Oyster ice cream: A surprising scoop of American food history

“People actually ate this...It was once a big deal in Read more

Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

In my favorite round, Battle Uncle Scott's Root Beer, Merrell, who runs the tapas restaurant and "cocktaileria" Circa 81 restaurant in Morehead City, prepared one heck of a riff on a Black Cow, that famous chocolate, ice cream and Read more

Cooking lessons learned at 2014 Fire on the Dock

As the contest moves into its final battle tonight, I'm thinking back to the ideas I got during the 2014 tournament, part of the statewide Competition Dining Series that ultimately crowns an overall North Carolina winner from four regional Read more

Southern Collards should be the new kale

Will collards be the new kale, darling of diners seeking farm-to-table fare? If the 2014 Fire on the Dock chef competition is any indication, maybe. Read more

Food touring in Carrboro with Taste Carolina

As I often say, "I'm eat up with it," and Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours fed my obsession quite well this past weekend. Read more


Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

Chef Clarke Merrell may not have won the 2014 Fire on the Dock, but one of his dishes has been the competition’s highest scorer to date.

In my favorite round, Battle Uncle Scott’s Root Beer, Merrell, who runs the tapas restaurant and “cocktaileria” Circa 81 restaurant in Morehead City, prepared one heck of a riff on a Black Cow, that famous chocolate, ice cream and root beer float.

A traditional Black Cow involves a squirt of chocolate syrup in the bottom of a float glass. That gets topped with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream. Pour root beer into the glass and prepare to sing the combination’s praises. So good.

For his plated dessert version, Merrell prepared root beer vanilla ice cream. He placed a scoop next to a crumble of coffee/root beer dark chocolate cake. Salted caramel, cashew candied bacon and root beer drizzle garnished the dessert. The treat evoked an old-fashioned soda fountain while providing an upscale feel. And the candied bacon? What fun!

Chef Clarke Merrell's put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Chef Clarke Merrell’s put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The sweet earned Merrell 32.21 points. We’ll see if anyone beats that in tonight’s final 2014 Fire on the Dock battle, where Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray meets 1900 Restaurant & Lounge chef Kirsten Mitchell.  The winner will move on to the statewide final later this year.

Merrell has competed in Fire on the Dock since the first competition in 2012. He and his loyal fans travel all the way from Morehead City for Fire on the Dock, staged at Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear region fans who discovered Merrell at Fire on the Dock now travel to Morehead City, where Merrell not only operates Circa 81 but also Beaufort Olive Oil Company in Beaufort, N.C.

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The best of Fire on the Dock

Thirteen Wilmington-area chefs entered the Fire on the Dock cooking contest, but it was a cook from New Bern who took the crown in the final match Wednesday night.

Gerry Fong of Persimmons beat Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock bout, Battle Bacon and Country Ham, at Bluewater Grill.

Fire on the Dock is part of Competition Dining Series‘ a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. Fong, the 2012 Fire on the Dock runner-up, will meet four other 2013 regional winners during the November Final Fire round in Raleigh.

Meantime, Fong will be a guest chef in the Circa 81 kitchen during the April 24-28 Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend.

As competitive as chefs are during Fire on the Dock, they come out friends and along the way make plans like the upcoming Fong-Merrell collaborative. Fire on the Dock 2012 winner Andy Hopper, then at Chefs 105 in Morehead City, faced chef Ryan Payne of Chapel Hill’s Weathervane, part of the gourmet emporium A Southern Season, in the 2012 statewide final four. Afterward, Hopper sold Chefs 105 went to work for A Southern Season. Hopper said he will be the market’s executive chef at a new location in Charleston, S.C.

Hearing about chef partnerships, new directions and menu ideas are among my favorite parts of the Competition Dining Series.

Here are some of my other favorites from the 2013 Fire on the Dock:

Chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades' Texas Pete chocolate cheesecake (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Best Dish: Pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades’ super silky, intensely chocolate Texas Pete and cocoa cheesecake with Texas Pete gastrique, Texas Pete chocolate glaze, whipped mascarpone cream and a spicy almond lace cookie. Many diners mentioned the Battle Texas Pete dessert to me during the course of the series. Some were still talking about it at the final battle last night. Parades was on the Yo Sake team. She is the pastry chef at downtown Wilmington’s Manna.

Dish I most want to eat again: The Oceanic chef Thomas Mobley at Battle N.C. Dairy prepared my personal favorite dish of the competition: porcini-crusted rare filet sliced oh so thinly and topped with mixed salad greens in truffle-buttermilk dressing. Balsamic onions and fried capers garnished the dish. The filet was more like carpaccio, the salad its vero amore. Simple, well-edited. Bravo Chef! I hope to sample it again one day on Oceanic’s stunning new pier.

