Food & Beverage – Best of Wilmington 2013

Feb 12 • BEST OF WILMINGTON, Food & Beverage 20132 Comments

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Food & Beverage

Italian
They do so many delicious options at Osteria Cicchetti, it’s hard to choose a favorite. First, let’s start with the sauces. The Italian restaurant’s red sauce remains perfect: acidic, light yet still full of depth. Their arrabbiata adds a punch of heat (my personal favorite), while the pomodoro comes with fragrant basil and the puttanesca rounds out a balanced pairing of tang and salt. Folks can build their own pasta dish or go with classic favorites like Osteria’s penne a la vodka or pappardelle bolognese. They also do specialties rather well, whether trying their butternut squash ravioli, gnocchi and sausage or the fish of the day.
“It is always an honor to receive this award from encore, especially in such a competitive area,” Rich Davis, manager, says. “We take pride in our establishment, and when our guests reward us with this recognition, it feels great.”

When dining at O.C. (as it’s known to locals), it’s imperative to plan ahead on the appetite scale as to not miss one of their fabulous starters. Their build-your-own cheese board will tempt guests with offerings that run the gamut, from fontina and taleggio to gorgonzola and ricotta. Paired with one of their salamis, or a side of their beet and walnut salad or stuffed cherry peppers, it becomes a meal in itself. Just leave room for some of the best desserts, like their opera cake, which is made of almond cake soaked in espresso, coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache.

“We are quite excited to announce the return of our original chef, Aaron Schwietzer, to Osteria Cicchetti,” Davis says. “Aaron brings a very high level of energy, creativity, passion and quality to his kitchen.”

The Circa 1922 Group—ran by Ash Aziz, who has Brasserie du Soleil and Circa 1922 on our polls, too—has hit its stride in the Forum’s popular locale. The rustic design of the eatery welcomes diners into what feels like an Italian countryside. Farm tables provide cozy seating, as mismatched plates and tins of bread give it a casual, family-style dining experience. With carafes of wine coming in mounds and the right company keeping the laughter flowing, a night here will become a returned experience forever more.
Other Italian eateries beckoning noodles of fans include A Taste of Italy and Giorgio’s.

Fine Dining and Wine List
When Circa 1922 opened over a decade ago, folks were flocking to its upscale and inviting historic space in droves. Fast-forward to today: Nothing’s changed.

The space is lush in luxury, from exposed bricks offering historic appeal, and the metal bank vault and overhead beams still in place from the building’s days of yore. Dark wood, ornate gold mirrors and artwork of turn-of-the-century life strikes a cozy chord with diners.

Owner Ash Aziz transformed the restaurant and continues mandating high expectations by not only keeping its menu creatively changing, but by making sure his staff crosses every “t” and dots every “i” with utmost care toward excellence in service and knowledge of food and wine. The menu remains a great exploration into tapas—small plates made to eradicate the idea that quantity equals greatness. In fact, at Circa quality takes precedence. With the idea that divinity in dining can be enjoyed by good company, tapas mandates folks eat free from rules, ordering a little bit of everything to share and indulge upon.

From starters of beef carpaccio or fresh local oysters, to cheese and charcuterie, to grilled and stuffed quail or duck confit risotto, sushi and sashimi and even paella, the offerings here run the gamut of flavor and country. Circa’s large platters suit parties perfectly and their weekly prix-fixe menu offers a first, second and third course for only $23 a person. Folks looking to indulge on a little bit here and there without allowing the wallet to suffer can enjoy Circa’s bar menu Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for $5 select offerings.

Like any chic establishment ready to impress, Circa’s wine list takes no shortcut either. Folks can buy by the glass, carafe or bottle accordingly, with over 25 selections. Wine offerings continue by the bottle with easily over 75 choices worldwide. From Argentinian Malbec to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Portugal’s fine ports and France’s bubbly, every connoisseur will be happy.
Other fine dining eateries topping our poll include Manna and Portland Grille, while wine lists diners love to indulge upon also include The Fortunate Glass and Wilmington Wine.

Salads
Yes, a great salad can be as appetizing as a great pizza pie or burger. It can make a meal as memorable as any for those looking to add a dose of healthy ruffage to the diet. Brasserie du Soleil takes Best Salads for encore’s 2013 survey. It’s no wonder, too, since the French eatery, located in Lumina Station, offers it in a “Make Your Own” variety.

Folks can construct the perfect mix of romaine, mesclun, arugula or other lettuces among 30 varied toppings. Want pears, walnuts and goat cheese? Done. Beets, radicchio and shaved Parm to order? Sure. While Brasserie offers a plates du jour daily, on Wednesdays folks can get their Steak Frites Salad on special, with a pan-roasted shell steak, red wine bernaise, mesclun blend and sherry vinaigrette.

Of course, their offerings are vast in French cuisine, too, including escargot with pernod, garlic and herbs, and country pate with cornichons, mustard and baguette. The restaurant also goes local with much of their produce and ingredients, including their steamed Snead’s Ferry clams, served with preserved lemon risotto, Benton’s bacon, fennel and dried tomato.

Elizabeth’s Pizza’s build-your-own salads and Ruby Tuesday’s garden bar are runners up in the 2013 poll.

Diner
At this point, Dixie Grill has become an institution to Wilmington’s downtown dining scene. Need a delicious diner burger? This is your place. Need a filling breakfast of Louisiana hash? Yep, got that, too. Want some where to go to take your vegetarian friends? They cover it all. In fact, they’ve been called the “granola greasy spoon” for appealing to herbivore palates quite well over the years, thanks to homemade veggie burgers, omelets, sandwiches and soups galore.

Dixie has been many things since its opening in 1906, from a fine-dining eatery to a pool hall to a country café. Currently owned by Brian Mayberry, the classic American diner opened in 1999 as Dixie Grill. While they’ve taken Best Breakfast seven times or more on encore’s polls, since diner has been added to the mix, they’ve stormed the category.

They add quite the Southern punch on many dishes, like classic biscuits and gravy, and they provide specialty beverages such as Mimosas and Bloody Marys with asparagus, olives and celery in mason jars nonetheless. Artfully crafted to infuse color to every experience, the mosaic diner counter, complete with ‘50’s round barstools, as well as whimsical art work of life-like breakfast items, such as bacon and eggs, the feel of the Dixie makes its appeal all the merrier. Just arrive early on weekend mornings; the line into the joint spills over onto Market Street.

Other diners topping our poll include College Road Diner and Nick’s Diner.

Deli, Lunch, Subs/Sandwiches, Soup
Ask anyone in town about the best sandwich and they’ll unanimously scream the name of Brad Corpening’s famed Chop’s Deli.The Front Street flagship is what started the movement, which now serves Monkey Junction diners, too. The deli is known for their Boar’s Head meat selections, piled high on gourmet and regular sandwiches, whether coming in the form of a wrap or served on one of their delicious homemade breads from Sweet ‘n’ Savory (another winner for Best Homemade Bread). A craving for a piled-high pastrami and Swiss will be sated, as will something off the cuff, like the “Chicago,” rare roast beef, melted French brie, lettuce, red onions, and peppercorn gourmaise, on a sourdough kaiser.

Folks can buy the meats, cheeses and breads for take-home enjoyment, too. Homemade chicken, tuna, egg, potato and pasta salads come by the pound or tucked in a sandwich. Marinated mushrooms and broccoli or cucumbers and onions also beckon eaters for a healthful side item.

Yet, no stop for lunch—open Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. only—is complete without a cup of Chop’s well-known soups. From classic vegetable and clam chowder, to updates on mac ‘n’ cheese and chili, the varieties change daily. And they satisfy as a meal on their own or pair perfectly with a salad.

Ever mindful of the waste the restaurant industry puts out, Chop’s also does their part to impact it. They choose Eco-Products, compostable and reconstructed materials, to lessen their footprint.

Favorite lunch spots drawing in our readers include Midtown Deli and Grill and Sweet ‘n’ Savory Bake Shop and Cafe. Other subs/sandwiches ranking our polls come from Jersey Mike’s and Subway. Pine Valley Market and Sweet ‘n’ Savory remain other hot spots for soups, while delicatessens taking to our polls include A Taste of Italy and Wayfarer Deli and Bistro.
Sushi/Japanese

Nikki’s Sushi Bar serves diners all across New Hanover County, from downtown to midtown (including their mall and Racine Drive locations). They’re newest location in Carolina Beach keeps folks in the southern part of town happily sated, while their sushi bar and Japanese steak house allow beach-goers toward Wrightsville a flavor of excellence.

Owned and operated by Johnny Chen, Nikki’s specializes in many famed rolls, like the Fantasy Roll, featuring tempura shrimp, eel, avocado and scallions topped with fish roe and tempura flakes. Folks looking for interesting and even healthier takes can opt for one of their naruto rolls, where the fish, avocado and other accompaniments are wrapped in cucumber instead of rice and seaweed and served in a delightful and tangy vinegar-based sauce.

They serve sushi (with rice) and sashimi (without rice), too, so folks can enjoy the simplicity of fresh fish in its finest form, whether it’s the buttery richness of white tuna or the flaky pungency of mackerel. Each location specializes in various rolls and sometimes offers different seafoods, so folks can go to one or all and experience something new. Nikki’s Japanese Steak House often serves higher-end fish that other restaurants won’t have, such as uni (sea urchin) and toro (fatty tuna). Plus, folks can indulge in the Japanese steak house experience, with chefs who fancy tricks in wooing their diners, whether flipping eggs from their toques or blazing fire over their meats and veggies. In fact, if diners go to the Japanese steak house on their birthday and bring three friends, Nikki’s will comp the birthday person’s meal.

While other Nikki’s locations don’t provide the showmanship of the Japanese steak house experience, they still have tempura and teriyaki offerings, numerous bento boxes and donburi meals. Plus, diners who don’t wish to partake in the sushi-eating experience will find a plethora of sandwiches and salads to choose from, including many vegetarian items. In fact, Nikki’s has become known for its vegetarian-friendly variety. With a staff ready to help at any turn, its no wonder they’ve remained a part of encore’s Best Of polls for nearly a decade.

Other sushi restaurants our readers enjoy: YoSake and Bento Box round out the polls.

Bartender
Celebrating two years in a row as Wilmington’s Best Bartender, Megan Loux of Cape Fear Wine and Beer shares a colorful history with flavorful beverages. “Well, I showed much promise at a very young age opening milk cartons at the lunch table, tapping Capri Sun pouches after soccer games seamlessly,” she quips. “My destiny was obvious.”

Her first bartending gig came at The State Theater up in DC, from where Loux hails. “One of the many appealing qualities was their focus on offering multiple craft-beer options,” she explains, clearly alluding to the setup she now embraces at Cape Fear Wine and Beer. “It opened my eyes to an inspiring subculture which continues to surprise and expand,” she notes.

Some of the lady’s favorite brews at this moment are not well known, but they do pack a punch. She gives cheers to Belhaven’s Scottish Stout, Victory’s Hop Wallop, Ballast Points’ Dorado Double IPA and Trappistes Rochefort 10. “La Guillotine [from Brouwerij Huyghe in Belgium] is a new product that’s taken some permanent shelf space in our coolers,” Loux beams. “It’s a delicate, Belgian strong pale ale with a very clean palate. With a great fluffy carbonation level and a hint of lemony zest. It makes my mouth feel like a spaceship.”

