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

Chefs

Cooking lessons learned at 2014 Fire on the Dock

Everyone loves to eat at the Fire on the Dock cooking competition. After all, that’s what diners are there to do, but one of the my favorite things about the contest is discovering ingredients and learning from chefs.

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 contests.

Each cook-off features a secret, local ingredient that chefs must use. My favorite so far this year was Uncle Scott’s Root Beer. Hops Supply Co. chef Tiffany Eslien used it for a luscious demi-glace she successfully paired with seared scallops and sweet potato hash. Do yourself a favor this Thanksgiving: Find a way to use root beer with sweet potatoes, whether its pie, candied yams or something else. The flavors meld so well.

chaIn that same root beer battle, chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City featured creamed collards with truffle oil. I’ve seen truffle oil on collards in previous years’ Competition Dining Series matches, but in this creamed dish, the humble greens truly reached sophistication.

Collards always appear at Fire on the Dock, this year also brought collard soup and deep-fried chiffonade of collard leaves used to garnish fried trout.

Texas Pete is another favorite ingredient that pops up at Fire on the Dock. This year, the company provided a new twist with its tangy, spicy, sweet Cha! sriracha sauce. I see Cha! Buffalo wings in my future as well as Cha!-seasoned brownies.

I sampled elk for the first time at Fire on the Dock. The super lean meat needs little cooking time to avoid tasting dry, which suits my rare preferences. Try it at home, but don’t cook it beyond medium rare.

I know I’ll learn more when Fire on the Dock ends tonight. 1900 Restaurant & Lounge chef Kirsten Mitchell meets Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray.

Competition Dining Series battles move on to Asheville in March and other parts of the state in coming months. Tickets are on sale for tonight’s final Fire on the Dock and future regional battles.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, Cooking classes, Fire on the Dock, Midtown Wilmington, Recipes, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Root beer & N.C. “Italian” wine at Fire on the Dock

I learn something at nearly every annual Fire on the Dock chef competition I attend. Last night, at the 2014 kick-off event, the lessons were how well root beer works with sweet potatoes and that North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley produces a sangiovese wine.

Although Wilmington home team Hops Supply Co. didn’t win the first Fire on the Dock round at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach, the restaurant’s chef, Tiffany Eslien, produced my favorite dish of the night: a pan-seared scallop atop sweet potato hash and root beer demi-glace, the whole crowned with nut-enriched gremolata,

Scallop and sweet potatoes with root beer demi-glace by chef Tiffany Eslien of Hops Supply Co. in Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series)

Scallop and sweet potatoes with root beer demi-glace by chef Tiffany Eslien of Hops Supply Co. in Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series)

The sweet potato and root beer was a just-right match, balanced by the scallop’s caramelization and the gremolata’s garlic and lemon zest. A tablemate suggested root beer in pumpkin pie or pecan pie as my mind went to root beer candied yams this Thanksgiving.

Eslien didn’t ask for root beer; it was the secret ingredient she and the night’s winner, chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City, had to use.

Fire on the Dock is one of four regional contests Competition Dining Series stages across North Carolina each year.

The bracket-style tournaments culminate in a final battle to select the best restaurant chefs from among regional winners. A secret N.C. ingredient is presented to chefs just before cooking begins. Last night, it was Uncle Scott’s All-Natural Root Beer made in Mooresville, N.C.

Cellar 4201 sangiovese. (Photo courtesy of Cellar 4021)

Cellar 4201 sangiovese. (Photo courtesy of Cellar 4021)

As I pondered root beer for my 2014 Thanksgiving dinner plans, contest organizer Jimmy Crippen placed a surprise bottle of Cellar 4201 sangiovese on the table for guests to sample and discuss.

Cellar 4201 is in East Bend, N.C.

I’m used to rustic, dark sangioveses, but the Cellar 4201 version was light and fruity, an easy drinking wine for the “I don’t like red wine” group that made up most of my table.

It’s quaffability reminded me of a little of beaujolais nouveau. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving again, and a local Thanksgiving at that: N.C. sweet potatoes, N.C. root beer, N.C. wine and perhaps a duck from Maple Leaf Farms, also on last night’s menu.

