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

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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


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

Southern Collards should be the new kale

Kale. Blah, blah, blah. Ya, it’s good for you, but so are collards, the preferred greens among Southerners, at least the ones I grew up with on the North Carolina coast.

Down here, we love collards, and don’t really get all the fuss about kale. For many of us, kale is just curly edged collards that don’t taste as good as “our” greens.

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.

Chef Kirsten Mitchell's Collard Soup at the 2014 Fire on the Dock. (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Chef Kirsten Mitchell’s Collard Soup at the 2014 Fire on the Dock. (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Tonight marks Fire on the Dock finals at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach. The winning chef moves on to the Final Fire contest later this year in Raleigh. There, regional Fire winners battle for the title of best chef of the annual statewide Competition Dining Series.

One of tonight’s competitors can thank collards, in part, for a place in the 2014 Fire on the Dock final. 1900 Restaurant & Lounge  chef Kirsten Mitchell won her first challenge with a menu that included collard soup. It has been one of the most talked-about dishes served during this year’s Fire on Dock.

Mitchell seasoned her soup with Cha!, a new sriracha hot sauce from Texas Pete. She topped the soup with battered and fried quail from Manchester Farms in Columbia, S.C., and swirls of Cha! crème fraiche.

Diners, whose Fire on the Dock votes help pick contest winners, were divided on the soup’s texture — some thought it should be smoother — but nearly everyone I spoke with agreed the soup was delicious.

So step aside kale. Collards are moving up. Making a soup similar to Mitchell’s is not difficult. A recipe follows, and you can top the soup with fried chicken breast that was just-cooked, left over or purchased from a restaurant. Blend a little Cha! into some sour cream or Greek yogurt, and you’ll approximate Mitchell’s Cha crème fraiche.

Collard Beats Kale Soup

1 large russet potato, peeled and diced

1 small bundle of fresh collards, washed, stems discarded, and leaves chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease

1/2 carrot, shredded

1/2 small onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, smashed

4-5 cups chicken stock

½ cup half-and-half

Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potato in water and ½ teaspoon of salt until potato is soft (about 8-10 min).

Meantime, steam the collard leaves for 10 minutes, until collards are soft. Set aside.

Drain potatoes, reserving about 1 cup of the potato cooking water. Set aside the potatoes and, in a separate container, the reserved cooking water.

Let collards and potatoes cool.

Set a medium stock pot over medium-high heat. When pot is hot, add olive oil or bacon grease. Add the carrot, onion and garlic to the pot and sauté 5 minutes. Add stock, 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon of pepper and half of the cooked potatoes.

In a blender or food processor, blend the other half of the potato and the collards in 1 cup of the potato cooking water until smooth.  Add to the stock pot and stir until mixture is well combined.

Simmer soup for 5 minutes. Stir in half and half and heat gently for 3-5 minutes.

Serves 2.

Source: Adapted from In My Vegan Life blog.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, 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

Girls! Girls! Girls! Female chefs at Fire on the Dock

That professional kitchens remain male-dominated is surprising, considering women do much of the world’s everyday cooking. Remember in late 2013 when Time magazine left out any mention of female chefs in its Nov. 18, 2013, “Gods of Food” cover story and in the accompanying “chef family tree” that traced how great chefs are linked?

Despite the exclusions, women run or are key staffers in restaurant kitchens (Alice Waters, Dominique Crenn, Cat Cora, Elizabeth Falkner, Lidia Bastianich, Nancy Silverton, Amanda Freitag, Alexandra Guarnaschelli, Traci Des Jardins, to name a few).

Women are among Wilmington’s best chefs, three of whom will be in the mix of eight competitors when the annual cooking contest Fire on the Dock returns this month to Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrighsville Beach.

Fire on the Dock 2014 chefs ready for action.

Fire on the Dock 2014 chefs ready for action.

The female lineup includes Kirsten Mitchell of 1900 Restaurant Lounge, Tiffany Eslien of Hops Supply Co. and Katie Carter of The Olive Cafe & Wine Bar, all in Wilmington.

Other Wilmington-area contestants are Josh Petty of Sweet & Savory, James Rivenbark of South Beach Grill and Antoine Murray of Cape Fear Country Club. Coming from out of town are Clark Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City and Michael Barns of Prime 1079 at DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Atlantic Beach.