Loux says she owes as much of her success to Cape Fear Wine and Beer as she does her own skill. “This honor is a true testament to what Cape Fear Wine and Beer is and has been offering to Wilmington and beyond,” she concedes. “While it’s a great privilege and a source of pride to be recognized amongst our bar/nightlife menagerie and Wilmington’s bounty of bartenders, the saying that you’re only as good as the drinks you’re serving is applicable and one to keep in mind! We spend a great deal of time and energy in getting to know our customers and their taste preferences, so that we can point out drinks they haven’t discovered yet, or a new style that may build off of what they define as their favorites. Seeing someone enjoy a beer that is exactly what they were looking for—it’s completely gratifying.”

Other tenders tickling our taste buds are Scott Wagner of Goat and Compass and Benjamin Boron of Jack Mackerel’s.

Pizza and Late-Night Eatery
The man behind the mozzarella (and Parmesan, ricotta—oh, pepperoni!) at Slice of Life began his industry career as a bartender on Friday and Saturday nights at Slice. Though he proposed buying it out to original owner Ian Moseley many times, it wasn’t accepted immediately. “I just basically saw the potential that it had to grow,” now owner Ray Worrell tells. “I took the ball and ran with it—improved on what started.”

Now with three locations—downtown, one Military Cutoff Road and Pine Valley area at the junction at 17th and College—Worrell continues putting his stamp on the eatery.

“When I first took over, we spent a good amount of time perfecting our dough recipe,” he reveals. “We changed from using just regular vegetable oil to olive oil. Rather than using table salt, we use kosher salt. Rather than just using regular tap water, we purify our water. We kind of took it up a notch.”

Today, he continues using higher quality ingredients and making the dough at every location. “We have people that, that’s all they do,” he admits. “It’s important to have consistency in our dough. I try to teach these guys: It’s a science not an art.”

Consistency is key, especially since Worrell considers 80 to 90 percent of what makes a pizza is its crust. “The sauce and the cheese are definitely the other components, but if you have a good crust, that’s what I think sets you apart,” he says.

All three locations are open until 3 a.m., and have been for many years. “Pizza is very easy to do and put out quickly,” Worrell, who attends the International Pizza Expo each year in Las Vegas, explains. “People don’t really realize that our late-night business is from 1:45 a.m. to around 2:30 or 2:45 a.m. It’s like an hour window that you have to feed a lot people all at once.”
The attention to detail doesn’t stop there, either. Virtually everything Slice serves is made in-house. Chicken comes from a solely chicken provider and is prepared on-site—not in a factory—helping to make Slice’s chicken wings some of the most popular items at the two newest locations (there isn’t space in the small downtown kitchen for a fryer, so wings are a no-go there). There is a specific Slice recipe for almost everything. “The only thing that’s not in our recipe book is soup,” he admits. “It’s the one thing I allow the kitchen managers to use their creative knowledge on. They do a great job with it, and they’re really proud of it.”
Wilmingtonians also delight in Pizzetta’s Pizzeria and Incredible Pizza, while they venture to Jimbo’s and Nick’s Diner for late-night dining.

Thai, Atmosphere and
Best Restaurant Overall

I am not the best resident of Wilmington—and if we had a Best Of award for that category, I certainly wouldn’t be in the running. I’ve lived here since I was 7, yet I hadn’t dined at a certain iconic restaurant until my 24th birthday. Though, I can’t be all bad—at least when asked where I’d like to go this year, I knew to respond: “Indochine.”

Of course, I’d seen the restaurant on my millions of trips up and down Market Street. Unassuming, the long ranch-style building sits far back on a parking lot (which is usually mostly filled—even on Monday nights). When I walked in, however, I was immediately immersed in eclectic Asian beauty, and I could not look away. There were small and large Buddhas and ornamental decorations galore, amongst so much more. I kept remarking: “I feel as though the waitresses all think I need something—or that I’m a very strange person—because I can’t stop looking around. There’s so much to see in here.”

Despite creeping out the attentive staff, I spent the entire evening trying to take in all of the wondrous surroundings—even through lovely conversation, a tantalizing ginger martini, and my Happy Asian Melody (a must-try entree) served on a silver platter. That is, until the night grew late and the restaurant began to clear. Then I realized from our table that through the bar was a wide open doorway. After noting the beautiful painted glass bowls in the bathroom and amazing atmosphere from within a normally overlooked part of a restaurant—I knew I had to see what was beyond the parted doors.

Many readers will already know the answer, but for those who don’t: a grand, beautiful garden housing a winding pathway, multiple water features, and a village of Asian huts (for ignorance of the proper term) in which folks can dine. Though it was pitch dark outside—and December, so no one else was out there—my jaw remained agape at all there was to enjoy. I decided then to my guest: “We will be back for lunch.”

Other tasty Thai spots include Big Thai II and Thai Spice. Second in Best Atmosphere goes to Circa 1922 and third to Little Dipper. Circa 1922 takes second for Best Restaurant Overall, while third-place honors go to Manna.

Barbecue

Eastern versus western—it’s a big debate in North Carolina barbecue. But, since we live in the east, why not celebrate the tangy flavors which make our ‘cue so delicious to our coastal and Piedmont tastebuds. At Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue, it’s not only a suggestion, it’s a rule.

