AROUND-THE-WORLD BITES: NeMa Eatery and Lounge dishes up small plates with big personality

Aug 4 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, GRUB & GUZZLE, Restaurant ReviewsNo Comments on AROUND-THE-WORLD BITES: NeMa Eatery and Lounge dishes up small plates with big personality

Tucked away on Water Street—not exactly on the riverwalk, but still bearing Wilmington’s iconic waterway bridge as its killer backdrop—dwells newcomer NeMa Eatery and Lounge. The eclectic bistro opened in what used to be Cobblestone Café. Though I miss the pancakes and pastries of Cobblestone, one bite of Chef Mark’s sourdough pizza crust had me whisked into submission.

As Good As Nonna’s:  Shredded short ribs in handmade ravioli, swims in NeMa’s rich red-wine reduction. Photo: Holland Dotts Photography

As Good As Nonna’s: Shredded short ribs in handmade ravioli, swims in NeMa’s rich red-wine reduction. Photo: Holland Dotts Photography

Let’s be honest: the flip-flop of downtown’s eating establishments is as common as the Rainbows on locals’ feet. All a new owner has to do is slap on a different sign and unlock the doors for the next bistro to be born. NeMa took a different approach. Owners Neil and Mark—“Ne” plus “Ma”—took their time transforming the cozy, exposed-brick building from a ski lodge-inspired breakfast joint to a trendy tapas tasting room. Young professionals need not search further for their next happy hour hot spot. But it’s not all about the social mingling. NeMa’s intimate ambiance and meant-for-sharing menu screams “date night!” So with a boyfriend who appreciates all-things bites and booze, I was happy to not ride solo for this sampling.

We parked ourselves at our favorite landing zone: as close to the drink-pouring as possible. As we saddled up to the bar, my boyfriend motioned toward the ceiling. I looked up to find a strip of mini lights that were clearly meant to illuminate Canada. I glanced around and realized it was the only harsh lighting in the restaurant. While every other section was dimly lit in true lounge fashion, behind the bar was uncomfortably bright. Unfortunately, these shining rays beamed down onto a dust pail and what was, pardon my French, a cluster-fudge of papers and notebooks. I felt as though I had arrived at a sexy urban eatery, yet sat down in what was apparently someone’s office. Did the clutter of spiral notebooks and pencils affect the taste of the food? No. But it did put a hiccup in my grub game, and I hadn’t even gotten to the bubbly.

Our server Matt—polite, attentive, and knowledgeable—recommended the “Fancy Fries” right off the bat. We requested a small order along with the “Garden Pizza”—because what goes better with carbs than more carbs? The Napa cab chatter began, which caught the owner’s attention. Neil, welcoming and enthusiastic, strolled over and suggested a stellar Barbera that he said was sure to complement, not overwhelm, the pizza. As they say in Southern Italy: He done did good. (Or maybe that’s South Carolina.)

As we anxiously awaited our first-course carb fest, I studied the menu to ponder the next round of plates and found myself confused. There were pizzas, a single burger, coconut chicken skewers and…fajitas? NeMa’s sign boasted hand-crafted fare with options ranging from grass-fed to gluten-free to vegan. Still, the culinary theme felt inconsistent. What was the cuisine’s common thread? Instead of being intrigued by variety, I felt I was missing the connection.

The thin-crusted creation arrived with savory aromas of sweet roasted garlic and nutty gruyere that floated upward as I lifted a small, crispy slice to my pie-hole. The first bite was a mixture of crispy kale, buttery caramelized onions, and soft, juicy pears. Good news: This pizza pleased the best of both palates. The center offered a soft, chewy bite, while the edges maintained their sinful crackle and sour, yeasty snap.

As for the fries, no spud was left unturned. These potatoes are exactly what dreams are made of: crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and sprinkled with a fairy dust of parmesan, herbs and truffle salt. Chefs tend to be overzealous when it comes to the latter, but Mark knew how to go gently into that good night. I was hoping for a dash more decadent funk—but then again these were “fancy,” not truffle, fries.

Next up: scratch-made, shredded short ribs, resting inside a doughy pasta pillow of ravioli. If there’s one thing this place has the hang of, it’s homemade. The plate arrived with three oversized pasta pieces swimming in a rich, glossy red-wine reduction. The meat was a tad one-note, like it needed more salt, spice or a sumptuous burst of bold flavor. But the pasta shell? Well, it was literally as good as your grandmother’s ravioli—and I don’t mean Mo Rocca’s popular Cooking Channel show. The dough was rustic, simple and unmistakably kneaded by hand.

Fajitas seemed a bit out of place, so I had to try them. Out came two thick, inevitably hand-crafted sourdough tortillas, topped with sautéed peppers, onions, and sliced steak. On the side: traditional guacamole and tomatillo salsa. Overall, the dish missed a punch of something—a kick of heat or complex depth of seasoning. The tortilla, however, stood out—thoughtfully sporting the same superb tang and chew of the pizza crust.

Just as our meal came to a close, Chef Mark wandered out of the kitchen and introduced himself. In search of answers for the menu’s inspiration, I delved into his history. As it turns out, Mark is a well-traveled San Diego native who has cooked his way through nearly every continent.

Suddenly, it clicked.

Although at first glance the cuisine appeared to be scattered, it was actually a representation of the chef’s tasty travels. If the menu clearly reflected the stories of Mark’s culinary experiences it would have hit home much faster. Maybe categorizing the food by culture—Thailand chicken curry skewers or San Diego-style fajitas—would better get the point across. Since this “globally inspired” theme is unclear, unless you’re investigating the story, NeMa might want to reconsider how they relay their menu’s message.

Just before the bill arrived, out came a surprise from the kitchen: Mark’s Petit Pots au Chocolate with Salted Caramel. If you’ve ever considered becoming a member of the clean plate club, this chocolate custard is your ticket in.

With Neil’s warm spirit and Mark’s scratchmade specialties, NeMa’s got a good thing going. And it doesn’t stop at small plates. There’s already talk of expanding to weekend brunch—fried egg pizzas and classic benedicts, anyone? If NeMa can hone in on their niche and amp up the flavor, Wilmington is in for a real treat.

DETAILS:
NeMa Eatery and Lounge
225 S. Water St. • (910) 769-3709
Tuesday-Thursday, noon-10 p.m.
Friday, noon-midnight
Saturday, 11:30 a.m. (brunch)-midnight Sunday, 11:30 a.m. (brunch)-10 p.m.
www.nemalounge.com

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