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


Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

Chef Clarke Merrell may not have won the 2014 Fire on the Dock, but one of his dishes has been the competition’s highest scorer to date.

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 root beer float.

A traditional Black Cow involves a squirt of chocolate syrup in the bottom of a float glass. That gets topped with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream. Pour root beer into the glass and prepare to sing the combination’s praises. So good.

For his plated dessert version, Merrell prepared root beer vanilla ice cream. He placed a scoop next to a crumble of coffee/root beer dark chocolate cake. Salted caramel, cashew candied bacon and root beer drizzle garnished the dessert. The treat evoked an old-fashioned soda fountain while providing an upscale feel. And the candied bacon? What fun!

Chef Clarke Merrell's put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Chef Clarke Merrell’s put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The sweet earned Merrell 32.21 points. We’ll see if anyone beats that in tonight’s final 2014 Fire on the Dock battle, where Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray meets 1900 Restaurant & Lounge chef Kirsten Mitchell.  The winner will move on to the statewide final later this year.

Merrell has competed in Fire on the Dock since the first competition in 2012. He and his loyal fans travel all the way from Morehead City for Fire on the Dock, staged at Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear region fans who discovered Merrell at Fire on the Dock now travel to Morehead City, where Merrell not only operates Circa 81 but also Beaufort Olive Oil Company in Beaufort, N.C.

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Just a few of Liz’s favorite 2013 food pictures!

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, downtown Wilmington, Local food, Restaurants, Uncategorized 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

The best of Fire on the Dock

Thirteen Wilmington-area chefs entered the Fire on the Dock cooking contest, but it was a cook from New Bern who took the crown in the final match Wednesday night.

Gerry Fong of Persimmons beat Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock bout, Battle Bacon and Country Ham, at Bluewater Grill.

Fire on the Dock is part of Competition Dining Series‘ a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. Fong, the 2012 Fire on the Dock runner-up, will meet four other 2013 regional winners during the November Final Fire round in Raleigh.

Meantime, Fong will be a guest chef in the Circa 81 kitchen during the April 24-28 Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend.

As competitive as chefs are during Fire on the Dock, they come out friends and along the way make plans like the upcoming Fong-Merrell collaborative. Fire on the Dock 2012 winner Andy Hopper, then at Chefs 105 in Morehead City, faced chef Ryan Payne of Chapel Hill’s Weathervane, part of the gourmet emporium A Southern Season, in the 2012 statewide final four. Afterward, Hopper sold Chefs 105 went to work for A Southern Season. Hopper said he will be the market’s executive chef at a new location in Charleston, S.C.

Hearing about chef partnerships, new directions and menu ideas are among my favorite parts of the Competition Dining Series.

Here are some of my other favorites from the 2013 Fire on the Dock:

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

Best Dish: Pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades’ 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. Many diners mentioned the Battle Texas Pete dessert to me during the course of the series. Some were still talking about it at the final battle last night. Parades was on the Yo Sake team. She is the pastry chef at downtown Wilmington’s Manna.

Dish I most want to eat again: The Oceanic chef Thomas Mobley at Battle N.C. Dairy prepared my personal favorite dish of the competition: 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. The filet was more like carpaccio, the salad its vero amore. Simple, well-edited. Bravo Chef! I hope to sample it again one day on Oceanic’s stunning new pier.

Best idea: During Battle N.C. Wine, Shane Tyner, who represented King Neptune in Wrightsville Beach and has since moved on to Towne Tap & Grill, served a dessert consisting of a striking black sticky rice mound atop blueberry port sauce and a lovely coconut crème anglaise. Crisp, slightly tart Asian pear chutney made with muscadine wine crowned the dish. Despite the rice being a bit too dry, chefs at the battle, including Hopper, agreed it was the night’s most impressive effort.

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

Chef most on my radar as a result of Fire on the Dock: When chef Josh Petty of The Pub at Sweet and Savory served a deep-fried wonton filled with a soft egg yolk during Battle Eggs, I was hooked. Petty served the wonton over egg drop soup containing tender veal cheek, butter-poached lobster, black rice, mushrooms and asparagus. I loved the way the soft yolk inside the wonton enriched the soup when my spoon broke the crisp package. I’m looking forward to trying Petty’s new menu at The Pub at Sweet and Savory.