The pork is slowly roasted, and then it is hickory-smoked overnight–ready to be flavored with a scrumptious blend of mild seasonings and a traditional Eastern North Carolina vinegar base. Then, all there’s left to do is serve the BBQ up with some heaping helpings of slaw, baked beans, potato salad, fried okra—the list of quintessentially Southern comfort sides goes on and on.
If dining in the restaurant isn’t enough, Jackson’s offers full-service catering from set-up to clean-up. Or, to do one’s own ‘cue at home with the same Jackson’s flavor, just order a bottle of their signature vinegar-based sauce and call it a meal!
Second in BBQ goes to Smithfield’s Chicken and BBQ; third goes to Casey’s Buffet.

Hot Dog
When a restaurant offers five varying kinds of hot dogs—how could they not be the best in this category? With the Sabrett (all beef), the Original Trolly (beef and pork), Carolina smoked sausage, vegetarian, and 98 percent fat-free turkey dogs, The Trolly Stop is the go-to hot-dog joint for locals. Not to mention, they offer 13 fresh toppings, from delicately chopped tomatoes to the slaw and chili which are made in-house. While we’re at it, the baked beans are made in the restaurant, too. Since its inception in 1976, that’s been The Trolly Stop’s M.O.: serving good, fresh ingredients in a friendly atmosphere.

The Trolly Stop also offers hamburgers and nachos, grilled cheese and grilled pimento—even ham and cheese—for those not in the mood for a hot dog. Those especially in the mood for dogs… er, canines, that is… can visit the dog-friendly locales of Wrightsville Beach (94 S. Lumina Ave.) and downtown Wilmington (121 N. Front St.). There, if folks who stop by these locations with their pup will receive a free hot dog (sans the bun) for their pooch!

Also, follow the Trolly Stop hot-dog cart for extra chances to snag a delicious dog. Currently they appear at the New Hanover County Government Center (230 Government Center Dr. off of Racine Dr.) from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.
Other top dog spots include Paul’s Place and P.T.’s Old-Fashioned Grille.

Chef
Year in and year out, Chef Keith Rhodes rises to the top of our reader’s poll. Of course, it’s easy to do when he was a candidate on season nine of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” His James Beard nomination for Best Chef Southeast doesn’t hurt, either.

Before he got his start at Catch, Wilmington’s revered restaurant for upscale Lowc-ountry cuisine, Rhodes polished his culinary chops as executive chef at the now-defunct Deluxe. His work boasts global influences—particularly Asian, as noted in his downtown eatery Phun Seafood Bar—and unique plating presentations. And Rhodes always works with local seafood and organic produce—lots of it even grown in-house in his hydroponic system. His latest endeavor takes him out of the brick-and-mortar kitchen and onto the streets, as he takes modern seafood around town in “Catch. The Food Truck.”

Of course, what makes Rhodes a great chef is also that he is a stand-up citizen. He participates in outreach programs and mentors young chefs. Recently he spoke to a group of Belville Elementary students for Career Day, and he took part in the UNCW Entrepreneur Summit. Folks can even catch Rhodes judging some nights for this season’s Fire on the Dock chef competition, taking place at Bluewater through April 3rd.

Chopping into second place is James Doss of Rx Restaurant, and serving up third is Josh Woo of YoSake.—Bethany Turner

Wait Staff and Wings
The Copper Penny is going on year eight serving the Cape Fear with upscale pub fare that keeps diners salivating and returning weekly. In fact, walk in during any random day or night and likely a packed house of happy eaters and drinkers are cheers-ing their praises for the Penny.

Lots of reasons exist to love it: 1) Their staff is super friendly and helpful—always. 2) The food takes everything up a notch in homey goodness. For instance, their burgers are fresh ground from short ribs (and on special on Monday nights). Their roast beef sandwich is divine, with the beef roasted in-house and juicy as ever on homemade buns. Even their French fries are hand-cut. But it’s their wings—battered and flavored with honey chipotle, habanero or spicy garlic (along with standard Buffalo and BBQ)—which have taken to the polls this year for the first time ever as some of the best in town.

“We are thrilled to be recognized for our wings,” Deede Bell, general manager, says. “We have put a lot of effort in over the years to get them to our liking. We use high quality fresh ingredients and make all of our sauces in house. Our newest sauce, honey chipotle, is very good and quickly increasing in popularity.”

Bell has been a part of a winning team for quite some time now, as The Copper Penny has ranked high on quality service for many years. They’re now on win number seven thanks to loyal patrons and encore readers who recognize hard, thoughtful work.

“We take pride in our work and surround ourselves with good people,” Bell says. “We try to provide every customer with a great experience every time they walk in our doors.”
While reasons abound to patron the pub, their weekly specials entice diners even more. Daily lunch specials ring in at only $8.50 (with a buy eight lunches, get one free frequent lunch card), featuring scrumptious delights like a fried shrimp platter on Mondays or fajita pitas on Wednesdays. Their burgers also get a highlighted price for $8 or so on Monday.
Readers also enjoy wings from Buffalo Wild Wings and Wild Wing Cafe, while service recognition also goes to Circa 1922 and Nick’s Diner.

Chain Restaurant
Started in January of 2000 in St. Petersburg, Florida, Bonefish Grill founders Tim Curci and Chris Parker wanted to bring quality seafood to the masses by hiring a world traveler to go to all continents and seas in search of exquisite flavor from the world’s most regarded fish purveyors. In 2013 they’re continuing to heighten their product by offering flavorfully creative seafood dishes, so good in fact, encore readers have voted Wilmington’s Bonefish Grill as Best Chain Restaurant in 2013.

