It’s better to be full of whiskey than full of shit.
I’d love to take credit for such wise words, but I merely spotted them on the back of my server’s t-shirt last Tuesday night. I silently agreed as I flung tater tots into my face and washed them down with Flying Dog’s Imperial IPA.
Such enlightenment comes as part of the staff’s attire form the bourbon-heavy bar and restaurant Rebellion NC, located in downtown Wilmington on Front Street. Here the pretzels are the size of Texas, the crimson butter is infused with beets, and the Mornay sauce flows like the salmon of Capistrano.
Not long after Buzz’s Roost closed shop, a construction crew set up show, as curious downtown pedestrians poked their heads in to witness what was finally a top-to-bottom renovation of the building. The hype for the DC-based eatery, Rebellion, began to climb. Meanwhile, the gregarious team bounced around town to familiarize themselves with Wilmington’s food and beverage world.
Opening day came, and as word of their upstairs private lounge, The Armory, spread (don’t call it a speakeasy), crowds poured in. As a loyal member of the downtown dining scene, I was one of the first in line.
Needless to say, it wasn’t my first rodeo at Rebellion NC when I decided last week to review the restaurant (encore’s editor lady makes me wait six weeks to allow new restaurants to work out their kinks). Good news: The feisty food and top-notch service has proved to be equally as ass-kicking today as it was on day one.
There’s another downtown establishment who produces a pretzel meant for elephants. I won’t name names, but let’s just say it might be a floating restaurant that rhymes with “Shmanne Shbonny’s.” When I had my first chew through “Shmanne’s” doughy goodness, I thought I would never love another. But I was wrong. Rebellion’s “Kramer’s Big Ass Pretzel” (props to the “Seinfeld” reference) is a toasty, buttery tangle of crispiness that’s impeccably seasoned and served with three dips. The tangy honey mustard and pungent, grainy house mustard are stellar accoutrements—but the Mornay sauce is idyllic. Ask for double. Trust me.
(Reviewer’s note: Classic Mornay sauce is a basic béchamel (flour, butter, milk) with nutty Gruyère or sharp cheddar cheese added.)
(Additional reviewer’s note: Pour said Mornay sauce over face and die happy.)
With Wilmington’s beer industry growing exponentially, restaurants have been on their toes to keep up, which means more gastropub-style eateries dishing out refined, updated versions of traditional bar fare (fried burrata with beet butter, anyone?). Rebellion has hit the mark on every level.
In a beer town, a pub’s wing game has got to be strong and Wilmington knows what’s up. Rebellion’s chef Travis Weiss stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. He smokes his jumbo wings for three hours and drops them in the fryer to order. Aromatic smoke is packed into every plump morsel, all the way down to the bone. The sauce variety is killer (bourbon-barrel charred honey glaze, Old Bay, etc.) but the “Chef’s Original” signature BBQ dry rub is a sweet, spicy, savory journey into wing happiness. Even Rebellion’s homemade ranch is a level above: lighter, more peppery, and tangier than the traditional dressing.
On review night, my date and I wandered up to the bar and aimed straight for the solid beer list. We were planning on quite the feast to pair with our stout brews, so we started “slow” with a charred Romaine salad. Heads up for Caesar purists: Though each mouthful mirrors familiar flavors, the texture and overall vibe is different. The lettuce ribs are quick-charred, softening the crunchy leaves and permeating them with a gentle smokiness. Instead of a heavier, mayo-based dressing, it’s a roasted garlic vinaigrette. For anyone who misses the creaminess, poke the yolk of the fried egg served atop. Just be mindful the super delicious creation isn’t a bright, chilled Caesar; it’s a voluptuous, savory mix of wilted greens.
If there’s only one thing a diner should order at Rebellion, this is it: “Rebel Yell.” If the “as seen on Food Network!” proclamation on the menu isn’t enough of a draw, just take a bite and then witness a serious brain shutdown.
“Shhh, don’t talk. I’m having a moment,” said my date as he chewed through his very first taste of smoked turkey, white American, bacon, tomato, and Mornay.
The handheld (all of them are $10 on Tuesdays, by the way) is a take on the classic Louisville, KY, sammie, “Hot Brown.” Though the ingredients may seem simple, together they are culinary perfection. As the gooey White American melts into the moist turkey, the crunch from the bacon is balanced by the acidic tomato while the rich, decadent Mornay, creeping into the sourdough’s crevices, is literally the highlight of any day … everyday. On the side, I ordered airy, effervescent BBQ-rubbed pork rinds that dissolve on the tongue.
Already, I had fallen in love with the “1836 Burger” (think: Big Mac gone wild) on a previous visit, so this time around I took “The Bubba Burger” for a spin. It featured a chopped shrimp patty, green tomato jam, cocktail mayo, citrus, and shredded iceberg on a sesame bun. The snap of the patty mimicked a traditional beef burger (thanks to a griddled ride on the flat top), yet it exploded with juicy shrimp flavor. The tart tomato jam cut through the horseradish-scented mayo and made for a surprisingly refreshing summer sandwich. On the side: crispy, fluffy tater-tot nuggets, dusted in oniony ranch seasoning. Also on deck was mac-and-cheese (penne noodles drenched in magical Mornay), which I will stand by as being some of the best in town.
“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” Thomas Jefferson once said.
My response: “I’m going to take a nap inside the mac-and-cheese.”