Weather has postponed tonight’s Fire on the Dock round until next week. Visit the Competition Dining website for schedule and reservation details.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, Fire on the Dock, Local food, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Wilmington menu to aid typhoon victims in the Philippines

I was just considering a series about great Wilmington-area chefs and restaurants that fly under the radar when I saw a Facebook post from one of them that reminded me why I continue to write about restaurants. Readers may think it’s because I like to eat — and, of course, I do — but what keeps me most interested in the beat are the special people I meet along the way. Chef Danny Keegan of San Juan Cafe is one of them.

Keegan is a fantastic cook and a super-nice guy, as evidenced by the menu special he announced last night: Traditional Filipino cuisine will be served starting this Thursday and continuing through Saturday, with 10 percent of sales donated to Red Cross aid efforts in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines.

“This disaster hits close to home for us here at San Juan Cafe,” Keegan said on Facebook. “Our bartender, Katrina, has over a dozen family members who live on the Filipino island of Leyte in a province just outside of Tacloban. Please come out and help us support those who are in desperate need of assistance at this difficult time.”

The Filipino noodle dish pancit  and adobo, which usually involves meat, seafood and vegetables simmered in tangy soy garlic sauce, will both be on the menu this week, Keegan said.

San Juan Cafe tostones with caviar or tuna tartare are regulars on San Juan's menu.

San Juan Cafe tostones with caviar or tuna tartare are regulars on San Juan’s menu. (Photo courtesy of San Juan Cafe.)

Keegan opened San Juan Cafe, 3314 Wrightsville Ave., near Independence Boulevard, in 2010. He’s a passionate cook who strives to produce authentic Latin American cuisine, including that of this native Puerto Rico.

Trained at Johnson and Wales late Charleston, S.C., campus and an alumnus of various Key West and Cape Fear kitchens, Keegan has a knack with getting tostones (fried green plantains) just right, meaning crisp and light, and then crowning them with unexpected toppings, my favorite being caviar and cilantro-lime cream.

Duck two ways — tender confit and seared breast — arrives with caramelized onion demi-glace with soft arepas.

Knowing Keegan’s skill and heart, I can’t wait to see what he does with Filipino cuisine this week. Hope to see you there.

 

 

 

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, dinner specials, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

When chefs collide, what deliciousness!

Poke at Tamashii.

Poke at Tamashii. (Photo courtesy of Tamashii)

Wilmington restaurants come and go, but some cooks can’t stay away. Chef Eric Gephart is one of them. He used to run a much-loved seafood restaurant named Buoy 32 at Wrightsville Beach. After Buoy 32 closed, Gephart helped open and run downtown’s Mixto (closed til spring 2014). Next, he headed to Morrisville, where Gephart remains lead instructor at the The Chefs Academy. Tonight, he’s back in Wilmington cooking with friends at great Wilmington restaurant that flies under the radar.

Tamashii is a Masonboro Loop Road spot whose chef/owner Mark Scharaga sources local ingredients and sustainable seafood for traditional and unusual sushi on a mostly Asian menu that steps elsewhere with ceviche, poke and tartare, as well as eclectic entrees that speak to the way Scharage defines the restaurant.

“Tamashii, is a word that originates in Japan. In the simplest form it means “Soul,” Scharaga says at Tamashii’s website. ”This is essential to our chefs’ vision for the restaurant. We make food that comes from the soul of our being and the soul of the ingredients we use.”

Evidence of that arrives tonight (Nov. 9, 2013) when Scharaga and Gephart join forces for an Evening of Culinary Exploration, a five-course meal based on their shared imaginings. Each selection will be paired with wine or sake.

Tamashii is on Masonboro Loop Road, near Navaho Trail.

Tamashii is on Masonboro Loop Road, near Navaho Trail.

Gephart promises to bring back some Buoy 32-style delights; Scharaga will be behind the sushi bar crafting special noshes. On the menu are Hawaiian albacore with wasabi tempura and sweet red tobiko and a pork belly dish with ginger, Thai peppers and sweet potato mash. Oyster ice cream has been mentioned, too!

Josh Burris, a close friend of Gephart’s and a longtime Mixto cook who is now part of the team at Aubriana’s, one of Wilmington’s top restaurants, joins Scharaga and Gephart for the event.

The five-course meal costs $75. To make reservations, purchase tickets online or call Tamashii at 910-228-5576. Find the restaurant at 4039 Masonboro Loop Road.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, dinner specials, Local food, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Food truck news: rally, new wheels and a restaurant!

