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

A new Wilmington food truck

Some Wilmington food truck operators, including a new set of wheels hitting the road in March, have united to create a commissary from which they may all work.

Blount’s Street Bistro, which rolls out international street food in March, joins Poor Piggy’s BBQ, Chicken, Ribs and The Patty Wagon burger truck at the former Dinner A-Go-Go meal preparation store, 5424 Oleander Dr., Suite 1, said Blount’s Street partner Paul Kern.

The commissary idea began with Poor Piggy’s owner Ed Coulbourn, who pursued the Dinner A-Go-Go location for the group kitchen, Kern said. Dinner A-Go-Go operated briefly in the early 2000s. At the time, such shops where home cooks could prep meals with which to fill their refrigerators popped up all over the country. Read more…

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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…

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Top chefs at Crystal Coast Restaurant week

Chef Clark Merrell's filet (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Chef Clarke Merrell was, no doubt, shaking pans as fast as he could last night as he propelled himself toward winning Fire on the Dock’s Battle North Carolina Wine, but Merrell won’t let up during his break before the next battle.

The Morehead City Circa 81 chef, like lots of other Carteret County cooks, is preparing for Toast to the Coast Restaurant Week featuring dining deals at spots in Beaufort, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach.

Merrell’s top-scoring dish is a good example of the fine food Carteret County restaurants turn out all the time. Fire on the Dock gave high marks to his petite filet served with mushroom & RagApple Lassie wine sauce, toasted farro, rutabaga, sautéed haricot vert, and beets pickled with Cypress Bend Autumn muscadine wine.

I liked the dish, too, but I have to admit I, as professional chefs I spoke with in the dining room, was most impressed by the brave dessert effort of Merrell’s opponent, Shane Tyner of King Neptune restaurant in Wrightsville Beach.

Tyner's sticky rice dessert (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Tyner served a striking mound of black sticky rice atop Childress Vineyards Starbound blueberry port sauce and a lovely coconut crème anglaise. The rice was topped with a crisp, slightly tart Asian pear chutney made with WoodMill muscadine wine.

I was lamenting the fact that Tyner’s rice landed a bit too dry when 2012 Fire on the Dock winner Andy Hopper approached me to ask what I thought about the evening’s offerings. When I said I was so impressed with Tyner’s attempt, Hopper beamed.

“Me too!” he replied.

Bravo Shane! All the pro chefs I spoke with in the dining room hope you’ll give the dish another chance on a menu soon.

Recalling Hopper’s comments, I’m reminded that when he won Fire on the Dock, he helmed stoves at Chefs 105 in Morehead City. Like I said, Carteret County hosts some great chefs.

Hopper has since sold the restaurant to take a job as executive chef at a new location for A Southern Season gourmet store in Charleston, S.C. Foodies know A Southern Season from the company’s delicious location in Chapel Hill. Hopper told me the Charleston store will open this fall.

Chefs 105 is now under the direction of its neighbor, Sammy’s Seafood House and Oyster Bar, another Toast to the Coast participant. Sammy’s chef is best known as “Fajita Mike,” who you might recognize from the Tru TV show “Full Throttle Saloon.” Yet, another star chef participating in Toast the the Coast.

Toast to the Coast happens March 3-9 and again in fall 2013. To celebrate the March event, I’ll host a food tour of the Morehead City waterfront. You can get tickets now, but remember that Carteret County has great restaurants in Beaufort, Atlantic Beach and other spots. Don’t miss this wonderful central section of the North Carolina coast. In fall, I’ll offer more food tours of the area in conjunction with Toast to the Coast Restaurant Week.

Meantime, catch Merrell’s next Fire on the Dock contest March 12, when he faces Blockade Runner chef Mark Lawson.




Posted on by lizbiro in dinner specials, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants Leave a comment

More beer, burgers, seafood at Fish House Grill

New “gourmet” burgers and an expanded tap beer list are among changes at Wrightsville Beach’s Fish House Grill.

The 1410 Airlie Road restaurant’s Certified Angus Beef burgers include a new Reuben version on rye with kraut, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese and a Hawaiian with prosciutto, smoked gouda and grilled pineapple, Fish House general manager Chris McCray said.

A black bean burger made in-house replaces the previous veggie burger, McCray said.

Eight beer taps have been added…Read more

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Fire on the Dock shares the love

Cooking and emotions blend as well as peanut butter and jelly. The comfort of eating good food at times seems trumped only by the joy that goes into preparing it, as evidenced at Feb. 20 Fire on the Dock battle at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach.

Blockade Runner’s East restaurant chef Mark Lawson’s win was made all the more sweeter by having his daughter cooking by his side. Seeing the pair together was one of the evening’s most touching moments, and a fine example of the love that diners may not realize goes into professional cooking. One of the reasons I like Fire on the Dock is it gets the back-of-the-house stories on the table for diners to savor.

Family in the kitchen was a single example of the emotion displayed at the Feb. 20 event. Another revolved around one of the secret ingredients that chefs had to use.

Each Fire on the Dock contest involves secret ingredients sourced from North Carolina. The ingredients must show up in the three dishes each chef has to prepare for judging by diners and professionals.