Diners can indulge in a multitude of flavor, from grouper and shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico to salmon from Norway, haddock from the North Atlantic or Dory Belleair from New Zealand. Maryland crab cakes, wolf fish, cold-water lobster tails and more round out the offerings. While ordering the dishes as is maintains the purist’s flavor, Bonefish Grill chefs also offer a variation of sauces to make the meal pop even more. A warm mango salsa offers a Caribbean feel, while the punch of Chimichurri sends diners to Argentina; Pan Asian or lemon butter also remain favorites.

If looking for a quick bite on-the-go, Bonefish has numerous sandwich options, including a grilled fish burger or Bang Bang tacos, famously stuffed with Bonefish’s spicy and popular Bang Bang shrimp. Baja fish tacos and, of course, standard fish and chips also keep folks happily indulging.

For folks looking to recreate Bonefish magic in their own kitchens, the company’s website offers an interactive ‘Behind the Scenes’ look and how-to, as to keep diners always sated in their flavors. Log on to www.bonefishgrill.com to learn more. The New Centre Drive location is open nightly only, starting at 4 p.m. seven days a week.

Other corporate restaurants our diners enjoy indulging in are Chili’s and Outback Steak House.

Best Place for a First Date
Perhaps the best part of dining out often comes with the company. Sure, a good meal always satisfies, but when paired with a great date, the evening takes a passionate turn for the better.

In Wilmington date nights go beyond mere dinner at The Little Dipper. They’re not relegated by awkward bits of silence or forced conversation about the movie the couple’s preparing to see. Instead, the interaction of food alleviates the pressure.

“You can take your time over three or four courses, getting to know the person over one shared fondue pot,” owner Kristen Gruodis says. “The atmosphere is warm, but the energy is fun and vibrant, with color, good music, romantic booths and, of course, warm melted chocolate to complete the meal!”

The Little Dipper is downtown Wilmington’s premiere independent fondue spot. They cover all palates, from vegetarians to carnivores, pescatarians to cheese and chocolate-eaters only. In fact, the food promises a rich return on passion.

“First dates are very common at The Little Dipper,” Groudis notes, “but best of all are the ones that come back for their rehearsal dinner because that’s where they had their first date! We are so happy to be a part of their lives—forever!”

The restaurant recently started a night specifically geared toward the beginning stages of romance with Tuesday’s date-night special. Two can eat a three-course meal, with wine pairings, for only $65 a couple. It includes cheese with course one; chicken, shrimp, filet mignon, pork, ravioli or vegetarian with course two; and a dessert of milk or dark chocolate.

Making the experience even greater will be a staff ready to help and work through the meal with diners with as little or much attention as needed. “They believe in our concept and us,” Groudis reveals, “and they too love the food that they’re serving. We have chosen caring, genuine people who know how to make our guests comfortable and enhance an already romantic evening.”

Other date nights worthy of a love connection come with a visit to Indochine and Caprice Bistro.

Appetizers
Ellie Craig, marketing manager for Front Street Brewery, works hard with her staff to ensure the staple eatery and brewery downtown Wilmington always remains top of mind for folks looking for a quick bite and imbibe. Something right is being done as Front Street Brewery tops out with Best Appetizers in encore’s reader’s poll for 2013.

“One thing that makes our appetizers so consistently delicious is that they are made fresh from scratch daily, in-house with our own recipes,” Craig notes. Favorites abound here, but especially their famous Pulled Chicken Nachos, which has been on the menu since the Brewery’s inception in the ‘90s.

“Another thing that makes them so delicious is the everyday low price!” Craig continues. In fact, the apps are available at half-price from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m. as well. Diners will find items like their fried green tomatoes and chipotle remoulade or homemade seasonal hummus and beer nuggets, which are fried bits of beer batter, tossed in garlic butter and served with marinara. New to the FSB menu (which will be released March 12th) are “hot legs,” which are chicken legs tossed in Front Street’s homemade Buffalo or Brew-BQ sauce.

“It means the world to us to have our local, loyal customers respond to our appetizers with such laud!” Craig hails. “Day in and day out, to provide the ‘best of’ everything to our customers is what we strive to do. To receive recognition for any one of those many things is a true honor!”

And in loyal fashion, FSB returns their love tenfold by always offering $6.99 lunches and $7.99 dinners. That means: more cash flow for one of their delicious craft brews. From raspberry wheat to Scottish ale, kolsch to IPA, beer drinkers find themselves floating in heaven here. Everyday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., brew master Kevin Kozak and assistant brewer Christopher McGarvey teach the FSB brewing process and offer samples of their many microbrews. Taking place every 45 minutes, starting at 3 p.m., folks can check in at the hostess stand to reserve a spot.

Readers also like to indulge in starters from Cameo 1900 and Circa 1922.

Catering
Middle of the Island is a name long-associated with all the necessities of being a Southern staple: friendly, helpful people making sure homey, filling food keeps all customers happy. While the name once was most recognizable from its bright orange-roofed building on Wrightsville Beach, when it closed in the oughts, owner C.M. Rogers didn’t let the MOI legacy die with it.

“Our catering division outgrew our beach location approximately 10 years ago,” he says. “So we moved it to another location, and eventually sold the beach location for development. Once we were out of the restaurant business, we were able to focus on one thing and go from there.”

Since they’ve been catering to all group sizes and events, from weddings and birthdays to company picnics and corporate functions for any where from 1,000 to 1,500 guests. They even travel to keep their Southern hospitality spreading nationwide. “Our biggest event was last year in Wisconsin,” Rogers says, “where we fed 14,000 people.”

They also do drop-off services for office lunches, bringing their specialized seafood and Southern fare (think BBQ pork, mac ‘n’ cheese, turkey and dressing or chicken and pastry) to anyone who hankers a craving.