TruckARooEventLogoAnother food truck rally is rolling into downtown Wilmington. Meantime, chef Keith Rhodes of well-known Catch restaurant is working on another food truck, and yummy Mex food truck La Bella Airosa is so successful it’s adding a restaurant to its food truck business!

Five food trucks are scheduled to compete in the third Truck-A-Roo, an event that lets diners vote for their favorite food truck.

Truck-A-Roo organizer Pipeline Event Management of Wilmington announced the latest date, scheduled 4 to 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 2013, at 101 N. Front St. in downtown Wilmington.

As with the previous two Truck-A-Roo rallies, the first in November 2012 and the second in June 2013, diners purchase a “sample ticket,” which costs $12 in advance or $15 at the gate. Ticket holders may try fare at each truck and then vote for their favorite taste.

The public needn’t purchase a ticket to attend Truck-A-Roo. Admission to the event, which includes beer sales and live bands, is free. Attendees who do not have tickets may purchase food from each truck.

Flaming Amy's Sacred Burrito Bus owner Jay Muxworthy taking first prize at the first Truck-a-Roo.

Flaming Amy’s Sacred Burrito Bus owner Jay Muxworthy taking first prize at the first Truck-a-Roo.

Participating trucks are Catch The Food Truck, The Patty Wagon burgers, Truck-a-Roo champ Flaming Amy’s Sacred Burrito Bus, Tacos El Nene and multi-award-winning Poor Piggy’s BBQ.

Look for a new food truck on the horizon!

Catch owner/chef Keith Rhodes is promising “hot chicken” and “sexy wings” on his approaching Wing Star food truck. The bright orange truck’s slogan is “Party Like a Wing Star!” Rhodes reported that he is still upfitting the truck, which he said is “coming together.” He has not announced a debut date.

Some restaurants have jumped on the food truck trend for catering. P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grille is among them. The local burger chain’s truck is “used exclusively for parties, corporate events, private events, and lunch at the office. This food trailer is fully functional to cook our famous burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries on site!” according to the P.T.’s website.

Other trucks have inspired new restaurants. Recently, the owners of two trucks named La Bella Airosa purchased the 3500 N. Kerr Ave. building that once housed Pearl’s Seafood and Catering.

With around 7,000 square feet, the brick-and-mortar restaurant is large enough for 150 people, said Erik Romero, who operates the La Bella Airosa trucks with his parents and two brothers.The restaurant, of the same name as the trucks, will allow the family to expand the menu and offer more of La Bella Airosa’s current menu favorites such as tamales, which are served on Friday. Get there early, as service starts at 11 a.m. and the tamales are usually gone by 2 p.m., Romero said.

Chef Keith Rhodes is getting his Wing Star wheels rolling (Photo by Wing Star).

Chef Keith Rhodes is getting his Wing Star wheels rolling (Photo by Wing Star).

“Our speciaty is making everything from scratch: handmade tortillas, sauces homemade, everything pretty much fresh,” Romero said.

The mobile units will continue to operate when La Bella Airosa the restaurant opens in a few months, perhaps before the year’s end, Romero said.

One La Bella Airosa truck serves lunch and dinner in a parking lot on north Market Street, between Lullwater Drive and New Bern Street. The truck stays there late into the night on weekends.

The other truck parks near Wilco Hess and Intrepid Hardward on U.S. 117, near the N.C. 210 intersection at Rocky Point., Romero said.

The Romeros hail from the town of Pachuca, in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo. The windy town’s nickname is La Bella Airosa, or The Windy Beauty, Romero said.

Posted on by lizbiro in barbecue, Chefs, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Food trucks, Midtown Wilmington, Uptown Wilmington Leave a comment

Warm up with some of Wilmington’s best soups!

Winter is just nippy enough on the North Carolina coast to think about soup after a fall or winter walk on the beach. Lots of places in the city make wonderful soups, many of which are on special during Encore Restaurant Week. Here are a few of my favorites.

Downtown and Monkey Junction’s Chop’s Deli locations offer hot soup every day, no matter the temperature. Selections may be as traditional as clam chowder or tomato soup or fresh takes on old ideas. For instance, one of today’s choices is Curried Surf & Turf Chowder. Chop’s is well-loved for its super cheesy, super rich Broccoli Cheese Soup. One of my past favorites was Meatloaf Mac & Cheese Soup.

