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


Pilot House back in business

Closed for renovations since Jan. 1, part of downtown Wilmington’s Pilot House restaurant reopens this week with a few tastes of its new menu.

The main dining room won’t be back in business until mid-May, but a bar sporting new furniture, fresh white paint and unobstructed Cape Fear River views is scheduled to start serving customers April 4 – “if all goes well,” Pilot House assistant general manager Sunni Holley said.

Wicker stools replace metal seating with dated fabric, and televisions behind the bar have been mounted higher on the wall so that they are easier to see, bar manager Rick Searcy added. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Wilmington chefs on the move

The Pub at Sweet and Savory chef Josh Petty was the last Wilmington chef standing in the second round of the Fire on the Dock portion of the Competition Dining Series, a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. He was defeated by 2012 runner-up Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

Tonight, Fong faces Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock battle at Bluewater Grill. The winner goes on to the final five, including chefs who have won in other North Carolina regions, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro among them.

Petty lost Fire on the Dock, but he hasn’t stuck a fork in his own efforts. The surprising twists he showed off at Fire on the Dock continue on The Pub at Sweet and Savory’s new Latin-themed menu.

The list includes chipotle-seasoned short ribs rolled in a burrito, pork belly carnitas, and sticky rum ribs served with cheddar/bacon/fried onion macaroni and cheese.

Appetizers include Caribbean Fried Shrimp tossed in housemade carrot and mango hot sauce, all topped with queso fresco and cilantro. A salsa sampler allows diners to pick three of the following: black bean and corn salsa, salsa fresco, salsa verde, peach habanero salsa and orange-coriander, roasted tomato and poblano pepper salsa.

Chef shuffle

Toque Shane Tyner, who represented Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune at Fire on the Dock and was previously at Phun Seafood Bar, has joined the Towne Tap & Grill kitchen.

Check Mixto soon for a revamped menu from chef Fenix Nelson, formerly of Manna and Catch. He also owns the late-night burrito delivery service, Incognito Bar-Rito, which I recently wrote about in a Greater Wilmington Business Journal story about chefs who moonlight. Nelson favors from-scratch moles and sauces and is talking about making his own cheese.

Chris’ Cosmic Kitchen (now closed) chef/owner Chris Lubben preceded Nelson at Mixto. Lubben has taken over as executive chef of the Shoals Club on Bald Head Island.

Former Crow Hill owner Derrick Cook, who did a brief stint at Cameron Art Museum’s Café Johnnie after Crow Hill closed, has been shaking pans at The Kitchen, where I recently had a nice carpaccio with hearts of palm, avocado and frisee. Cook works with his New York City pal Andrew Karasz, who recently switched over to The Kitchen from Circa 1922. The pair met in New York and ran into each other unexpectedly when Karasz arrived as Circa executive chef in February 2012.

Wilmington chefs and diners have not forgotten former Circa 1922 executive chef and Manna executive sous chef Kyle Lee McKnight. Many are reporting plans to attend April 8-11 opening nights at his latest stop: farm-to-table, contemporary American Highland Avenue in Hickory.

Speaking of Manna, Paula Pacini, most previously in The Fortunate Glass wine bar kitchen, has moved to Manna, joining executive chef Jameson Chavez and noted pastry chef Rebecca Alvarado Parades. The team’s spring menu is out, and this month they honor local farmers and produce at Manna’s popular 7-9 p.m. Thursday tapas at the bar.

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

2013 Easter brunches in Wilmington

Easter Sunday kicks off the spring Sunday brunch season, and restaurants in and around Wilmington are serving the meal this weekend and beyond.

Bonefish Grill, 4719 New Centre Drive, starts Sunday brunch hours this weekend, when it will offer its full menu beginning at 11 a.m. on Sundays.

Keep an eye open at Bonefish Grill locations for expanding brunch offerings such as creme brulee French toast and specialty champagne-based cocktails, Bonefish Grill president Stephen Judge said…

Brunch also happens at Boca Bay, 2025 Eastwood Road; Sweet & Savory and The Pub at Sweet and Savory, both on Pavillion Place off Eastwood Road near Wrightsville Beach; and Carolina Beach’s Surf House Cafe, 604 N. Lake Park Blvd. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Brunch, Carolina Beach, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Last Wilmington chef standing

The Fire on the Dock professional cooking contest happens in Wilmington, and it’s mostly Wilmington-area chefs who compete, but this year, as in 2012, the event is shaping up to be the battle of the out-of-towners.

Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern recently took out popular and respected downtown Wilmington Josh Woo of Yo Sake. Just a week before, Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 beat Wrightsville Beach’s well-known chef Mark Lawson of Blockade Runner resort’s East restaurant. Last night, Merrell defeated Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray.