Doing upward of 200 weddings a year, Rogers and his crew work within all budgets, too, starting at only $9.49 a person for 15 to 25 people for the drop-off menu and decreasing with each additional head. Their full-catering services and various buffets and stations can be found at www.middleoftheisland.com. “We are extremely grateful for this honor, and realize that this would not be possible without excellent employees, quality products and excellent competitors who keep us from resting on our laurels,” he adds.

Coming in second and third is Pine Valley Market and Little Pond Catering.

Chinese
He’s been serving the greater Wilmington area for 25 years thanks to dedicated customer patronage. Joseph Hou, owner of Szechuan 132, not only runs a restaurant dedicated to serving high quality food but he does so with a vast amount of compassion for his customers. “Deep down in my heart, after I am still looking forward to going to work every morning,” he says. His infectious positive attitude and employee satisfaction makes the restaurateur one of the most revered businessmen on the local scene.

“Besides the love I have for playing with ingredients in my little kingdom, the restaurant business fosters the opportunity for me to delight in, bond and strengthen friendships with those in the community, as well as [with] visitors,” Hou says. “My business also gives me a sense of challenge, excitement, independence and responsibility.”

In the year of the snake, folks can continue to expect top-notch experiences at the University Landing restaurant time and again. Hou and his staff serve so many recognizable and specialty dishes, each personally crafted with knowledge of the Chinese culture and culinary expectations. Folks can order egg foo young, moo goo and Spicy Hunan, as well as specialty dishes like Imperial chicken or rosemary lamb. Szechuan also offers Asian specialties outside of China, too, like Pad Thai, Malaysian curry and Japanese teriyaki.

Though Hou’s ranks on our poll have been numerous for some years now, he remains grateful for the recognition. “The Szechuan 132 team is not superior to other businesses,” he exacts. “As small business owners, we are all capable and excel in our own ways. When we come to work, our ears, minds, and hearts are all in one place—focused on the customers and not anywhere else.”

Indian Food
Tandoori Bites continues its run as Best Indian in 2013, making its three-year streak all the more grand. Since they opened off College Road, across from Hugh MacRae Park, they’ve turned Wilmington into loyalists attached to their brand of cuisine. And there’s good reason why: It’s simply delicious.

T.J. and Simran Pama own and operate Tandoori Bites with a team of excellent servers and chefs, amid an inviting atmosphere, colorfully enriching and exotic. The tickling of spices on the nose and the cozy, warm atmosphere transport diners easily. And what keeps them returning for more is Tandoori’s vast menu.

From goat to lamb, chicken to seafood, and a very lengthy vegetarian menu, the many items come in a variety of styles, including masala, jalfrezi, saag, curry and my personal favorite, vindaloo. In fact, I can’t stay away from Tandoori’s shrimp vindaloo, as the shellfish is always perfectly cooked, popping on the bite. It’s backed by spicy, earthy, red sauce, magnified by medium heat for my tastebuds, and gets cut by starchy chunks of potato.

Another fave: their vegetarian platter appetizer, which comes with decadently light (even if fried) samosa, homemade pakora and aloo tikki. Everything here, from their sauces to their basket of Indian breads (watch out for that chile naan!) to their carefully crafted desserts, comes out near perfect upon every visit.

For diners who have an inkling toward the standard Indian fare on a buffet, Tandoori Bites will sate all cravings there, too, as they offer a lunch buffet Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Be sure to make them a must-stop during Encore Restaurant Week, too; two people can dine for only $45 dollars, including three courses and a bottle of wine!

Other Indian spots beckoning diners include India Mahal and Whole Foods.—Shea Carver

Panini
Baking more fresh breads daily than any other bakery-cafe concept in the nation, Panera Bread caters to Wilmington’s panini lovers. From the Steak and White Cheddar panini, with seared top sirloin, caramelized onions, Vermont white cheddar and horseradish on a French baguette, to the Cuban Chicken panini—all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken; smoked, lean ham; sweet and spicy pickle chips; Swiss; chipotle mayo; and sun-dried tomato ale mustard on focaccia—Panera Bread dishes up a variety of flavors in pressed panini pizazz.

Established in 1981 and headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Panera now resides in 44 states and in Ontario, Canada. Plus, the company earned honors from the Wall Street Journal for scoring the highest level of customer loyalty among quick-casual restaurants. The Wilmington eatery is open at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday and at 6:30 a.m. on Sundays in Mayfaire Town Center. Panera stays open until 9:30 p.m. each night of the week.

The café not only offers great paninis—it also purveys freshly baked bagles, egg soufflés, pastries and sweets, among other styles of sandwiches, hand-tossed salads, and signature soups.

Other top panini spots in Wilmington include Chop’s Deli and Wayfarer Delicatessen and Bistro.

Takeout
One of the latest trends in takeout is the ability to place one’s order online. From Domino’s to Outback Steakhouse, many corporate restaurants offer this convenience to their take-it-home diners—and locals Hibachi Bistro are following suit.
Peruse the menu online at http://hibachibistro.comand indulge in Japanese steakhouse-style dishes without splurging on dinner. The lower prices are accompanied by zero worries of encountering a flying shrimp to the face or accidentally catching on fire, as one may when sitting down at the hibachi grill. From gyoza and miso soup to vegetable tempura and teriyaki chicken, Hibachi Bistro has every Japanese favorite covered—even loads of sushi choices.

Now Hibachi Bistro serves Wilmington with two locations–in University Centre at 341 S. College Rd. and in Monkey Junction at 5619 Carolina Beach Rd. #150. Thus, no matter which side of town one resides, they can always carry out delicious Japanese dishes any night of the week.

Sahara Pita and Subs comes in second for Best Take Out, while Chopstix comes in third.

Fast Food, Burgers and Fries
Part of the fun of eating at P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grille is filling out the long order sheet, allowing the customer plenty of think-time with no rush from any antsy waitresses. It’s a tough decision, after all. Do I want a four-ounce P.T. Burger or the gargantuan eight-ounce Olde Fashioned Burger? How about a BLT sandwich or roast beef? Maybe a garden burger—but only to save room for those perfectly seasoned fries.

Lots of care goes into the making of all P.T.’s foods at each of the six locations. “The ‘fresh not frozen’ approach is the biggest thing that sets us apart from other restaurants,” Kent Williamson, general manager of the original P.T.’s on Fountain Drive, explains. “There are no freezers in any of our stores (except for the ice cream). The [Certified Angus] burgers are freshly ground, the chicken cut and marinated daily, and the potatoes are hand-cut before and during each shift. In addition to our fresh quality, the ‘open’ kitchen helps to differentiate us from the competition. Customers (especially kids) love to watch the whole cooking process. “

It’s no wonder the restaurant claims first-prize in three highly competitive categories. During lunch or dinner—and usually in between—the seats are packed. The tickets dangle from rope, lined one by one right next to each other, going down the line for cooks to whip up on the spot.

P.T.’s even offers a black bean burger, the sales of which have been picking up speed. “It’s a cousin to the garden burger with a little more spice,” Williamson describes. “Chicken tenders (a relatively new item) have also been a hit, again, especially with the kids.”
The family-friendly atmosphere, ridiculously good food, and quick service keeps folks coming back for more year after year. “It feels awesome to be recognized by Wilmington as ‘the best’ again,” the GM says. “Very humbling—we are grateful. Hopefully we can continue it on into the future, not taking it for granted.”

Though they haven’t concocted any new items to unveil in 2013, P.T.’s may look into expansion—perhaps opening a store or two in cities outside of the Wilmington area. We wish them the best of luck!

Second and third in fast food goes to Chick-fil-A and Cook-Out. Placing for best burger is Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Winnie’s Tavern. Top French fry spots go to Five Guys Burger, and Fries and McDonald’s.

Vegetarian
The beauty about the restaurant topping the list for Best Vegetarian Food is that Lovey’s Natural Foods and Cafe not only caters to vegans but also to those with Celiac disease—and even folks just in search of organic, all-natural foods.

“Every item on our salad bar and cafe menu start from fresh, organic and local (whenever possible) ingredients,” owners Marie Montemurro and Karen Stewart say. “They are cooked just like mom (used to) from scratch. We could make a lot more profit if we compromised on the quality of ingredients, and we could save a lot of money on labor in our café by using pre-made foods. Lots of other restaurants do—but we won’t! We eat here ourselves and so do our families, friends and customers.”

The ladies explain they commit to preparing and serving fresh food because they’re a health-food store—selling everything from wholesome pet foods to hair and skin care products, and even chlorine-free disposable diapers. “And we believe in food and its ability to keep us healthy,” they say.

Serving lunch and dinner, the store is open until 7 p.m. weekdays and until 6 p.m. on weekends. Options include the 100 percent organic salad bar with hot and cold selections, the café counter with plenty of gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan choices, and the fruit and veggie juice bar. “We want to continue our mission of providing whole, healthy, clean, non-GMO foods for our customers,” the owners affirm. “We also know that budgeting for quality food is a big issue for consumers today. We are always looking for special values to pass along to our customers in every department here at the store: special sales, low pricing on organic produce, etc. Customers can expect more of that for 2013.”

Others topping the list as vegetarian-friendly are Tidal Creek Co-op and Nikki’s Fresh Gourmet and Sushi.

Homemade Bread and Breakfast
Sweet ‘n’ Savory Bake Shop and Café is known for many things in Wilmington: delicious homemade pastries and bread, great lunch and dinner menus, and their filling and decadent breakfasts. Located near Wrightsville Beach, off Pavilion Drive, their resident chef, Josh Petty (who’s also competing in the 2013’s Competition Dining Series), ensures they always serve “fast, reasonably priced good food.” Focused on solid bread recipes and a slew of breakfast items are only a few indicators of its success. What makes the food all the more appealing comes with attention to detail.

“Creative freedom, to create different menus throughout the year, along with seasonal changes, ensures we see the same customers come back day in and day out,” Petty says.
Petty is constantly reading about the latest culinary trends and dining out with his wife at as many local and out-of-town eateries as possible to cull inspiration. He takes cues from Southern favorites and updates them with a twist.

“We provide a bit of everything for everyone,” Petty says, “from the casual to the finer side.”

Breakfast ranges from four-egg omelets to brisket hash, while lunch boasts some of the most scrumptious homemade soups and sandwiches, served on delicious homemade breads, from multi-grain to white, pitas to croissants. During dinner, they up the ante on items like shrimp and grits, pulled pork enchiladas, short ribs and coriander-crusted grouper.

Open daily, breakfast is served until 11 a.m. on weekdays and 11:30 a.m. on weekends. Folks can download full menus from www.sweetnsavorycafe.com.

Second and third in homemade bread goes to Great Harvest Bread Company and Panera, while other breakfast contenders are Dixie Grill and Goody Goody Omelet House.