In far north Wilmington, I’m crazy about Kornerstone Bistro for the kitchen’s wood-fired oven (pizza with soup! yum!). Lately, the spot has been offering Tomato Basil Soup and Roasted Red Pepper Soup, either perfect with Pizza Bianca (no tomato sauce).

Phun Seafood Bar's Duck Noodle Bowl. So yummy!

Phun Seafood Bar’s Duck Noodle Bowl. So yummy!

I love Asian soups, and downtown chef Josh Woo of YoSake really knows how to make broth sing with flavor. For this week’s Encore Restaurant Week menu, Oct. 23-30, 2013, Woo crafts Tomato Ginger Bisque and Lemongrass Vegetable Soup.

Uptown, chef Lee Grossman of Bento Box has an experienced hand with soups, too. His Hot & Sour Soup is lovely, but keep an eye out for specials such as crispy lobster dumplings in clear broth.

I recently sampled the most delicate but soothing simple egg drop soup with goji berries at Szechuan 132 in College Road’s University Landing Mall. If you like a white tablecloth Asian restaurant, don’t miss this little gem.

My absolute favorite soup of late is the Kai-Soi curry beef noodle soup at Asian Fusion Noodle House on New Centre Drive near Target.

Szechuan 132's Egg Drop Soup with gogi berries. Light but so warming.

Szechuan 132′s Egg Drop Soup with gogi berries. Light but so warming.

Other great soups and stews around town include the creamy seafood stew named Waterzooi at downtown’s Caprice Bistro. This week, Caprice is offering its stellar Boeuf Bourguignon as part of its $29.95 Encore Restaurant Week lineup. Nearby French cafe and wine bar Le Catalan serves delish Lentil and Sausage Stew this time of year.

I also adore, adore, adore the Duck Noodle Bowl I’ve had at downtown Wilmington’s Phun Seafood Bar.

These are just a tiny selection of the many wonderful soups available around Wilmington. Please share places where you have found others.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, dinner specials, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, French, Midtown Wilmington, Monkey Junction, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, Wilmington Restaurant Week Leave a comment

Fresh seafood, steamed or fried, to go

Fish eyes are bright and glassy, a sign of freshness, at Mike’s Seafood and convenience store on Market Street, which recently became Mike’s Seafood & Kitchen, meaning you can pop in for a plate to go.

Area fishermen this fall are stocking the market with local finfish favorites such as spots and croakers and, in coming weeks, mullets as well as clams, crabs, oysters and shrimp, but lobster, salmon, crayfish and snow crab legs are also sold. The raw seafood selection is broad.

Fried seafood sandwiches and plates, including combination platters, feature various fish and shellfish accompanied by two or more homey sides such as slaw, green beans, fried okra and corn on the cob. Patrons may also select seafood from the raw market for the “You Buy, We Fry” special priced by the pound.

Feras “Mike” Abdelhamid leased the 3114 Market St. store, at Covil Avenue, in January and by March had installed a fresh seafood market, store manager Tammi Anders said.

“When we started upfitting for raw seafood everybody thought were were going to cook, and then they were disappointed when we didn’t,” Anders said.

As a result, Abdelhamid added equipment and cooks, renamed the store Mike’s Fresh Seafood and Kitchen and launched a menu in August.

Steamed seafood is available, too, including grab-and-go steamed shrimp that have been chilled and boxed.

Mike’s offers a take-out menu only, but Anders said Abdelhamid may consider adding table seating if the menu is a big enough hit.

 

Posted on by lizbiro in Local food, lunch specials, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Happy Birthday Katy’s

A big burger welcomes diners to Katy's.

A big burger welcomes diners to Katy’s.

In the commerce mishmash lining Wilmington’s busy College Road, one restaurant stands out not just for its bright, mustard-colored awning and the giant double-cheeseburger sculpture holding court by the door.

The burger signals the fun, food and friendliness Katy’s Grill & Bar has been serving for 30 years. That this little restaurant always feels like home is thanks to its owner Katy Monaghan.

The Wilmington restaurant veteran has been a force behind some of the city’s most beloved dining spots, including The Original Salt Works on Oleander Drive near Bradley Creek.

Today, Monaghan stages a huge birthday party for Katy’s. She’ll serve a buffet from 5 to 7 p.m.  Sliders, seafood and Katy’s popular wings are on the menu. Live music starts 4 p.m. The first act, Cosmic Groove Lizards, is a band whose members attend Monaghan’s church. Foosball, corn hole and ping pong are planned, too.

