One of the great charms of The Frontier, besides free meeting space and wifi, is how you never really know who might turn up, or what might come of it. Creativity and high concept thinking are standard menu items here — but never so much as last weekend, when Snap Pea Underground popped up on the third-floor bridge.
Visualize a nine course, three-hour dinner for 54 guests, conceived to tell the story of Research Triangle Park. On Valentine’s weekend. Geekly Romantic? Tickets for all three nights, at $95 a seat, sold out in 12 minutes.
Chef Jacob Boehm and his intrepid band of culinary creators crafted, as they have become known for doing, a fine dining experience that was singular, seasonal, and locally sourced.
That’s how Snap Pea works. The team hunts (and occasionally actually forages) local produce in season, then marries ingredients to a place or concept to build out the menu. Simple recipe: Think hard, be authentic, maximize resources within reach. In some ways, not so very different from the thinkers who came up with the notion of changing the state’s economy by drawing on the strengths of the universities and creating a research park in a field of pines.
Chef Boehm and his team divided courses into the RTP’s past, present and future. First out came a nod to some famous inventions created here, the barcode and astroturf. The Barcode was strands of papery phyllo dough held upright with ginger flavored chickpea purée and roasted pepita aillade. Astroturf was envisioned as a salad of flowering rapini, with a soft egg in the middle, dressed in an aged sherry vinaigrette. The IBM course was presented: a vibrant, carrot dish with a bottom note of coconut and tangle of fresh amaranth that was sturdier than a soup but still more liquid than solid, soft but vividly flavored. “What I decided to do with IBM was take and reassign the acronym here,” Boehm explained: Infused, baked and mashed. Definitely not your standard kind of carrot dish, or kind of meal.
Middle courses played to RTP’s ever-present state of becoming, and Snap Pea’s reaction to The Frontier itself. Boehm found plenty of inspiration at the merging of art and culture to the foundation of science and research. So he sent out more dishes played with the ideas at work on the park right now: art and culture, on display in the main lobby in RTP’s first visual arts show, got a nod with blanched lettuce hearts and cultured buttermilk braised cow peas. The crossing of paths that occurs constantly at a collaborative work space environment appeared on the plate in a tangle of pappardelle noodles intertwined with cut ribbons of collard greens, tossed in a sauce made from ground pecans and brown butter.
Diners came from all over the Triangle and points further. Only a few worked at RTP; many, with a show of hands, had come here for the very first time. When Boehm asked people to throw out some words that made them think of RTP, the answers seemed chewy: science, research, technology. Traffic.
He beckoned RTP’s future sweetly with a dessert offerings from Pastry Chef Rachel Schmidt that conjured the ideas that are now in planning stages, displayed on large design boards Boehm borrowed from the Research Triangle Foundation and set up next to the plating tables.
First came a skyscraper pavlova made of salted meringue discs cemented with walnut custard and 5 spice caramel, a tribute to the iconic buildings that will come. Then the amphitheater that will help anchor Park Center, this a white bowl painted with vanilla-infused beet sauce, served with an earthy crumble of chocolate-beet cake, smoked chocolate cream and candied beet chips.
Diners were instructed to hold the bowls to their noses, causing a few wisecracks, like “ah, just the way my mother made it when I was a boy!”
The meal ignited a conversation of place and people, and all the ways that the seemingly unconnected can work together. In a place created for breakthroughs, Snap Pea did it by breaking bread. Genius and delicious.