I can’t recall a time when such a large number of female chefs took part in Fire on the Dock or any of the sponsoring Competition Dining Series’ contests. Each year, the Competition Dining Series stages regional professional cooking contests featuring restaurant chefs. The bracket-style tournaments culminate in a final battle to select the best chef from among statewide competitors.

Women have certainly marked Fire on the Dock. Mitchell made the final four in 2012′s event. And I’ll never forget the Cheerwine-braised collards that 2012 competitor Erin Wiley created when she was part of the YoSake restaurant team. Find Wiley at Pembroke’s these days. My favorite dish of the 2013 tournament was by Manna pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades. As part of the YoSake team that year, she served 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.

While I’m thrilled to see so many women in this year’s Fire on the Dock, which starts Jan. 27, I’m as excited about the guys, especially Josh Petty of Sweet & Savory.

Petty was the last Wilmington chef standing in the 2013 Fire on the Dock, and my money was on him to win thanks to push-the-envelope dishes he crafted along the way, namely as Asian-inspired soup. 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. During a later battle, Petty’s Five Spice Peanut Tempura Shrimp, a crispy, sweet, spicy creation drizzled with Pepsi chili glaze, earned the night’s highest score.

The dishes weren’t perfect  — cooking competition offerings seldom are — but I’m hoping Petty’s experience with the contest will up his game.

Whoever wins is mostly up to diners. They score dishes along with professional judges. Seven Fire on the Dock 2014 battles are set each Monday from Jan. 27 to Feb. 17, and tickets are on sale. Preliminary battle tickets cost $74.78; final battle tickets cost $87.46.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, dinner specials, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

A little wine, a lot of song

You can pair wine with food, but how do you pair wine with music? Rose with Pink Floyd? Blends with The Clash? Sparkling wine with “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”?

The Olive Cafe & Wine Bar owner Kymberlei DiNapoli will give musical matchings a go this afternoon when she co-hosts “Music Uncorked” on Wilmington radio station 98.3 FM, better known as The Penguin.

While The Penguin DJ Kim spins tunes by Tedeschi Trucks Band, DiNapoli will suggest sips for each song. I sampled one of the corks she’ll pop today, a Washington state Columbia Valley blend named The Ghost 413. Brooding, dark and rich, the mostly Cabernet Sauvignon blend, with some Merlot and Syrah seems perfect not only with Tedeschi Trucks’ Grammy Award-winning blues, but also a fine holiday dinner wine. So, have a notebook ready for some great wine tips on the show.

Hear “Music Uncorked” 1 to 2 p.m. today.

Find The Olive Cafe & Wine Bar at The Forum shopping center on Military Cutoff Road in Wilmington.

Posted on by lizbiro in lunch specials, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

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

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

Wilmington food fest scene is cooking!

Wilmington food festivals are quickly gaining fans, convincing event organizers to start planning the next party as soon as the current one ends.

The inaugural Taste of Wrightsville Beach food and drink festival happened in a downpour on Oct. 27, 2012. Still, a few hundred people attended. Founders began talking about the following festival even before last year’s had ended. Key to discussions was finding an indoor/outdoor venue.

MarineMax boat dealer and service supplier hosts this year’s Taste of Wrightsville Beach on Oct. 12, according to the festival website.

Sixteen restaurants provided tastings at the 2012 event. As many are expected this year along with an equal number of beer or wines. Participants compete for a People’s Choice award as well as a Best in Show winner selected by a panel including culinary professionals.

Food and drink purveyors may still sign up to serve at Taste of Wrightsville Beach 2013. Tickets to attend are for sale online, too. The advance price, available until Oct. 5, is $50 and includes admission and one tasting from each food, beer and wine vendor. Additional full-pour drinks may be purchased at the event.

Tickets cost $75 after Oct. 5.

The first annual Wilmington Wine and Food Festival downtown last May also drew crowds.

The second annual festival is scheduled May 3 and 4 at Bellamy Mansion. Expect a grand wine event; champagne and beer brunch; cocktail contest; and VIP pig-pickin’ with a local restaurant barbecue sauce competition. Wine dinners featuring guest chefs working with area talent, wine tastings and other food and wine-related celebrations are planned in the days before the festival.

Watch for a Sept. 18 wine event that will kick off wine and food-related fundraisers scheduled to benefit festival development.

Posted on by lizbiro in barbecue, dinner specials, downtown Wilmington, Food festivals, Restaurants, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment