock: a lighting plot of the very grid under which we sat, which clued me into the under-the-table lighting elements.
Illumination is the most basic of lighting functions and is, of course, presented first. Incandescent Edison bulbs light the room just enough to get us seated. How does one create a food course that matches a concept so basic? Isn’t food meant to be enjoyed through all the senses, including sight? But deceptive simplicity is Boehm’s bread and butter. In this case, quite literally. The dinner opens with fluffy milk bread--sweetened with honey and topped with sea salt--and sweet maple butter to illustrate the simplicity of Illumination. We can hear an a cappella appalachian folk song--equally unornamented.
Suddenly, two bright washes of white light paint each banquet table, isolating the dining space from the black void. This function, Definition of the Play Space, is further demonstrated by the corresponding course: a streak of smooth cream cheese on a black dish--a miniaturized version of the table before us. On that playing playing space sits a small sampling of frost-sweetened carrots from Bluebird Meadows: some halved and roasted, some shaved and pickled. Aleppo and meyer lemon dressing contrast with the sweetness and local, hand-peeled chestnuts add texture. Bach’s music, defined itself by sets of musical rules, fills the chamber.
Snap Pea’s practiced servers appear with a parade of round, white sharing plates. The LED lights overhead begin to pinch inward, isolating these plates in very specific points along the banquet table, like a row of illuminated lily pads. This is Selective Focus. On each plate’s edge are bite-sized portions of thrice-cooked fennel from Bluebird Meadows with a layer of shaved purple daikon radish, paper-thin lindale cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, fennel fronds, grapefruit juice with olive oil, and rosemary breadcrumbs. A Mozart violin concerto floats by, focused itself on a single instrument.
Snap Pea transports us through time and space as courses progress. An octopus-like cluster of Old Bay buttered cabbage with mustard seed vinaigrette and tartar sauce swims up to us as the room submerges into a new Setting: a cool blue ocean, lights ebbing and flowing both above and below the tables.
To represent Time, Boehm unites all elements most perfectly as we savor a small breakfast of crisp parsnip hash browns, soft egg, and lemony hollandaise as the sun rises from the room’s eastern side, traveling seamlessly across the sky before setting in the west. We could have done without the on-the-nose flute and oboe of Grieg’s “Morning Mood.”
For Spectacle, nightclub-inspired beams of light spin and dash across the walls and tables as we encounter a purple, roasted garlic sweet potato swirl (imperceptible below the purple lighting), cubes of crispy white fried bonita sweet potato, shards of deep-fried spiced sweet potato skin, and dots of smoked chili aioli. Techno music in full force.
Mood is the evening’s cleverest, but least effective sequence. A selection of white and light yellow foods: rice krispies, honey cornmeal cake, and Crème fraîche should glow under the black lights above, but our bodies cast shadows on the food, making our napkins the most impressive visual in the room. The acerbic tonic jelly stands out as one of the meal’s most surprising elements, certainly more than the overly bitter burnt sugar apples.
Boehm’s masterstroke is the meal’s final bite. Delivered in a small paper bag, we are to enjoy this single treat in total darkness--mirroring a play's concluding blackout--and complete silence. We sink our teeth into a bite-sized explosion of flavors and textures. This sweet and savory cube reveals itself slowly: chewy subtle sweetness, a nutty crunch, and--at last--a swift punch of spice. Many of us eat only half--hoping to sneak a peek at the remainder at lights-up.
Boehm reveals what very few of us have discovered--this spicy, Christmassy surprise is a piece of fruitcake. Given one’s tendency to flinch at that very word (recalling Grandma’s unpleasant green maraschino cherries), Boehm was wise to remove our preconceptions, leaving us alone with myriad flavors.
Subverting expectation is the name of the game with Snap Pea’s pop-up dinners. Only during dessert did I realize that the filling and sumptuous meal was entirely vegetarian. If you can get your hands on one of the ephemeral tickets (the regulars will nab them quickly), a series of fortunate events will unfold before you. Even with an unknown menu and concept (or even the location until hours before) this reservation is most certainly worth the leap of faith. Trust me, Chef Jacob will be there to catch you.
Photos courtesy of Snap Pea Catering and Tim Iytvinenko.
Snap Pea Underground is an opportunity to explore the limits of the dining experience. Each 9+ course dinner is carefully crafted to surprise and delight, from the surprise location to the concept menu.
by Dustin K. Britt
July 22, 2018
Necessity is not the only mother of invention; sometimes a unique vision is enough to stimulate development. In 1985, long before before “going green,” “farm to table,” and “sustainably sourced” were part of the foodie vernacular, Irregardless Café introduced exclusively plant-based dining to the Raleigh area.
Founder, owner and chef Arthur Gordon has always been several steps ahead of the market. Irregardless was the first restaurant in the Tobacco state to go smoke-free, 25 years before lawmakers would ban smoking sections statewide.