Simplicity rules: Battle Pintade (guinea hen) was among matches that produced surprising desserts and over-the-top combinations like Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray’s pintade tuille and pintade creme anglaise, but Dockside chef Scott Grimm earned the top-scoring dish of  the night with simple braised guinea hen served with grits and a side of collard greens that he stewed in beer.

Best bits: Lots of times, little things provide WOW! moments at Fire on the Dock. Elements of dishes may stand out more than the overall preparations. Fong’s tempura fresh ginger slices last night was one example. Petty’s egg yolk wonton was another. My favorite was South Beach Grill chef James Rivenbark’s bacon caramel served during Battle Carrots, Strawberries and Sweet Potatoes.

Best service: Bluewater Waterfront Grill’s wait staff impressed week after week with politeness, attentiveness, food delivered evenly and at proper temperatures and silverware cleared and replaced as needed.

Favorite moment: Chefs work hard. They may get a great review from a critic, a thank you note may arrive from a diner, TripAdvisor may be full of accolades. Mostly, cooks work long hours, some up to 70 or 80 hours a week, separated from their admirers. Kitchens are hot, dangerous, stressful places, quite different from easy dining rooms. Still, chefs thrive, constantly creating, discussing their craft, imagining what they can do next or what they can pull from the past — all to please people. Most don’t understand the celebrity chef trend. They just want to cook good food that makes diners smile.

And so my absolute favorite moment of Fire on the Dock 2012 was at the end of Battle Catfish and Mint when chef Joanie Babcock emerged from the kitchen.

Babcock’s restaurant, Southern Exposure, is in Faison, meaning she and her crew — and Southern Exposure customers — had to spend more than an hour on the road to get to the showdown. Despite the drive, Babcock fans filled most of the dining room. When Babcock came out to hear the night’s scores, all those many fans cheered and gave her a standing ovation. That they traveled so far to support her was a true expression of love.

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

2013 Easter brunches in Wilmington

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon jam for the soul

Rx bacon jam around a pimento cheese and fried green tomato stack.

One of the best things I’ve put in my mouth this year was bacon jam that Rx Restaurant & Bar serves with its housemade pimento cheese. The sweet, sticky dab of brown richness on the plate filled my mouth with smooth bacon flavor.

That jam is an example of why after just five months of operation Rx has claimed a significant place on Wilmington’s dining scene.

But Rx’s climb is not just about food.

Tonight, when the restaurant serves a menu of full of its contemporary spins on homey Southern fare, it will be aiding Superstorm Sandy victims and the budding Wilmington Wine and Food Festival.

Ten dollars from each $85 ticket will benefit American Red Cross efforts to help the storm’s victims. A portion of remaining proceeds will fund the first ever Wilmington Wine and Food Festival scheduled May 19 at May 19, at St. Thomas Preservation Hall.

This evening’s Rx menu is a mouthwatering feast featuring local foods: butternut squash soup with duck confit; quail alongside creamed collards; bison short ribs with parsnips, carrots and celery root; a moon pie prepared with Frangelico.

Besides supporting good causes and local farms, including Cottle Organics in Rose Hill, Nature’s Way in Hampstead and Red Beard Farm in Castle Hayne, Rx is showing off chef Scott Grimm of Wrightsville Beach’s Dockside restaurant.

Grimm, who joins Rx chef Jon Kurzen and chef/owner James Doss tonight in the Rx kitchen, manned stoves with Doss years ago at Wilmington restaurants. Both men later went on to work under Charleston, S.C., favorite-son chef Sean Brock of much-applauded McCrady’s and Husk.

Grimm’s crab and corn chowder just won a Best in Show award at the Oct. 27 inaugural Taste of Wrightsville Beach food and wine festival.

Doss also is helping to arrange the Wilmington Wine and Food Festival along with other businesses, including Wilmington Wine and Jester’s Java, both of which, like Rx, have taken a chance on the emerging east Castle Street downtown neighborhood.

Doss and business partner Josh Novicki renovated the former Hall’s Drug Store, 421 Castle St., at 5th Avenue, to create Rx, where Doss tends a rooftop garden that provides the restaurant with herbs and produce. Despite a recent shooting on Castle Street’s east end, fans are still flocking to these businesses and supporting the area.

I love food, and I love wine, great beer, cocktails, the whole culinary shebang, but what I love even more are the people behind all the great food and drink businesses that are making Wilmington a topnotch culinary destination. Places like Rx  not only fill our bellies but also feed our souls.

To book tonight’s Chef’s Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing, call Rx at 910-399-3080. Juice Wine Purveyors and Choice Specialty Wines are donating some wines for the event. Wines on the menu will be available for purchase by the bottle.


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

Vote for your favorite food truck

Get a look at Flaming Amy’s new food truck this weekend when Wilmington food trucks compete in downtown’s first TRUCK-a-ROO 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3 at Riverfront Park.

Flaming Amy’s Sacred Burrito Bus will serve its full menu including burritos, a fried tofu burrito and Jamaican jerk chicken or tofu chimichangas with pineapple jalapeno salsa, Flaming Amy’s owner Jay Muxworthy reported.

Also participating are Poor Piggy’s barbecue truck, The Patty Wagon burger truck, Catch restaurant’s food truck and  The Cheesy Banker.

Diners may purchase $10 ballot cards to sample fare from each truck and then vote for their favorite. The truck earning the most votes will be named best in show.

Admission to TRUCK-a-ROO is free, and guests may purchase from participating trucks’ full menus.

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

Leland Italian spot adds Sunday brunch

New Italian restaurant competition in Leland may be treating diners to some extras.

On July 8, Tony’s N.Y. Pizza and Trattoria, 1107 New Pointe Blvd., started Sunday brunch service.

Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the restaurant presents a grand buffet including a carving station, waffle station, omelet station, side dishes, fruit and desserts.

Read the details in my report for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.

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Cafe Johnnie dinner service starts this week

Chocolate-dipped bacon leans on sweet potato cake at Cafe Johnnie tonight.

Remember the sweet potato cornmeal cake with cinnamon sugar pork cracklings and chocolate-dipped bacon that Pine Valley Market served this spring at the chef competition Fire on the Dock? It’s on the menu June 14 at Cameron Art Museum’s new Café Johnnie, which starts regular Thursday dinner service this week.

The 5 to 9 p.m. menu changes weekly but always emphasizes fresh, local ingredients, Pine Valley Market co-owner Christi Ferretti said. Ferretti and partner Kathy Webb also run Cafe Johnnie, which opened in March at Cameron Art Museum.

The evening meals coincide with Cameron Art Museum’s extended Thursday hours. The museum is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.

You could start with dessert. That sweet potato cake is served with goat cheese whipped cream, blackberry coulis, cinnamon sugar pork rinds and chocolate-covered applewood smoked bacon ($9). Blueberry cobbler ($7)  and old-fashioned banana pudding ($6) are other sweet options.

On the savory menu:

* Beef and Brussels: chili-crusted N.Y. strip with Cuban espresso sauce and Brussels hash ($26).

* Grilled swordfish with beet and carrot slaw ($20).

* Baked chicken with rutabaga and potato puree, roasted tomatoes and red beard baby carrots and roasted garlic veloute ($18).

 * Grilled miso tuna with roasted savoy cabbage, quick pickled beets and duck-fat-roasted red potatoes. ($22).

 * Pan-roasted apple cider and honey-glazed pork chop with rutabaga and potato puree and red beard baby carrots ($20).

 * Joe’s Old Country Pasta: penne with roasted tomatoes, bacon, mushrooms, shrimp, scallops and roasted garlic cream sauce ($20).

Appetizers and salads on Café Johnnie’s lunch menu will be available Thursday nights.. The list includes fried green tomatoes with dill aioli, deviled eggs with crab and microgreens, and & crab meat and a grilled romaine salad with bacon, diced tomatoes, bleu and parmesan cheeses and balsamic vinaigrette.

For Café Johnnie dinner reservations, call 910-777-2363.

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