Pop-up restaurants get a foothold in the Triangle

aweigl@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2013 

  • Looking for a pop-up experience?

    Check The Cookery’s website, durhamcookery.com, for upcoming events.

    Follow Acorn Kitchen on Twitter @AcornKitchen and check the website, acornkitchen.org, for upcoming events.

I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life last month at a new Japanese restaurant in Durham called Hakanai.

There was the crisp succulence of a deep-fried pig’s ear. There was the meatiness of a tempura-battered maitake mushroom accented with “pine snow,” a powder made by steeping fresh pine needles in grape seed oil, straining them and then adding a chemical that turns a liquid fat to powder. Then there was the star: a raw oyster on a half shell, sprinkled with ponzu sauce and topped with a thin piece of Italian-cured fatback called lardo.

Is your mouth watering? Are you dying to make a reservation? Are you wondering how you’ve never heard of this restaurant?

That’s because Hakanai had a brief lifespan. It lasted only three days in January at The Cookery in Durham, an event space and kitchen-for-rent that will now be the home to the occasional pop-up restaurant. Local chefs will step in for a weekend to create a new restaurant from scratch. This time, it was chef Billy Cotter of Durham’s Italian sandwich shop, Toast, who tapped into his inner Japanese chef to produce a seven-course meal.

This latest dining trend has finally gotten a foothold in the Triangle.

This is not the area’s first pop-up affair. Two years ago, French-born chef Ludo Lefebvre, well-known for his antics on “Top Chef Masters,” took his pop-up restaurant on the road and stopped for one night in Raleigh. The migrating eatery called LudoBites took over Gravy restaurant in downtown Raleigh and the 90 or so reservations were booked within minutes.

Here in the Triangle, there are two purveyors of pop-up dining experiences. The Cookery will be partnering with local chefs to open the occasional restaurant in its event space. Owners Nick Hawthorne-Johnson and Rochelle Johnson haven’t decided when the next pop-up will be.

The other is Raleigh’s Acorn Kitchen, started by friends Lauren Eney and Tyler Helikson. Eney, who works for a technology company, is an ambitious home cook, and Helikson, who does marketing for the champagne and liquor company Moet Hennessey, loves to entertain.

Acorn Kitchen’s pop-up model is a bit different. Eney and Helikson find a unique secret location to host their dinner parties, carefully select the guest list from among those interested and notify guests a few hours before dinnertime where they will be dining that night. Interested diners can find out on Twitter about such events and sign up to be guests on the website when an event is scheduled.

The pair’s previous efforts included a dinner in October for about two dozen people, half of them strangers, on the patio outside the American Institute of Architects’ new building in downtown Raleigh. (Eney cooked the meal, ferrying the food back and forth from her nearby home.) For New Year’s Eve, they planned a 100-person Gatsby-themed party in a historic house in Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood.

The pair say the location, the guest list, the food, the theme all work together to create an evening their guests will long remember.

“What we’re selling is unforgettable experiences,” Helikson said.

Eney says they will likely partner with local chefs for future events. Their next event will likely be a pop-up brunch to raise money for the medical bills for a Raleigh man who was shot by intruders in his Oakwood home earlier this year.

There seems to be no end of an appetite for these kinds of dining experiences, especially considering what happened when reservations for Hakanai were made available in December.

The Cookery’s owners, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson and Rochelle Johnson, and Cotter, the chef, and his wife, Kelli, had been meeting regularly on Sunday afternoons to work out the details of the three-day restaurant. The foursome were gathered at the Cookery. Reservations were to open online at 10 a.m. They planned to drink coffee, eat breakfast and work while watching the reservations fill up slowly on Rochelle’s computer screen.

Just before 10 a.m., Billy Cotter ran back to Toast to brew some coffee and planned to return quickly.

When Rochelle Johnson made the reservations live, she said, “The site immediately crashed.”

Rochelle panicked. Kelli started pacing. Nick started yelling: “Woo hoo! This is a great thing! This is awesome!”

They eventually got the site back up. Before Billy returned with coffee, all 350 reservations were taken and there would eventually be 600 spots on the waiting list. In retrospect, Cotter said he shouldn’t have been surprised by the public’s reaction to Hakanai.

“There’s such an amazing audience for food,” he said. “Anything new or interesting, people are down with it.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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