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


Wilmington chefs on the move

Cape Fear area top chefs have been shuffling around, affording diners fresh opportunities for fine meals.

After seven years heading Blockade Runner’s kitchens, chef Mark Lawson departed Sept. 1 for Wilmington’s Circa Restaurant Group, Lawson said. Today, he begins work at Circa’s Osteria Cicchetti at The Forum shopping center. Blockade Runner has not released information about a Lawson replacement.

Also at The Forum, Scott Grimm will man stoves at a new restaurant moving into what was The Kitchen, which was another Circa Restaurant Group property.

Downtown’s Rx Restaurant owners James Doss and Josh Novicki purchased The Kitchen this summer and plan to open a yet-to-be-named Rx-style restaurant there in October, Doss said. Grimm and Doss have worked together at Rx and in Charleston, S.C. Grimm was last at Dockside. His creamy crab and corn chowder won the best in show award at the 2012 Taste of Wrightsville Beach food and wine festival.

Grimm has been in the new restaurant’s kitchen lately shucking locally grown sweet corn that was frozen for later use. Downtown, chef

Fenix Nelson has left Mixto. In his absence, downtown favorite Josh Woo of YoSake is running the Mixto kitchen with help from Mixto long-timer Josh Burris, Woo and Burris said. YoSake and Mixto share owners. Woo, a local foods disciple who wowed diners with Texas Pete-seasoned delights at the 2013 Fire on the Dock pro cooking competition, and Burris, who also clocks time at downtown’s Aubriana’s, are tweaking the Mixto list. They’re blending brunch specials into the regular menu on Sundays and frying mini, bacon-wrapped burritos.

Also downtown, Hilton Wilmington Riverside has named Charles Rousey as its executive chef. Rousey shook pans at Wallace’s Mad Boar before coming to the hotel. Rousey and Hilton Wilmington Riverside in August won the best entrée award at Wilmington’s Epicurean Evening to benefit the Methodist Home for Children. Rousey and team prepared grilled scallops with arame pesto and also grilled tenderloin on a bed of blue cheese.

Posted on by lizbiro in Brunch, Chefs, Downtown, Local food, New restaurants, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Rx second location due in October

Popular downtown Rx Restaurant in October takes over what was The Kitchen in north Wilmington’s The Forum shopping center.

Expect an Rx-like concept at the nearly 7,000-square-foot, 1125 Military Cutoff Road unit at The Forum’s south end. This second Rx family member, however, will have its own name and identity, Rx owner/chef James Doss said.

“It will be the same sort of (Rx) idea but we’ll definitely do some different things,” Doss said.

“You’ll have to go to Rx to get certain things, and you’ll have to come to the new place to get certain things.”

The thread holding the two places together will be the Rx motto: “seasonally inspired, ingredient-driven, Southern cuisine,” Doss said. Opening day is scheduled for October.

The restaurant will serve dinner six days a week and be closed on Monday. Lunch and/or brunch may begin in 2014, Doss said.

The Kitchen’s interior design scheme won’t change much, Doss noted. A back area will be curtained off as a private dining space, the bar will be altered and an effort will be made to lighten the dark dining room, which seats around 200 people. Doss said he plans to keep the open kitchen, which diners see behind a glass partition.

Doss’ last gig before he and business partner Josh Novicki, friends since childhood, developed Rx was at well-respected Husk in Charleston, S.C. Novicki has worked area restaurants, too, and spends part of his time as a professional disc jockey.

Rx has won positive reviews and its fan base has mushroomed since the restaurant’s July 2012 debut at Castle Street and 5th Avenue.

The menu is focused on local foods and changes daily. Popular signature dishes are Buffalo-sauced, crispy fried pig ears to dip in blue cheese dressing; shrimp and grits with andouille sausage and seasonal vegetables; and roasty pork belly resting on creamy cheddar grits under a poached egg.

Posted on by lizbiro in downtown Wilmington, Local food, New restaurants, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Thai chef back in Wilmington!

Thai-food lovers who miss Wilmington’s late Jessamine Thai will soon get a taste of their old favorite.

In August, Ragab Brazilian & International Cuisine closed its 7110 Wrightsville Ave. doors. Not long after, restaurateur Tom Trinh started moving his Shukai Thai & Sushi bar into the Wrightsville Beach-area location, bringing chef Patrick Tepnupa with him.

Tepnupa over the past few years has been cooking at Asian restaurants in Atlanta, but before that, he shook woks alongside Ann Veber, a well-known Wilmington area chef who was a partner in downtown’s late Rim Wang and who owned College Road’s former Jessamine Thai.

These days, Veber runs Asian Fusion Noodle House, a favorite spot of chefs (they especially love Veber’s kai soi with beef or chicken) at 4724 New Centre Dr.