Chef Mark Lawson's “smore” graham tuille with mint marshmallow, chocolate pate and mint crème anglaise (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Catfish was one ingredient on Feb. 20. The other was mint supplied by Shelton Herb Farm in Leland. The farm’s owner, Margaret Shelton, is a true friend of Cape Fear-area chefs. Some consider her a second mother. She grows the specialty herbs they request, introduces them to new flavors, consults with them about recipes and has even brought them medicinal herbs to try when they are not feeling well.

To work with Shelton’s herbs is an honor, as far as local chefs are concerned, and Lawson did her proud. His mint marshmallow atop chocolate pate earned the night’s highest score – by a long shot.

Loss is always difficult at Fire on the Dock or any professional cooking contest. The stress and hard work involved with putting oneself on the line — in full public view — is a risk in many ways. For Lawson’s opponent, chef Joanie Babcock, however, defeat hardly seemed to matter in light of what happened when she entered the dining room after cooking all day.

Before winners are announced at each Fire on the Dock, competing chefs walk the room, shaking hands and getting accolades for their efforts.

Chef Joanie Babcock

Babcock’s restaurant, Southern Exposure, is in Faison, meaning she and her crew had to spend more than an hour on the road to get to the showdown. With Lawson’s kitchen just minutes away from the competition kitchen, one might expect the dining room that night to be packed with fans of Blockade Runner rather than Southern Exposure. But when Babcock emerged from the kitchen, many, many people stood to cheer and give her a standing ovation. That they traveled so far to support her was a true expression of the love Babcock’s customers feel for her and her restaurant.

“My peeps are out there!” a misty eyed Babcock said.

Fire on the Dock continues tonight when chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City meets chef Shane Tyner of Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune, New Hanover County’s oldest continually operating restaurant. Battles begin at 6:30 p.m. and tickets cost $59 per person.



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Bakery coming to Carolina Beach

The wife of late Carolina Beach chef and restaurateur Michael McGowan is continuing her husband’s practice of striving to serve a market hungry for good food.

Shelly McGowan maintains the Michael’s Seafood Restaurant she and husband opened in 1998 at a 1206 N. Lake Park Blvd. shopping strip in Carolina Beach. In mid-March, she said she plans to open Big Apple Bakery just a few doors down from Michael’s.

The all-takeout bakery that will serve bagels, breads, muffins, cookies, specialty cakes, coffee, among other treats, is based on full-service, from-scratch bakeries the McGowans grew up with in New England, Shelly McGowan said. Read more…

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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

Never too much at Fire on the Dock?

Chef Antoine Murray's guinea hen bread pudding with a liver cookie. Photo courtesy of Fire on the Dock.

Sitting at 2013 Fire on the Dock’s first round last night, I sampled guinea hen liver cookies while looking at a picture of pine needle candy that a chef texted to one of my dining companions and reading my own text from a professional cook wondering why so many chefs take their craft over the top.

As I licked chocolate balsamic sauce from my fork and pondered the guinea hen cracklings crushed and used to dust a sweet guinea hen bread pudding, I wondered the same thing.

All that fuss under all that competition pressure — was it worth it?

My answer sort of came when Dockside chef Scott Grimm earned the top-scoring dish of the evening: simple braised guinea hen served with grits and a side of collard greens that he stewed in beer.

The familiar, no-frills dish was my favorite of the night. Still, I must admit that seeing how far chefs will stretch their imaginations is exciting. How far is too far? Who can say? The guinea hen desserts that didn’t thrill me drove other diners wild.

Chef Scott Grimm's easy braised guinea hen with grits and collards won the night. Photo courtesy of Fire on the Dock.

That liver cookie helped Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray win the first round in the battle against Grimm. The thin cookie leaned against brown sugar-caramelized guinea hen, crème brulee-shortbread pudding with Italian meringue on guinea hen crème anglaise and a fried guinea hen nugget — all sprinkled with candied guinea hen crackling dust.


Each Fire on the Dock matchup is an experience of chefs trying to outdo each other — and themselves. That’s how the Competition Dining Series, which organizes Fire on the Dock and contests like it all over North Carolina, rolls.

I remember one chef in a past challenge who took sturgeon, one of Earth’s oldest fish, and turned it into chocolate cake and chocolate mousse. When the dessert landed in front of me, I thought, after so many years of survival and now facing extinction, did the sturgeon deserve to be put into a food processor and whizzed into a dessert?

Maybe I’m too sensitive, an empath to the sturgeon.

The perfect balance in my mind, is the cook who peppers his or her imagination with restraint. One of the contenders who did that last year was Rx Restaurant and Bar owner/chef James Doss, who competes tonight against Oceanic‘s Thomas Mobley.

Doss’ grilled bison flank steak and served the meat with a poached egg, green lentil snap pea salad and champagne vinaigrette. It was my among my favorite dishes of the event.

Fire on the Dock involves a secret ingredient revealed to chefs just before they begin cooking in one-on-one showdowns that lead to a final battle. Chefs have about six hours to prepare three courses for their contests. A handful of professional judges and about 100 diners at each dinner score the dishes to determine a winner. Last night’s ingredient was guinea hen.

Battles begin at 6:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday nights at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach through April 3. Tickets start at $59. For more information, visit http://www.competitiondining.com


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