Best idea: During Battle N.C. Wine, Shane Tyner, who represented King Neptune in Wrightsville Beach and has since moved on to Towne Tap & Grill, served a dessert consisting of a striking black sticky rice mound atop blueberry port sauce and a lovely coconut crème anglaise. Crisp, slightly tart Asian pear chutney made with muscadine wine crowned the dish. Despite the rice being a bit too dry, chefs at the battle, including Hopper, agreed it was the night’s most impressive effort.

The Oceanic's porcini-crusted filet with mixed greens, truffle-buttermilk dressing, balsamic onions and fried capers.

Chef most on my radar as a result of Fire on the Dock: When chef Josh Petty of The Pub at Sweet and Savory served a deep-fried wonton filled with a soft egg yolk during Battle Eggs, I was hooked. Petty served the wonton over egg drop soup containing tender veal cheek, butter-poached lobster, black rice, mushrooms and asparagus. I loved the way the soft yolk inside the wonton enriched the soup when my spoon broke the crisp package. I’m looking forward to trying Petty’s new menu at The Pub at Sweet and Savory.

Simplicity rules: Battle Pintade (guinea hen) was among matches that produced surprising desserts and over-the-top combinations like Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray’s pintade tuille and pintade creme anglaise, but Dockside chef Scott Grimm earned the top-scoring dish of  the night with simple braised guinea hen served with grits and a side of collard greens that he stewed in beer.

Best bits: Lots of times, little things provide WOW! moments at Fire on the Dock. Elements of dishes may stand out more than the overall preparations. Fong’s tempura fresh ginger slices last night was one example. Petty’s egg yolk wonton was another. My favorite was South Beach Grill chef James Rivenbark’s bacon caramel served during Battle Carrots, Strawberries and Sweet Potatoes.

Best service: Bluewater Waterfront Grill’s wait staff impressed week after week with politeness, attentiveness, food delivered evenly and at proper temperatures and silverware cleared and replaced as needed.

Favorite moment: Chefs work hard. They may get a great review from a critic, a thank you note may arrive from a diner, TripAdvisor may be full of accolades. Mostly, cooks work long hours, some up to 70 or 80 hours a week, separated from their admirers. Kitchens are hot, dangerous, stressful places, quite different from easy dining rooms. Still, chefs thrive, constantly creating, discussing their craft, imagining what they can do next or what they can pull from the past — all to please people. Most don’t understand the celebrity chef trend. They just want to cook good food that makes diners smile.

And so my absolute favorite moment of Fire on the Dock 2012 was at the end of Battle Catfish and Mint when chef Joanie Babcock emerged from the kitchen.

Babcock’s restaurant, Southern Exposure, is in Faison, meaning she and her crew — and Southern Exposure customers — had to spend more than an hour on the road to get to the showdown. Despite the drive, Babcock fans filled most of the dining room. When Babcock came out to hear the night’s scores, all those many fans cheered and gave her a standing ovation. That they traveled so far to support her was a true expression of love.

Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, Downtown, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Delicious elements of surprise

Chef Gerry Fong, in black, plating his winning strawberry bacon jam with braised pork butt and a trio of sweet potatoes (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

If you’ve been following the 2013 Fire on the Dock cooking tournament at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach, you know that just about anything edible goes.

A guinea hen liver cookie, sugar-seared duck, jalapeno apple bacon jam, black sticky rice and chocolate cheesecake spiked with Texas Pete are a few of the risks chefs have taken.

Who knows what will pop up tonight when chef Brent Poteat of Wrightsville Beach’s 22 North faces chef Pat Greene of downtown Wilmington’s Elijah’s.

If the elements of surprise are anything like the Feb. 27 battle, I’ll be happy.

Like many diners I talked to who attended the contest between chef  Gerry Fong of New Bern’s Persimmons and chef James Rivenbark of Wrightsville Beach’s South Beach Grill, I was wowed by the little things.

The evening’s mystery ingredients, revealed to chefs just before they begin cooking around noon the day of their face-off, were carrots, strawberries and sweet potatoes.

Rivenbark may not have won the night’s contest, but diners were nuts for the bacon caramel in his doughnuts and coffee dessert. “I wanted to lick that stuff right off the plate,” said pro judge Christi Ferretti, chef/owner of Pine Valley Market and Café Johnniein Wilmington. The crowd also gave Rivenbark high marks for strawberry whipped cream that garnished the dessert’s shot of chilled coffee.