The celebration will no doubt be as down to earth as every other day at Katy’s. Folks will eat and drink — specials include Jell-O shots — hoot and howl, engage in back slapping and just hang out. Such a huge crowd is expected that Monaghan has arranged for parking attendants and added spaces at parking lots neighboring Katy’s.

Katy Monaghan

Katy Monaghan

An owner who truly cares about her customers, Monaghan’s kind and genuine spirit is evident each time she meets someone.

“I love the fellowship,” Monaghan said of the restaurant business.

Monaghan was 16 years old when her father moved her family from Illinois to Wilmington for work.

“I sold my saddle to buy a surf board,” Monaghan said while sipping a beer at the Katy’s bar.

The beach lover’s first job was at Wrightsville Beach’s late Marina Restaurant, which in the 1970s and 1980s was on Causeway Drive. A friend from Monaghan’s mother’s garden club got her the job. Monaghan started as a waitress. Six years later, she was the manager, a climb she made while working on her college biology degree.

Monaghan’s love of restaurant work trumped her interest in biology. By her early 20s she was married and persuading her husband, a teacher, to get into the restaurant business.

They opened a burgers and hot dogs place named Salt Works because of a historic salt production site nearby.

The marriage didn’t last, but Salt Works did as did Monaghan’s love of the food business. Salt Works inspired a different owner to develop Salt Works II, still on Wrightsville Avenue, in a building where Monaghan operated a restaurant named Pony Express. She also was involved in the creation of Wrightsville Beach favorite Causeway Cafe. Today, Katy’s is her sole restaurant.

She describes the restaurant business as a round-the-clock stressor that “sucks you dry.” With so many chain restaurants added to the College Road mix since Katy’s opened, profits have dropped. No matter. Monaghan considers the bigger payoff the people she meets at Katy’s, whether they’re regulars or unexpected celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver and Julia Roberts.

A joyful heart, an easy manner and an eye toward the future are what it takes to survive in the restaurant business, Monaghan said. After all this time, Katy’s remains a work in progress, no matter the odds. When a car drove through Katy’s, Monaghan made the restaurant’s slogan “not just another hole in the wall.” When diners’ tastes shifted to healthy foods, Monaghan added a salad bar and veggie burgers, although fried soft shells crabs (available now), fried pickles and fried green tomatoes remain her favorite menu items.

“It’s evolving,” Monaghan said of her restaurant.

“I hope it stays Katy’s.”

Posted on by lizbiro in dinner specials, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Standing ovations for Southern home cooking

North Carolina’s Our State magazine’s July issue features Casey’s Buffet, a southern food restaurant at 5559 Oleander Dr.

The piece and accompanying photographs appear in the Good Food section. It highlights Casey’s all-you-can-eat, 30-plus buffet offerings, the restaurant’s deviled eggs and husband-and-wife owners Larry and Gena Casey.

Home cooking is on the menu for TheatreNOW’s new production “Country Cookin’ with The Good Ol’ Boys!” 7 p.m. each Saturday this summer at the 19 S. 10th St. theater.

The dinner theater performance serves comfort food with live, classic country tunes and comedy sketches performed in a manner similar to “Hee Haw,” a longtime television variety show that aired mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. The “Country Cookin’ with The Good Ol’ Boys!” cast includes Wilmington musicians and actors.

Three courses accompany the performance. On the menu: cornbread, biscuits and honey butter; country-fried steak with white gravy, fried catfish or roasted chicken with gravy; and pie for dessert. Tickets cost $30 or $42.

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

Homemade ice cream at Velvet Freeze

Velvet Freeze ice creams are made from scratch in classic and creative flavors such as these: sweet potato, salted caramel, and buttermilk poached pear (photo by Velvet Freeze).

Midtown Wilmington’s Velvet Freeze ice cream shop has reopened for the warm-weather season and, again this year, is satisfying consumer cravings for wacky flavors.

Sweet pea pineapple is the latest creation from Velvet Freeze owner Karel Blaas, a chef who introduced Velvet Freeze in spring 2011. The barely green vegetable fruit combination blends a delicate pea flavor with a slight pineapple tang.

The flavor joins other 2013 newbies such as clove- and star anise-spiced orange sorbet and lavender strawberry, a new take on last season’s popular lavender ice cream. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Ice cream, Local food, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment