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

chef competition

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.

Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, Chefs, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants Leave a comment

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

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

Changes at Cameron Art Museum cafe

Cameron Art Museum is taking over full operation of its in-house café.

In March 2012, Wilmington’s Pine Valley Market, began managing the eatery as Café Johnnie. On May 1, Café Johnnie will become the new CAM Café, Cameron Art Museum officials announced this week.

Pine Valley Market ran the restaurant in an effort to help CAM eventually solely manage the shop, Pine Valley Market co-owner Christi Ferretti said.

“The museum appreciates Pine Valley Market’s hard work in establishing the café, and both parties are excited that the museum will now have the opportunity to operate and continue to grow the café and continue to work with Pine Valley Market catering,” according to a CAM statement.

Past “Hell’s Kitchen” television program contestant chef Jessica Cabo heads the CAM kitchen, the museum reported. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Brunch, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants, Uncategorized 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

Wilmington chefs on the move

The Pub at Sweet and Savory chef Josh Petty was the last Wilmington chef standing in the second round of the Fire on the Dock portion of the Competition Dining Series, a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. He was defeated by 2012 runner-up Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

Tonight, Fong faces Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock battle at Bluewater Grill. The winner goes on to the final five, including chefs who have won in other North Carolina regions, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro among them.

Petty lost Fire on the Dock, but he hasn’t stuck a fork in his own efforts. The surprising twists he showed off at Fire on the Dock continue on The Pub at Sweet and Savory’s new Latin-themed menu.

The list includes chipotle-seasoned short ribs rolled in a burrito, pork belly carnitas, and sticky rum ribs served with cheddar/bacon/fried onion macaroni and cheese.

Appetizers include Caribbean Fried Shrimp tossed in housemade carrot and mango hot sauce, all topped with queso fresco and cilantro. A salsa sampler allows diners to pick three of the following: black bean and corn salsa, salsa fresco, salsa verde, peach habanero salsa and orange-coriander, roasted tomato and poblano pepper salsa.

Chef shuffle

Toque Shane Tyner, who represented Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune at Fire on the Dock and was previously at Phun Seafood Bar, has joined the Towne Tap & Grill kitchen.

Check Mixto soon for a revamped menu from chef Fenix Nelson, formerly of Manna and Catch. He also owns the late-night burrito delivery service, Incognito Bar-Rito, which I recently wrote about in a Greater Wilmington Business Journal story about chefs who moonlight. Nelson favors from-scratch moles and sauces and is talking about making his own cheese.

Chris’ Cosmic Kitchen (now closed) chef/owner Chris Lubben preceded Nelson at Mixto. Lubben has taken over as executive chef of the Shoals Club on Bald Head Island.

Former Crow Hill owner Derrick Cook, who did a brief stint at Cameron Art Museum’s Café Johnnie after Crow Hill closed, has been shaking pans at The Kitchen, where I recently had a nice carpaccio with hearts of palm, avocado and frisee. Cook works with his New York City pal Andrew Karasz, who recently switched over to The Kitchen from Circa 1922. The pair met in New York and ran into each other unexpectedly when Karasz arrived as Circa executive chef in February 2012.

Wilmington chefs and diners have not forgotten former Circa 1922 executive chef and Manna executive sous chef Kyle Lee McKnight. Many are reporting plans to attend April 8-11 opening nights at his latest stop: farm-to-table, contemporary American Highland Avenue in Hickory.

Speaking of Manna, Paula Pacini, most previously in The Fortunate Glass wine bar kitchen, has moved to Manna, joining executive chef Jameson Chavez and noted pastry chef Rebecca Alvarado Parades. The team’s spring menu is out, and this month they honor local farmers and produce at Manna’s popular 7-9 p.m. Thursday tapas at the bar.

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Fire on the Dock, Local food, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, 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