South Beach Grill chef James Rivenbark's strawberry-bourbon-glazed quail (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The strawberry bourbon glaze he put on quail helped make that dish may favorite of the night. He served the quail with bing cherry compote, andouille sausage, sweet potato-carrot tasso au gratin and mint oil was my favorite dish of the night.

Fong ruled the contest, and his efforts have inspired a five-course Fire on the Dock wine dinner he’ll stage Wednesday night at Persimmons.

Fingers crossed that the evening will include Fong’s Pepsi balsamic reduction, which was the perfect counterpoint to his sweet potato ice cream. Strawberry bacon jam he served alongside braised pork butt with a sweet potato trio (fried, pureed and a fritter) was another favorite.

The wine dinner begins at 7 p.m. March 6. The price is $65 per person.

Fong is a favorite at Fire on the Dock. He was the 2012 Fire on the Dock runner-up.


Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Bacon jam for the soul

Rx bacon jam around a pimento cheese and fried green tomato stack.

One of the best things I’ve put in my mouth this year was bacon jam that Rx Restaurant & Bar serves with its housemade pimento cheese. The sweet, sticky dab of brown richness on the plate filled my mouth with smooth bacon flavor.

That jam is an example of why after just five months of operation Rx has claimed a significant place on Wilmington’s dining scene.

But Rx’s climb is not just about food.

Tonight, when the restaurant serves a menu of full of its contemporary spins on homey Southern fare, it will be aiding Superstorm Sandy victims and the budding Wilmington Wine and Food Festival.

Ten dollars from each $85 ticket will benefit American Red Cross efforts to help the storm’s victims. A portion of remaining proceeds will fund the first ever Wilmington Wine and Food Festival scheduled May 19 at May 19, at St. Thomas Preservation Hall.

This evening’s Rx menu is a mouthwatering feast featuring local foods: butternut squash soup with duck confit; quail alongside creamed collards; bison short ribs with parsnips, carrots and celery root; a moon pie prepared with Frangelico.

Besides supporting good causes and local farms, including Cottle Organics in Rose Hill, Nature’s Way in Hampstead and Red Beard Farm in Castle Hayne, Rx is showing off chef Scott Grimm of Wrightsville Beach’s Dockside restaurant.

Grimm, who joins Rx chef Jon Kurzen and chef/owner James Doss tonight in the Rx kitchen, manned stoves with Doss years ago at Wilmington restaurants. Both men later went on to work under Charleston, S.C., favorite-son chef Sean Brock of much-applauded McCrady’s and Husk.

Grimm’s crab and corn chowder just won a Best in Show award at the Oct. 27 inaugural Taste of Wrightsville Beach food and wine festival.

Doss also is helping to arrange the Wilmington Wine and Food Festival along with other businesses, including Wilmington Wine and Jester’s Java, both of which, like Rx, have taken a chance on the emerging east Castle Street downtown neighborhood.

Doss and business partner Josh Novicki renovated the former Hall’s Drug Store, 421 Castle St., at 5th Avenue, to create Rx, where Doss tends a rooftop garden that provides the restaurant with herbs and produce. Despite a recent shooting on Castle Street’s east end, fans are still flocking to these businesses and supporting the area.

I love food, and I love wine, great beer, cocktails, the whole culinary shebang, but what I love even more are the people behind all the great food and drink businesses that are making Wilmington a topnotch culinary destination. Places like Rx  not only fill our bellies but also feed our souls.

To book tonight’s Chef’s Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing, call Rx at 910-399-3080. Juice Wine Purveyors and Choice Specialty Wines are donating some wines for the event. Wines on the menu will be available for purchase by the bottle.


Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, dinner specials, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, New restaurants, Restaurants, Uncategorized Leave a comment

Leland Italian spot adds Sunday brunch

New Italian restaurant competition in Leland may be treating diners to some extras.

On July 8, Tony’s N.Y. Pizza and Trattoria, 1107 New Pointe Blvd., started Sunday brunch service.

Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the restaurant presents a grand buffet including a carving station, waffle station, omelet station, side dishes, fruit and desserts.

Read the details in my report for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.

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Fire on the Dock’s best soup recipe!

Chef Andy Hopper dishing up his winning sweet potato soup at Fire on the Dock (photo: Competition Dining Series).

When Morehead City chef Andy Hopper, of Chefs 105 restaurant, showed up in Wilmington to compete in Fire on the Dock, he was an unknown battling the well-knowns in the Cape Fear region.

Lots of people here recognize his name now.

Hopper not only took down two accomplished Wilmington chefs during Fire on the Dock battles, he also served one of the cooking competition’s most popular dishes. 

Today, Hopper shares that recipe, Country Ham and Sweet Potato Soup, a dish that garnered Fire on the Dock’s second highest score across the board.

The soup showed up May 1 during Battle Bacon and Country Ham, when Hopper faced chef Antoine Murray of Cape Fear Country Club. Hopper previously won Battle Strawberries and Asparagus against Manna chef Jacob Hilbert.

Tonight, Hopper faces Marc’s on Market chef Marc Copenhaver, a two-time Wilmington Top Chef winner, a crown awarded during the Taste of Wilmington Food and Wine Festival

The victor will meet the winner of tomorrow night’s face-off between Kirsten Mitchell of Cameo 1900, near Wrightsville Beach, and Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern. The final showdown happens May 22 at Shell Island Resort, Fire on the Dock headquarters.

Alas, all the tickets for these remaining events have been sold, but you may follow the Competition Dining Series contests on to events in the Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro areas. 

Country Ham and Sweet Potato Soup Chefs 105 (photo: Competition Dining Series).

The statewide Competition Dining series is a bracket-style tournament featuring regional contests that culminate in a final four battle to pick an overall N.C. winner. A secret ingredient, from North Carolina, must be used in each of the three courses chefs prepare during each contest.

The competition started earlier this year with Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock.

Country Ham and Sweet Potato Soup

6 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 cups diced ham or bacon

2 ribs celery, diced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

2 carrots, diced

2 shallots, chopped

2 quarts chicken stock

1 cup coconut milk

1 cup ginger syrup

1/2 cup  honey

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese

Season with salt and pepper to taste

Garnish: 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

Garnish: 1/2 cup crisp, crumbled bacon

Garnish: 1/4 cup balsamic reduction

Sweet potatoes, ham or bacon, celery, garlic carrots, shallots and chicken stock in a large soup pot set over high heat. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Set soup aside to cool.

Puree cooled soup in a blender. Place soup through a strainer to remove lumps.

Place soup back in its pot over high heat. Bring soup to a simmer. Stir in coconut milk, ginger syrup and honey until well blended. Stir in mascarpone cheese until well blended. Season soup to taste with salt and black pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish each bowl with a few basil leaf strips, a sprinkle of crumbled bacon and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Source: Andy Hopper, Chefs 105

Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington Leave a comment

Iron Chefs and late-night bacon

Kyle Lee McKnight's guanciale. (Photo by Kyle Lee McKnight)

Lots of chefs talk the local, sustainable, organic, humanely raised food talk but few of them walk the line like Wilmington cook Kyle Lee McKnight.

I was reminded of McKnight’s nearly unparalleled passion recently when my phone chirped with a text from him in the wee hours a few days ago.

“Real pork! EcoFriendly FoodsBev Eggleston is arriving shortly with a truckload for his man KLM,” McKnight wrote.

The clock read 15 minutes before midnight.

An hour and a half later, around 1:30 a.m., McKnight was sending pictures of heads, shanks, ham, jowls and trotters. And he was even more wired than before. Already, his mind was full of ideas for the pork load, some of it destined for McKnight’s charcuterie, the best I’ve sampled this side of Italy, my family heritage benchmark for cured meats. That’s his guanciale in the photo here.

McKnight‘s been out of the local food scene since leaving his executive chef postion at downtown’s Circa 1922 in late 2011, but he maintains connections with make-a-difference purveyors and farmers like Eggleston, a leading advocate of ethical farming who has been featured in Gourmet, the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice and in writer Michael Pollan’s book “The Omivore’s Dilemma.”

Luckily, diners get to sample McKnight’s handiwork again Wednesday night, April 4, when he competes in Fire on the Dock, part of the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s statewide Competition Dining series.

McKnight will represent the hush-hush Cape Fear-area restaurant project Swim with the Fish. Where and when this place will open has yet to be announced, and McKnight is not saying much more than “stay tuned.”

For now, his attention is focused on personal cooking projects such as the pork before him and Tuesday night’s Fire on the Dock round. McKnight will face Zackery Grant, formerly of downtown’s Press 102 and now in the kitchen at downtown’s waterfront Pilot House restaurant.

If you’re a McKnight or Grant fan, good news. Tickets are still available to dine at the 7 p.m. contest at Shell Island Resort. Purchase soon. Tickets sell out quickly as these events approach.

