Geographically, diners may have no idea where they are. But one bite of the silky, sassy smoked trout and jalapeño dip—and they won’t give a flying fish.
Readers who haven’t heard of the new RiverLights community that semi-recently popped up in the Port City are just out of the loop. The new neighborhood off River Road boasts Cape Fear riverfront views and a few novel spots to hang and eat. Namely, seasonally inspired Smoke on the Water, from Fork N Cork forefathers James Smith and Allan Middleton. Although Watercraft Ferry Drive may strike absolutely no meaning right now, just remember this easy limerick I made up to guide you there:
“Over the Cape Fear River and through Shipyard Boulevard to Independence Drive we go…”
This new kid on the river was on my radar, so I was delighted when friends announced they were throwing a birthday dinner at Smoke last Friday night. I learned the only reservation we could get for a dozen people (not that many for a Friday night meal) was 8:30. It told me two things: One, my friends with kids would be half asleep by the time entrées arrived; and two, this restaurant was gaining popularity fast. Even with a reservation, we waited about 20 minutes, but between the outdoor fire pits and cold beer, all was forgiven.
While squeezing into the crowded bar scene, I noticed James was doing what every good restaurant owner should: making his way through the crowd. He stopped by our squad and offered up some advice on ordering the raw oysters: Do it.
My group started off our appetizer-palooza with an order of the fried pickles. I’m all for consuming paper-thin breaded-and-fried sandwich slices, but holy oil spill! Although the house ranch that sidecars the strips was outrageous as always (same recipe as Fork N Cork), the pickles were über greasy and the cracked breading slipped right off.
But the blackened shrimp and avocado nachos brought things back to neutral. The cheeseless bites came with an assortment of crispy blue corn tortilla chips, smashed avocado, shrimp, fresh pico, and a zesty drizzle of lime cream. The only complaint from the table was the menu described the shrimp “blackened,” but they didn’t give off much kick. Otherwise, they were a refreshing spin on traditional pants-bursting nachos.
As disappointed as I was by the pickles, I was equally enthralled with the smoked trout-jalapeño dip. Imagine a cold seafood spread marrying your favorite onion dip. The creamy, dreamy dollop of fresh catch, oniony shallots, lemon, dill, and peppers was the rock star of the table. The proportion of crostini slices to dip was slightly unequal, but one request to the waitress, and more crunchy, buttery rounds appeared. The trout flavor was subtle, yet offered a hint of smokiness and the jalapeños added a punch of flavor. This velvety dip easily won MVP.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t indulge in the briny and delicious oysters James initially recommended, well, it’s because they ran out. (Insert sad face here.) I will say, however, at this point, it was nearly the end of the evening and to save (sad) face, James had the kitchen hold a few so we could try them in the Po Boy. My boyfriend called halfsies on the entrées so we divvied up the oyster and shrimp sandwiches. The fried seafood in each roll was fresh and light, but the bread—OMG! The bread! Smoke’s menu specifically states the Louisiana staples come served on “true Leidenheimer bread.” If you know New Orleans, you know you’re in for a treat (seriously, Leidenheimer Bakery has been rocking it out for over a century). If not, get ready for the crispiest, fluffiest, most epic French bread ever! The oysters and shrimp were juicy. The condiments were cold and fresh. But the bread made all the difference. Well played on that extra mile, Smoke.
Some friends a few seats down offered up bites of their handhelds, and I’m never one to turn down sharing. The Texas Brisket Sandwich tasted nearly identical to the one on Fork N Cork’s menu—and that is a very good thing. Although FNC is known for their glorious burgers, real foodies will tell you the brisket is the hidden secret.
The big difference between riverfront Smoke and FNC downtown? Smoke is boasting a legit smoker—which makes the 14-hour brisket even more of an authentic, charred treat. Throw on some tangy house BBQ sauce, shaved red onion, and vinegary pickles, and it boasts all of the flavors and feels in one bite.
I also got a quick nosh of the prime rib sandwich, and thanks to the horseradish cream and grilled onions, it was a French dip lover’s dream.
Sidewise, the mac and cheese was expertly seasoned and gooey as could be. The homemade chips and handcut fries were straight off of FNC’s menu and simply delicious.
Although service was a bit slow on our busy Saturday night, everyone left happy and stuffed with smoke. Once the warm weather rears its beautiful head, this seafood-centric spot is going to kick into high gear. Between the gorgeous river views, cozy open-air patio, and familiar flavors from an already-well-loved Wilmington restaurateur, Smoke on the Water is a summertime no brainer.