When Shukai Thai & Sushi Bar opens, possibly as early as mid-September, Veber will be Tepnupa’s competition along with nearby Big Thai, the Landfall Center restaurant whose kitchen is run by Rim Wang alum, chef Charin “Big” Choti.

Describing Shukai curry dishes such duck, soft-shelled crab and lobster, deep-fried “naked,” in panang curry, Tepnupa expressed no worry over rivals. In fact, he said, Veber may join him in the Shukai kitchen for the restaurant’s grand opening.

Hailing from an area of Thailand near Bangkok, Tepnupa said he has been cooking professionally for 20 years.

Shukai’s 3,500 square feet will seat 85 diners, with patio tables available, Tepnupa said. Expect beer and wine, including sake, he added. Tepnupa said the restaurant is scheduled to be open daily.

Posted on by lizbiro in New restaurants, Restaurants, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Real Mexican on Gordon Road

Chili rellenos are filled with either chicken or cheese at La Guera. Watch out! The peppers may be hotter than you expect.

Chili rellenos are filled with either chicken or cheese at La Guera. Watch out! The peppers may be hotter than you expect.

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for seven distinctive mole sauces. New La Guera Mexican restaurant on Gordon Road may become famous for just one of them.

Mole Oaxaqueño is the famous Black Mole of Oaxaca, a deep, dark, rich, slow-cooked blend of mulatto chili peppers, nuts and chocolate.

At La Guera, the sauce comes on chicken or pork ribs. Don’t arrive here expecting perfect, skinless chicken breasts. The fare is homey and real. Chicken drumsticks and thighs one day were small and oh-so-tender and smothered in the mole, which was equally satisfying on La Guera’s thin, housemade tortillas.

La Guera has been open just a few weeks on Gordon Road, near the Market Street intersection, but buzz about the “authentic Mexican” fare its menu promises is spreading.

What caught my ear was a stylish American couple’s conversation last weekend about La Guera’s chapulines.

The pair sipped wine at a downtown Wilmington’s waterfront café as they talked about the garlic-spiced and toasted grasshoppers that are another Oaxacan specialty.

The husband was served chapulines at La Guera, which told me this place was the real deal. Consumption of insects in Mexico dates back before Spanish conquistadors invaded the area, bringing hogs and cattle with them. Native populations ate insects as protein sources and as a means to control insect damage to crops, according to food historians. Oaxacan legend claims that visitors who eat chapulines in Oaxaca will return to the Mexican state some day. Oaxaca is where I sampled grasshoppers in tacos and saw them sold in different sizes in tall, pyramid-shaped piles at open markets. I can’t wait to go back.

At La Guera, cahpulines are served only to customers in-the-know. More familiar Oaxacan mole is on the public specials board daily.

Tongue-stinging chili rellenos coated in delicate egg batter make the regular specials board, too. The rest of the list changes more frequently. Grilled steak in salsa verde, seafood soup and tortitas de pollo en jitomate (chicken patties in tomato sauce) were recent offerings.

Whatever owner Delfina Urena serves comes with those housemade tortillas. The  Mexico native said she hails from Guerro. She has  fond memories of her uncle’s restaurant in Mexico.

Guera is a word used in Mexico to denote a woman with a fair complexion and light hair, both traits of Urena. At La Guera, she said, she cooks with a Oaxacan native, hence the mole and chapulines.

Specials enhance a full, printed menu of tacos, quesadillas, sopes, tostadas, soups, sandwiches and house specialities, including posole, menudo and chicken enchiladas in red, green or mole sauces. Meat fillings range from steak, chicken and pork to beef neck, tongue or tripe.

Dine-in or take-out is available at the 6620-F Gordon Road restaurant in Gordon Road Station. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Some menu items, such as menudo, are available only on weekends. Call 910-392-6682.

Posted on by lizbiro in New restaurants, Restaurants, ribs, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington Leave a comment

Pizza, Italian favorites in Carolina Beach

Casa Matta is new at Carolina Beach.

Casa Matta is new at Carolina Beach.

Buon appetito! Casa Matta, serving pizza, pasta and southern Italian-style entrees in the former Madfish Grill, 1140 N. Lake Park Blvd., is open.

Owner Salvatore Doria first landed on the Cape Fear dining scene in July 2012, when he launched Brooklyn Sal’s pizzeria in the former Gumby’s Pizza, 1414-E S. College Road, between Wrightsville Avenue and Oleander Drive.

But Doria preferred Carolina Beach, where his brother, Vinny Doria, runs Uncle Vinny’s Pizzeria and Ristorante. When a place at the beach become available, Salvatore Doria grabbed it.

The 215-seat restaurant has a new patio furnished with a freshly painted concrete floor and umbrellas over tables. Lasagna, chicken piccata, Philly cheesesteaks, “real veal,” from-scratch meatballs and housemade, thick-crust Sicilian-style pizza are on the menu, Doria said. Traditional breakfast and brunch “with an Italian flair” are coming, general manager Celeste Bondy said.

Expect live music at Casa Matta, too.

Neapolitan Doria came to America as a child. At age 12, he began spinning pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said. Doria also owns Fratello’s, an upscale Italian restaurant he has operated for three years in Pinehurst. That 100-seat spot is undergoing a 1,500-square-foot expansion, bringing a pizzeria to the business.

Posted on by lizbiro in Carolina Beach, New restaurants, Restaurants Leave a comment

Fried chicken just like Mama’s

Sugah Mamaz is becoming a Wilmington go-to spot for soul food, especially fried chicken, owner Monisha Robinson said.

Since the restaurant at 604 Red Cross St. between North 6th and 7th streets opened April 12, it has experienced a steady rise in traffic, she said.

“I can’t believe how many have come. It’s like they were waiting for me to open,” Robinson said. “They come in, and then the next time they come back, they have someone with them.”

Robinson prepares what she calls “just regular recipes” according to cooking instructions handed down by her late mother. Selections include yams, collard greens, cornbread and homemade macaroni and cheese. Read more…

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

New pub near UNC-Wilmington

A hidden nook between South College Road and Kerr Avenue has strong profit potential, according to the owner of a new restaurant moving into the area.

When Eleanor Deschamps opens Low Tide Pub in mid-May, she said she plans to target guests at 40 hotels and residents of 20 apartment complexes within three miles of the 4540 Fountain Drive location.

“I used to travel all the time as a regional vice president for Olan Mills, and when I did, I always wanted to eat at that little, local place,” Deschamps said.

Low Tide fits the bill Deschamps sought. The approximately 50-seat restaurant, including outdoor deck tables, will focus on wings and sandwiches, including a beer-battered fish stack and a meaty crab cake sandwich, Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Midtown Wilmington, New restaurants, Restaurants Leave a comment

The O.C. coming to Monkey Junction

The former O’Charley’s building at Monkey Junction is getting Italian food from one of Wilmington’s most productive restaurateurs.

“We’re opening another Osteria Cicchetti here,” Ash Aziz said.

The original Osteria Cicchetti, at The Forum shopping center on Military Cutoff Road, is one of six restaurants under Aziz’s Circa Restaurant Group.

Osteria Cicchetti’s second location will be at 5104 South College Road, where O’Charley’s closed on May 20, following the December 2010 closing of O’Charley’s at 6 Van Campen Blvd. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Monkey Junction, New restaurants, Restaurants Leave a comment

Soon-to-open cafe = cheese central

My dream job is cheese sommelier — or rather maitre fromager, the person at restaurants who recommends cheeses to diners. I could spend my days studying cheese, buying cheese, traveling to find more cheese, sampling cheese and wheeling around a cool cart packed with the best cheeses.

I can smell it now.

Max McCalman was America’s first and for a time only maitre fromager. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, he was the cheese keeper at New York City-based restaurant Picholine. I wanted to marry him. I’ve since settled for a good humboldt fog.

Alas, my love affair with cheese on the North Carolina coast is mostly limited to the little, sanitary, plastic-wrapped packages that fill food market bins. State and federal food safety rules on cheese are more restrictive than my bikini when it comes to fulfilling my culinary aspirations.

Still, cheese heads like me find a way to get what they want. As sick as I am for cheese, Taste the Olive owner Kymberlei DiNapoli is even sicker.

DiNapoli is looking to open her Taste the Olive cafe and wine bar, on Military Cutoff Road in The Forum shopping center,  sometime this week, and when she does, expect an impressive range of cheeses served by a trained staff. A main reason DiNapoli developed the cafe is so that she would have more room to devote to her beloved cheese. Just days ago, she had her crew schooled by Southern Foods cheese specialist Sasha Shreders.

Shreders took the team through a full range of cheeses styles, from fresh to blue-veined to dry-aged. Along the way, he shared lots of interesting tidbits and pairing ideas. For instance, the quality of gruyere may be judged by “tears of joy,” not the ones you cry upon tasting the cheese but the drops of water that develop in gruyere’s holes as the cheese matures.

Another note: triple cream cheeses go well with sparkling wine. Expect both at DiNapoli’s new cafe, a stunning space in gold, black, white tile and hammered tin.

The location will feature an airy cafe in one section and wine bar in the other. A doorway links the spot to Taste the Olive, allowing customers to move from one business to the next without stepping outside.

DiNapoli plans to serve light breakfasts and lunches, , including the Swiss melted cheese dish named raclette. Noshes and small plates will fill the evening menu. Expect wine, olive oil and cooking classes, too.

When I stopped by Monday, workers were putting finishing touches on the cafe and refrigerated glass display cases were still empty — except for one. It was full of cheese!

Posted on by lizbiro in Cooking classes, New restaurants, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, wine bar, 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