When I moved to Wilmington in 2012, the food trucks were just taking off in ILM. Fast-forward seven years, and it’s now the norm to order chilled heirloom gazpacho and whole snapper from a walk-up window on wheels.
Someone casually mentioned to me several months back that Palate (North 4th Street’s premier bottle shop) was getting a food truck. As I thought back to when an eccentric taco joint adhered to a South Front Street bar two years earlier (see: BlockTaco meets Satellite), I wondered what kind of fare the mobile eatery would produce. I assumed “pub grub”—nachos, jumbo buffalo wings….
I assumed so very wrong.
I began following The Kitchen at Palate on social media long before ever experiencing it myself. What I witnessed was wildly inventive, stunningly plated creations unlike anything I had ever seen come out of Wilmington—let alone, a truck parked at a bottle shop. The masterpieces were vibrant and made with unquestionably local ingredients (as farmers and fishermen were often tagged alongside their foraged goods).
And then I met Carson Jewell.
OK, not really. I just said that to be dramatic. In all honesty, I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting Jewell, but one bite of his food and I became an instant fan. Jewell has an impressive résumé and Wilmingtonians likely have eaten his cuisine in the kitchens of Caffe Phoenix and Rx. He also has cooked with Raleigh restaurant queen Ashley Christensen and Chef & The Farmers’ Vivian Howard (both James Beard award winners). Nowadays, he’s rolling solo on four wheels in The Kitchen.
I walked up to the red truck’s sliding window on a humid Saturday night.
Whole vermillion snapper.
After eyeing the menu (which varies weekly based on the freshest ingredients Jewell can get his hands on), I made a very important decision: to order everything. My husband and I were sharing bites and brews with two of our closest friends (plus a hungry child), and five items seemed like the perfect amount to pass around. I was right, and it was so nice, we did it twice. Seriously, we ordered almost everything on the menu two times.
To start: the whole fried fish was a thing of wonder. The rosy-red vermillion snapper was golden-brown and thoughtfully garnished with fresh cilantro, thinly sliced red chilies, crunchy shards of red cabbage, and baby tomatoes. On the base of the plate: a swoop of thick, tangy sauce (likely an aioli of sorts). The fried exterior was crisp and delicate, and the flaky inside was sweet and meaty. Juicy bursts of tomato and grassy notes of cilantro gave each mouthful an acidic freshness.
Next up was the hickory smoked BBQ. We’re in the land of pulled pork, and I find this type of sandwich can become redundant. However, Jewell’s version was executed flawlessly from the top of its buttery brioche bun to the bottom of its simple, creamy slaw and smoky pork shreds. Somehow, it felt remarkably memorable.
Though both dishes were hearty and satisfying, it was the light bites that tugged on my heart strings. First, the heirloom tomato gazpacho with cucumber and crème fraiche was silky smooth, refreshing, balanced and bright. This level of perfection can only be achieved by someone with an expert palate. The bowl was a blended representation of summer tomatoes in their sweetest, most flavorful form.
When I encounter a chef cultivating outstanding food (especially in a town trying to stand out in its culinary landscape), finding fault isn’t easy. That being said, if I had one grievance with The Kitchen at Palate, it would be with the fried okra. Though the breading of the green pod (in its whole, not sliced, form) was crispy and well-seasoned, the texture of the okra itself was not so pleasant. Many know the biggest downfall of the veg is its tendency to be slimy. The okra’s consistency didn’t seem to bother anyone else in my group (we ended up with two more orders of the slender nuggets, to prove as much is true). The slimiest piece I had was the first, so maybe I picked the short straw. The herbed buttermilk dip for them was, again, perfection.
Jewell is taking full advantage of the bounty of seasonal tomatoes, and I am completely OK with that. Sliced Cherokee purples with velvety crab aioli, fresh basil, olive oil, and flaky sea salt were the hit of the evening. The thick-skinned succulent heirlooms were earthy and exploding with smoky sweetness, and the whole basil leaves brought a floral, peppery bite.
Just when we thought we had consumed all of the produce Wilmington had to offer, Jewell surprised our table with a black-pepper-honey-drizzled stack of watermelon with tart blackberries and rich crème fraiche. Did he do that because he knew I would be writing this review? Nope. He has no idea who I am. We just happened to have eaten his entire menu (twice), so he generously tacked on something sweet for the little one in our group.
In town where old-fashioned Southern cuisine and fried shrimp baskets reign supreme, The Kitchen at Palate is a real breath of fresh air. I have no doubt Jewell will continue to elevate and educate Wilmington as a leader of modern regional seafood—and we’re all aboard.