Murray’s loss raised memories of last year’s Fire on the Dock, when the final battle boiled down to Fong and Andy Hopper, then in the kitchen at Morehead City’s Chefs 105, now with Southern Season gourmet food emporium in Chapel Hill and coming soon to Charleston, S.C. The pair climbed over lots of big local names, with Hopper taking the Fire on the Dock title.

Changing the outcome this year depends on one unsung Wilmington cook.

Compared to Wilmington celebrity toques Keith Rhodes of Catch or Shawn Wellersdick of Port Land Grille, Josh Petty, the last Wilmington chef in Fire on the Dock 2013, is an unknown. He works at The Pub at Sweet & Savory, which, at just 7 months old, might be considered still unproven.

Josh Petty’s Poulet Rouge yolk wonton with veal cheek confit, butter-poached lobster, black rice, asparagus and mushroom soup.

Petty, it seems, has a lot on his plate, but I’ve been thinking about putting my money on him since his first Fire on the Dock match, Battle Ashley Farms Eggs on March 5, against Kirsten Mitchell of Cameo 19 Hundred. His dishes were not perfect — cooking competition offerings seldom are — but Petty attempted a soup that roused my culinary sensibility. When my spoon broke into a deep-fried wonton, a soft egg yolk inside the package enriched the veal, lobster, black rice and vegetable soup. I’m hoping Petty will revisit the soup at a chefs dinner.

He impressed me again March 21 at Battle Pepsi and Peanuts against 22 North‘s Brent Poteat, one the Cape Fear’s best chefs. My table went nuts for Petty’s Five Spice Peanut Tempura Shrimp, a crispy, sweet, spicy creation drizzled with Pepsi chili glaze. It earned the night’s highest score. The Pepsi-spiked caramel on his Pepsi chocolate cake for dessert was another winner.

So, my money is on the home team tonight. Best of luck Josh. Fong’s a tough competitor. No matter what happens, I look forward to winning meals by Petty at The Pub at Sweet and Savory.

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

Many toasts to the Irish

Call it “the luck of the Irish.” Restaurants of all kinds, all over Wilmington, have special events and foods planned to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Downtown’s Hot Pink Cake Stand has a nice list of beers to pair with St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes through Sunday. Think Young’s double chocolate stout accompanying, say, an Irish coffee cupcake (spiked coffee-flavored cupcake with whipped cream frosting). For more info, call 343-4727.

Each St. Patrick’s Day, The Harp, a true Irish pub, hosts a grand indoor and outdoor celebration that happens March 16 and 17 this year at the restaurant’s 1423 S. 3rd St. location.

Live music both days includes bagpipers. A 10-piece band performs Sunday. The menu starts with a full Irish breakfast, which The Harp starts serving at 5 a.m. Shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage are, of course, planned.

Midtown, Halligan’s Public House, 3317 Masonboro Loop Road, on March 17 features performances by a six- to 12-mmeber team from the Irish School of Dance and local guitarist Daniel Parish. Expect bagpipers throughout the day, too. The day’s limited menu includes corned beef, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash and fish and chips.

Corned beef and cabbage shows up at all the usual locations this weekend, including Paddy’s Hollow in downtown’s The Cotton Exchange and The Dubliner at 1756 Carolina Beach Road, as well as a couple unexpected spots. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in downtown Wilmington, Restaurants 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

Texas Pete and hot chefs!

Chef Josh Woo's duck dumpling (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The one thing people say to me more than anything else — even more often than “What’s your favorite restaurant in Wilmington? — is “Wow! You have a really cool job.” It’s a comment I hear especially when I’m judging cooking contests, but honestly, I always go into judging contests a little timid.

Who knows what the food will taste like. Take a pro cook under out of his or her element, add a time limit and secret ingredients, and anything can happen — even to the best of the best.

Fire on the Dock, going on through April 3 at Wrightsville Beach’s Bluewater Waterfront Grill, is just that kind of contest, but the competition put my fears to rest on Tuesday. Chefs produced what I think were some of the cooking tournament’s best dishes to date.

Teams YoSake and Bald Head Island Club served multi-star experiences at Battle Texas Pete Feb. 26. YoSake chef Joss Woo is a talented toque who flies a little under the public radar, but as far as the city’s cooks are concerned, he’s one of the area’s standouts, as his Fire on the Dock efforts proved.

Right out of the gate, Woo captured diners with Texas Pete-spiked sweet potato bisque. Texas Pete and honey-glazed pork shoulder, so tender but with a crispy, roasty edge, and pistachio apple fennel chutney crowned the soup. Some were still talking about it after the fourth of the night’s six courses was served.

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

Next up was what former Gourmet magazine travel editor and Fire on the Dock judge deemed by far the night’s best taste: a Texas Pete-marinated duck dumpling Woo placed atop simple root vegetable puree, lightly sautéed kale and Texas Pete crawfish beurre blanc. Bell called the dumpling “perfect.”

Pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades hit the home run with the night’s highest-scoring dish. Her 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 was the best dish I’ve had at either the 2012 or 2013 Fire on the Dock contests. If you make almond tuile cookies, add a bit of Texas Pete.

YoSake didn’t have an easy competitor.

Bald Head chef Mark Andrews and crew plated beautifully each course. They got especially high marks for southwestern dry-rubbed Certified Angus Beef with a duo of potato pavé, asparagus, mushrooms, lobster and a lovely Texas Pete hollandaise.

An added twist was that Parades’ boyfriend, a fantastic Bald Head chef named Chris Enos, was on the Bald Head team. Knowing Parades’ talent (check out her desserts at Manna), what did Enos think when she told him days before the contest that they would be going head-to-head?

Chef Robert Andrews wonderful plating (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

“Oh crap!” Enos said.

Did Parades cut her true love any mercy?


As Fire on the Dock organizer Jimmy Crippen says at the top of each battle, “This is Competition Dining.”



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

Wilmington rib fest this summer!

Three-year-old Good Vibes Brewing has just finished what co-owner Paige Snow deemed the beer maker’s best year ever, and 2013 is shaping up to be another winner with the company sponsoring a grand rib festival in Wilmington this summer.

Snow and partner Slade McPhearson’s barbecue backgrounds convinced the pair to work with Greensboro’s AKA Entertainment and Media to produce Port City Rib Fest Aug. 9-11, Snow said.

Good Vibes and AKA are nailing down a location for the event, which will include nationally recognized rib chefs in a rib cooking competition. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in barbecue, downtown Wilmington, Food festivals, ribs Leave a comment

Biscuit story at Fire on the Dock

The Rx biscuit atop root vegetable soup with duck, crispy cracklin, fresh ricotta and cashew gremolata. Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series.

Fire on the Dock master of ceremonies Jimmy Crippen advises the cooking competition’s attendees not to try to guess which chef is putting out which dish at the contests. “Mothers have been wrong,” he’ll often say.

Sometimes, there’s a giveaway. Last night, it was a biscuit.

I recognized the biscuit from one Wilmington’s most popular spots, Rx Restaurant and Bar, which won the second 2013 Fire on the Dock battle Feb. 19 at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach.

Rx chef/co-owner James Doss and his team make hundreds of those buttermilk biscuits each week.

The homemade treats were placed atop creamy root vegetable soup that helped Doss and his cooks beat The Oceanic chef Thomas Mobley, who, by the way, made my favorite dish of the night: 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. Yum!

The biscuits signify what has made Rx so well-loved in Wilmington. When Doss competed in the 2012 Fire on the Dock, the restaurant he and James Novicki own was just under development in a tough neighborhood where crime has been an issue.

Still, Doss and Novicki remain steadfast in their efforts to serve homey yet stylish dishes using local ingredients, some of which are grown on Rx’s rooftop garden.

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

Biscuit-making has become a lost art diners seem happy to leave to processed food companies that supply frozen biscuits or huge bags of pre-blended biscuit mix to large chain food operations. Conduct a side-by-side tasting of a from-scratch biscuit and a prefabricated one and you’ll likely discover that your favorite fast food sausage biscuit is lacking.

Biscuits were once a staple of home kitchens in the South. They have never been difficult to prepare, unless you’re stamping out hundreds, as Rx cooks do. I talk about biscuits and their history on my downtown Wilmington food walking tour and then oftentimes sample biscuits at the breakfast hotspot Dixie Grill.

Along the way, I tell tour-goes an easy recipe for biscuits: 2 cups of self-rising, unbleached, all-purpose flour, about ¼ cup of lard or butter. Cut the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles cornmeal and then gently stir in about a cup of buttermilk.

Flour a board and gently roll out the dough, being careful to not incorporate more flour; simply keep a coating of flour on the dough to prevent it from sticking. Alternately, flour your hands, and pick up pieces of the dough and form into disks about ¾-inch thick.

Either way, handle gently. Overworking the dough leads to hard biscuits. If the dough seems too sticky and you don’t want to risk rolling or handling, drop tablespoonfuls of dough onto a pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

As I always tell tour-goers, if your biscuits come out ugly, no worries. Put them on a plate, smother them with sausage gravy and call them a “Southern specialty.”

Doss and I have been talking about a Castle Street food tour that would involve a biscuit making class. Stay tuned for details.

See Doss compete again at Fire on the Dock March 11, when he meets the Feb. 18 battle winner, Antoine Murray of Cape Fear Country Club.

The bracket-style cooking tournament resumes tonight when Blockade Runner chef Mark Lawson goes up against chef Joanie Babcock of Southern Exposure in Faison. For tickets and information, visit http://www.competitiondining.com/

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Fire on the Dock, Recipes, 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