Developing Arthur’s vision of community-focused and earth-conscious food meant collaborating with the Interfaith Food Shuttle, developing a catering division, installation of solar-powered kitchen heating, remodeling to match local trends, introducing an after-hours Jazz Supper Club, and establishing a 1.5 acre organic community garden nearby. Since 2012, the Well Fed Community Garden has supplied food to the restaurant, to garden volunteers, and to low income earners in the triangle area.
So what’s next?
In the first of what hopes to be a biannual event, Irregardless has teamed up with triangle-based theatre company Seed Art Share, managed by artist and educator Renee Church Wimberley, to create a dinner theatre series about food and health.
Well Fed, Well Said is a meal and a play--both in four acts--where the barrier between dinner time and showtime is blurred if not obliterated entirely. A four-course vegan meal catered by Irregardless and more than an hour’s worth of engaging live theatre is more than worth the $50 ticket.
Irregardless is the exclusive catering company for The Glenwood (formerly the Raleigh Women’s Club), whose open and varied interior and exterior locations make site-specific storytelling an apt choice for a theatrical venture.
Seed Art Share is quickly becoming well-known for its site-specific, immersive, and educational performances for triangle families. Wimberley calls these “moving plays,” the audience relocating between scenes and settings, tracing the steps of characters historical, fictional, and sometimes in between.
Held on July 14--Bastille Day--Well Fed, Well Said weakly grasps at a French theme with the menu, but it doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Nor does it need to. The supper and the three plays--co-directed by Carnessa Ottelin and Brian Yandle--are engaging enough on their own, no gilding needed.
At the evening’s start, jazz duo Melted Butter (Joe Wimberley and Tom Whelan) keep things smooth as servers make the rounds with hors d’oeuvres. Each of us has a more-bitter-than-sweet Italian cocktail, a Negroni, firmly in hand and sit in white folding chairs (this all feels like a wedding reception).
We are treated to Ian Finley’s short play, The Perfect Negroni in the intimate outdoor amphitheatre behind The Glenwood. This tragicomic out-of-love story was originally stirred up for last season’s On Ice, Seed Art Share’s original bar-hopping quartet of one acts performed along Hillsborough Street. Incomparable duo Julie Oliver and Dan Oliver return to play a bickering couple just minutes away from divorce when a handsome waiter (Byron Jennings) delivers a mostly unwelcome distraction: a negroni. The Olivers’ performances are more truthful than last season’s rendition and they are noticeably more comfortable and confident with the material.
As we make our way inside The Glenwood for the evening’s second act, we are each handed a cold salade niçoise served in a small jar. We are herded into a large foyer, where we enjoy the fresh greens, crisp marinated haricots verts, ripe cherry tomatoes, and acidic kalamata olives, sitting proudly atop a small pool of light, tangy dressing. Without a beverage or drinking fountain in sight, the tart, hardy salad is at once exquisite and hazardous.
Actor Byron Jennings reappears, no longer a waiter but making final preparations for a dinner date of his own. Beans & Greens is a palatable scene in which a suave Jennings cooks a vegan bean dish for his girlfriend (a bubbly Jess Barbour), who arrives anticipating a well-cooked steak. Barbour and Jennings have terrific chemistry--and that makes the scene worth savoring--but Finley’s text sounds more like he was given a school assignment: “write a 10-minute scene that shows that vegan food can be as good as meat.”
Entering The Glenwood’s ballroom for act three, we find a buffet, a cash bar, a sea of round tables with white linens and chairs, and a projection screen with French trivia (remember, it’s Bastille Day).
Irregardless has presented a gluten free, vegan menu as only they can: with enough variety and texture to make the stanchest carnivore grab their fork and say Amen. The mushroom bourguignon is the most inventive, certainly designed to appease those yearning for a heavy beef dish. This thick French stew combines a variety of mushroom species with a strong pour of red wine and hardy mix pois vegetables to create a robust umami flavor with a decidedly meaty texture.
Legume lovers are treated to a slow-cooked Provence bean cassoulet with soft cannellini beans, roasted (perhaps overly so) tofu, aromatic vegetables and fragrant herbs from the Well Fed Community Garden. Those looking for something more acidic will happily discover the ratatouille: brimming with eggplant, tomato, and peppers, all from the Well Fed garden. The saffron rice pilaf strikes as bland at first--set against the ratatouille and cassoulet--but its subtlety proves valuable when the ratatouille overwhelms the palate or a change of texture is needed. Steaming haricots verts and a chunky, sweet onion jam join the plate before we pour a glass of sweet ice tea and make our way to the tables.
Unassigned seating provides a rare opportunity to sit with old friends and make new ones while dissecting the meal and trying our best to Google the answers to the punishing French trivia questions (compiled by evil genius Will Van Deventer). We enjoy coffee and flourless vegan chocolate cake as Seed Art Share announces the winner of the raffle: tickets to Seed’s upcoming production of The Miracle Worker, another “moving play,” this time at Raleigh’s Fletcher Park, in and around the historic Borden Building.
Dinner cleared away, the evening grinds to a halt as Joe and Terry Graedon, hosts of WUNC’s the People’s Pharmacy, treat us to a barely-prepared, 45 minute powerpoint presentation on the physiological benefits of a plant-based diet. I cannot tell if I am attending a middle school biology class or a motivational speakers’ convention. Some attendees doubtlessly came just to see Joe and Terry, and I am sure they are enjoying the presentation very much. However, if the goal is to build fresh excitement and passion for healthy eating and engage with the arts and with our food, this is not the forum for vivid descriptions of pseudo-scientific “leaky gut syndrome.”
By now we have earned another new play by Ian Finley, based on tonight’s dessert: The Great Eggless, Flourless, Gluten-Free Vegan Chocolate Cake catches a glimpse of a mother preparing a birthday cake for her vegan daughter. Julie Oliver and Jess Barbour engage with the rhythmic mother/daughter banter nicely, while Dan Oliver’s grumpy, anti-vegan dad injects some added conflict. This play manages to connect with the evening’s menu without feeling like a gimmick.
If a new Well Fed, Well Said appears this autumn, I recommend that foodies mark their calendars, especially those looking to shake-up their dining routine. Theatregoers will find enjoyment only if they too are foodies. Otherwise, the costs may outweigh the benefits as this is amusing, bite-sized theatre for those who don’t typically attend it.
This well-attended and almost flawlessly-executed experience is like nothing else happening in this area. If you’re looking to “play with your food,” Irregardless Café, The Glenwood, and Seed Art Share have cooked up something scrumptious just for you.
by Travis Lassiter
February 16, 2018
When Eric Montagne stepped into Standard Foods, he came with a vision and passion. As a veteran of Boiler Room and Chef & Farmer in Kinston, Eric had already developed quite a reputation as a star chef, but was ready to take it to the next level. Hailing from Miami, Eric was raised with a farm to table mentality. Hunting, fishing, and cooking with his family was a way of life. At an early age, he possessed a deep understanding of fresh, quality ingredients and transforming these into works of art that bring people together. Eric used these talents to work his way up from dishwasher to sous chef, and eventually head chef at the Corner Restaurant and Martini Bar in Denver. This continued once he moved to North Carolina in 2014, and he began to delve deeper into the idea of sustainable artisan creations. He continues to dazzle patrons with inventive morsels taken from the world around him while staying true to his mission.
Standard Foods is committed to providing the best possible ingredients, while maintaining the smallest carbon footprint possible. They focus on local ingredients from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia by locating small family owned tier 3 farmers and helping them to distribute their products. With a focus on organic and non-GMO ingredients that spans from their meats to their cheeses, vegetables, and even peanut butter. These ideals help not only Standard Foods, but touches everyone they work with.
Eric's ideals encompass every aspect of your experience, and of course this includes the bar. They focus on small distributors, direct imports, and family owned businesses with 25-100 cases of production for wines. This allows for a unique selection with exceptional expressions of flavor profiles with a story behind them. Tuesdays they offer a mystery wine night with a flat price on a selection of wines picked by their in house sommelier based on your food selections. Did I mention that their beverage director is John Parra, who formerly worked with Foundation and Fox's Liquor Bar? This guy definitely knows how to fill a glass!
Standard Foods also offers 6 taps of local beers, which include Bond Brothers, Brewery Bhavana, and Full Steam with additional selections from Trophy, Foothills, and other craft NC beers.
As for mixed drinks, don't expect your typical bourbon and coke or olives on your martinis. You can get it dirty, but they opt for house made pickle brine and have no qualms about providing a unique experience
Standard Foods is constantly expanding their offerings both in house, and into the community. Out back is an expert run garden, which utilizes creative planting techniques such as mixing yarro with tomatoes to deter beetles and other pests to keep their ingredients pesticide free. These crops are used by the restaurant, and are sold to other local restaurants, and will be coming this summer to the Downtown Raleigh Farmer's Market. During construction, 2 tons of wood was reclaimed to build tool sheds and compost bins so nothing goes to waste.
An outdoor space is used for events which include oyster roasts, brisket cookouts, and private events. The space is available for weddings, private parties, and other shenanigans, and may be catered by Standard Foods or you can bring your own food and drink. Equipped with power for a DJ and lights, grilling area, and bonfire pit for up to 120 people, this makes for a great evening.
Then, there is the grocery side. Filled with local products including pasta, cheeses, butter, cleaning products, dog treats,and kombucha from North Carolina producers. In house selections include delectable ice cream sanwiches, take-and-bake monkey bread, and various other treats. Their in house butcher provides local chicken, beef, pork, fish, lard, rabbit, pheasant, quail, lamb, goat, whole animal, charcuteries, fermented sausages, and house made cold cuts, lard, and hot dogs. Upcoming plans include daily rotisserie chickens to pickup on your way home.
Do yourself a favor and make a reservation for dinner, stop in for lunch, or just pick up your own ingredients for dinner. You will not be disappointed!
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