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The Perfect She-Crab

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Café Johnnie
Cameron Art Museum
3201 South 17th St.
Bottom line: Rush for the best
she-crab soup in town!

DELICIOUSLY RICH: Café Johnnie’s she-crab soup is a spoonful of delight in every single bite. Photo by John Wolfe

Café Johnnie located in the once-abandoned restaurant space of the Cameron Art Museum and run by the folks at Pine Valley Market—bills itself “friendly-formal.” With a lovely courtyard view, multi-colored tables, a collection of the best art for at least 100 miles, and Chef Derrick Cook of Crow Hill fame leading the helm, it has quite a bit going for it.

I made a pair of visits over a period of two weeks to sample their lunch and dinner menus. Dinner, I should note, is only available on Thursday nights. This, I suppose, is one of the pitfalls of trying to run a restaurant inside an art museum: The business of the museum can take precedence. Brunch is also available on Sundays; however I was unable to partake.

My lunch got off to a bit of a rocky start; my salad took a full 15 minutes to arrive. Admittedly, it was a grilled romaine salad, but it’s not like the lettuce needed time to get well-done. Regardless, the first course was worth the wait. The light sear on the lettuce left just a hint of smoky flavor on the leaves, and that mild char blended nicely with the parmesan cheese “grittons”—parmesan grits cut into cubes and used in place of croutons. The softer texture of the grit-based crouton took a little getting used to, but after giving up on the expected crunch, I took genuine pleasure in the flavorful bite of cheese. Of course, a copious helping of diced bacon added a salty dimension not to be missed.

I snuck in a cup of the “Low Country She- Crab Soup” as well. Knowing Smokey Masters—Pine Valley Market’s chef who helped write the original menu—cut his teeth in Charleston, I thought it unwise to skip such a defining dish. Conventional wisdom proved correct. The soup was not merely the highlight of my trip to Café Johnnie but easily one of the top dishes I’ve sampled all year. Rich and creamy, with a helping of crab meat unparalleled by any other she-crab in town, the soup took my palate hostage.

Other chefs should rush over immediately for a lesson in its proper makings. Far too many pass off fish-scented cream with little crab meat and even less personality as acceptable—and it’s not. The Café Johnnie version of the South-Carolina dish came to the table tinted pink from the red pepper and stood thick enough to hold up my spoon. Mildly spicy with crab in every bite, the serving had only one flaw. Two slices of buttery garlic bread to sop up each morsel would have made the best soup in town. One change to the presentation would make an already remarkable appetizer perfect.

I moved on to the Carolina Dip, a local take on the classic French dip sandwich, which replaced beef for pork and added sautéed spinach. While the pork loin retained its richness, the greens added much-loved bitterness, and the provolone was (as it always is) a welcome ooze to any sandwich. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Four bites in, it came to me. What makes a French dip special is the au jus for dipping. While the cafe’s rendition is drizzled with pan juices, it lacked the overly seasoned flair of a real French dip and its sopping wet bread. Though not a bad sandwich overall, it was missing the key component I expected from its description.

Evening dining takes a slightly different tone at CAM. The menus, less decorative and more rapidly printed, offer fewer sandwiches and more entrées. The museum offers varied entertainments in the nearby ballroom as well, ranging from music to readings, or relegated art openings. While the pricing at lunch is pretty typical of sandwich and salad fare, I found the menu at dinner shockingly generous, with few dishes coming in over $20.

Dinner began with another signature dish I couldn’t wait to try: Sriracha lime shrimp. Crunchy and juicy, the shrimp burst with briny flavor. The sauce, quite spicy by most standards, coupled the slightly garlicky Sriracha against the acidic lime beautifully. The citrus taste accented the vibrant seasoning and left it lingering on the tongue. Though certainly too hot for some palates, this is not a dish to skip for those who enjoy a little zing in their dinner.

Choosing just one entrée was a chore, but I eventually settled on the duck confit with mushroom risotto. Seemingly, I picked a winner. Unctuous and tender, the duck meat slid from the bone. Held together only by the perfectly crispy skin, the confit nearly melted on my palate. The earthy mushroom risotto, with its creamy arborio rice, added another dimension. Hints of pepper accented both the duck and the rice without overpowering either. I could have eaten a whole duck if given the opportunity.

Café Johnnie does a lot of things very well, and their missteps are minor and more so forgivable. Occasional slow service or the need to tweak a dish here or there is no reason to miss such a fun little spot for lunch and dinner on Thursday nights. Though a single dinner service won’t make it easy for hectic schedules, it’s worth putting aside time for in coming weeks. And God forbid the building ever catches fire! Someone better save the she-crab soup!

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