Each contest puts two coastal North Carolina chefs in a face-off during which they must use a secret ingredient, from North Carolina, revealed just an hour before cooking begins. Additionally, chefs may bring only their tools to the battle. All the ingredients they use must come from a pantry truck supplied by Southern Foods, which many chefs choose for its selection of local and top-quality ingredients.

The competition started earlier this year with Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock. From the coast, it moves to the Triangle and the Triad before ending with a final contest to select the best chef among all the competitors.

Tickets are on sale continuously throughout the series, and diners may attend their choice of events.


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Best of Wilmington Restaurant Week

“This, this, this and this. That and that, plus some of this, and maybe this and most certainly that and that,” is probably how the collective Wilmington foodie mind is thinking this Restaurant Week.

Running through March 28, Encore magazine’s Restaurant Week is the time to sample some of the Port City’s best dishes at unbelievably low prices.

So what are the must-haves among the many?

For sure, Mixto chef Trinity’s Hunt’s crispy barbecue pork spare ribs, bone-clinging but tender and just spicy enough.

Hunt also impresses with his knack for layering textures and flavors, which is bound to shine in his “crisp fried” Banks Channel flounder with roasted red pepper stone-ground polenta, organic spinach and spicy roasted poblano vinaigrette, all dusted with queso fresco.

Mixto offers three courses for $25, as does The Eat Spot, where some of Wilmington‘s best refried black beans land with house-smoked pulled pork, pico de gallo, jalapenos and sour cream on white corn tortilla chips for nachos.

The Eat Spot chef Jason Godwin also features his signature SBLT & Grits: grilled shrimp on a toasted Kaiser bun along with applewood bacon, lettuce and roasted tomato dressing. The sandwich is served with cheddar cheese “grits.” The cooked grits are cooled, cut into sticks and deep-fried to resemble French fries.

On his $35, three-course Restaurant Week special, Godwin offers pan-seared duck breast over a ragout of mushrooms, caramelized onions & spinach with mustard-herb sauce.

End with Godwin’s sweet potato bread pudding, light and fluffy thanks to it’s biscuity base.

Spinaci con prosciutto at Caffe Phoenix.

Caffe Phoenix’s bread pudding is featured on its $15, three-course lunch menu, as is the restaurant’s famous spinaci con prosciutto pasta dish.

Chef Carson Jewell is back in the Phoenix kitchen, good news especially for flounder lovers. He pairs the buttermilk-battered, fried fish with hoppin’ john to which Jewell adds braised collards.

I always think of Caprice Bistro as the Restaurant Week big dog. Its $25, three-course menu is mind-boggling in its authentic bistro array and abundance. What’s more surprising is that French chef Thierry Moity and his wife, Patricia, offer a $25, three-course, prix fixe menu every night at Caprice Bistro, so no worries if you miss Restaurant Week.

Chef’s food is among Wilmington’s most reliable, but especially noteworthy are pork cheeks; Waterzooi, a seafood stew in herb cream sauce, and housemade macarons.

Crab and lobster cakes have been on Aubriana’s menu since the restaurant opened in fall 2008. The enduring dish is among offerings on the shop’s $30, three-course list. The pan-seared cake made with jumbo lump crab meat and cold water lobster comes with sweet chili aioli and pineapple curry cream sauce.

Get chef Alex Succop’s double-chocolate peanut butter pie, and you’ll have enough to enjoy and enough to take home. The tall, fluffy peanut butter and cream cheese filling is set between an Oreo cookie crust and bittersweet chocolate ganache. This is not the dense, knock-your-worst-enemy-over-the-head-with-it peanut butter pie found at too many restaurants.

Another super Restaurant Week deal is The Fortunate Glass’ $28, three-course, small plates spread, each course paired with wine.

Chef Karel Blaas knows soup, and one of the courses is butternut squash soup matched with Talbott Kali Hart chardonnay from Monterey, California. The wine bar’s popular truffled mushroom pizza, heady with the aroma of truffle oil, joins Caldora montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Abruzzi, Italy

Speaking of butternut squash, it shows up for Restaurant Week in Thai Spice’s butternut squash Panang curry, the squash mingled with fresh basil, broccoli, carrots, zucchini and the diner’s choice of meat.

And sit down for this Restaurant Week special: Thai Spice’s four-course lunch costs just $15 per person.

Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, barbecue, dinner specials, downtown Wilmington, French, lunch specials, ribs, Wilmington Restaurant Week, wine bar Leave a comment