Burrito and Food Truck
The personality of Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn and their newly launched Sacred Burrito Bus showcase the best of local entrepreneurship. Aside from drawing crowds of people on a daily basis for fat burritos in many tasty varieties, owners Jay and Amy Muxworthy make sure their restaurant’s aesthetic keeps us smiling. From the tattoo art appearing at every turn, pink flamingos and Elvis regalia peppered throughout, along with a single picture of rapper Ice Cube on the ice dispenser, and a happy Ice T on the sweet tea urn with an angry Ice T on the unsweetened tea urn, they manage to appeal to all our funny-bones and palates.

Having served Wilmington in their flagship store since 1999, the Muxworthys branched out the burrito brand at the end of 2012 with their Sacred Burrito Bus. Their food truck allows them to take burritos like their famed Thai Me Up or Double Bypass to the masses.
“We are happy to win Best Burrito and thrilled to win Best Food Truck so soon after getting it up and running,” Jay says. “I realize we have a great advantage over the other food trucks currently operating, because of our long history in the community and the restaurant’s following. That helped us win for sure.”

Recently, the Sacred Burrito Bus signed with the Wilmington Hammerheads to serve burritos at all home games in the beer garden. “We are very excited about this partnership,” Muxworthy says. Yet, operating throughout the city at will has become a different story, one which Muxworthy wants to rectify by being a part of a united front with other truck owners.

“[‘We need to] see if we can get the City of Wilmington to loosen up some of the zoning restrictions that are holding back the expanding food-truck scene in this town,”
Muxworthy says. “As a ‘brick and mortar’ restaurant owner, I see the need for rules regarding food trucks, but I also think trucks should have some freedom to operate if they follow the guidelines laid out by the city. There is a happy median somewhere. I think food trucks can add diversity and fill a niche without hurting existing restaurants, as it has been shown to work in other cities.”

His fortitude to continue expanding and creating never wanes. He and Amy opened and continue operating Flaming Amy’s Bowl, a Mongolian-style grill, years back, plus they oversee Operation Salsa Drop. The charitable cause allows them to send their famed flavors of dip (pineapple-jalapeno salsa, among them) to troops overseas.

“I get bored easily,” Muxworthy says, “so there is always a possibility of some sort of new project. People constantly ask me to franchise or spread out, but that really doesn’t interest me much. I would rather open five different restaurants in the Wilmington area, all with a different menu, than to ‘cookie-cutter’ a bunch of the same thing all over the country or state. I like being part of the community, and creativity means more to me than sheer volume.”

Burritos wrapped in second and third places come from K-38 and Moe’s Southwest Grill, while food truck runners-up are The Patty Wagon and Poor Piggy’s BBQ.

Steak
Cowboy ribeye. Filet mignon. Kansas City strip. New York strip. Ribeye. The cuts of meat from Port City Chop House vary across all steak-loving palates, but more importantly they are center-cut Stockyards Angus Beef and specially aged, as noted on the Chop House menu. General manager Tim Fletcher elaborates. “Our steaks are the best tasting because [they are] aged for 21 days to ensure tenderness and flavor.”

Of the more popular cuts, Fletcher maintains the filet a hit. It’s simple as to why: People consider it the premier of beef. “Very few restaurants serve only the center cut, which is the most tender available,” he says.

While the Chop House offers all the essentials to go with any steakhouse meal—creamed spinach, loaded potatoes and of course a variety of salads, they also offer flavor enhancements for their cuts of meat. Sauces like traditional Oscar or béarnaise can be chosen, among Cajun, au poivre, lobster or smothered. But the real star for the purists comes simply with the meat.

“We properly season and cook to the perfect temperature,” Fletcher says. “We ensure the quality of our steaks by insisting on final checks by the chef and manager before sending to the dining room.”

Folks who prefer the sea over land can also find an allotment of dishes indicative of our coast. Carolina crab cakes or Atlantic salmon appears on the menu, as well as pasta dishes, chops and chicken. Port City Chop House will accommodate parties, as well. They’re also open for lunch Monday through Friday at 11:30 a.m. They are closed Sundays.
Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House and Port Land Grille chop into second and third.

Soul Food/Country Cookin’
and Buffet
When soul food is in your bones, you just got to go with it.
“I have done everything from fast food to fine dining,” Larry Casey, owner of Casey’s Buffet and BBQ, says. “[I] even thought at one point I was going to be a fancy chef, but I discovered my experiences cooking with my mother and Grandmama Kitty, and bbq’ing pigs and country cooking and soul food … it’s where my heart is.”

In 2005 Larry and his wife, Gena, also a lifer in the service industry, opened Casey’s off Oleander Drive. The buffet features all the classics of Southern cuisine: fried chicken, mac and cheese, chitterlings, BBQ, cornbread, banana pudding, pig’s feet and oxtail stew, among so much more.

Southern soul food is the culinary DNA of Casey’s and started when Larry began working in restaurants as a pre-teen. He moved across the state for over 20 years to garner experience from various restaurants.

“I grew up working at Pier 20,” Gena says, “starting off as a drink girl at 14. I worked there alongside my two sisters until I was in my mid-20s. I met Larry 20 years ago while I was a waitress; he was my manager.”

Now, they’ve manifested their excellence in service to customers who crave their MeeMaw’s Sunday dinner any day of the week (except Mondays and Tuesdays, when Casey’s is closed). “We’ve added some new menu items and tweaked a few recently,” Larry says. “I started cooking black-eyed peas with hog jowls—and buying a lot of local produce out of Pender and New Hanover counties, such as turnips and collards.”

Likewise, they’ve added bread pudding to the buffet along with his Grandma Kitty’s homemade chocolate layer cake. “And he’s digging deep into his Southern roots,” Gena adds.“Larry’s also working on a cookbook,” she denotes.

She promises folks will be able to taste a slew of family recipes throughout the year, including corn pudding and cabbage casserole. Open from 11a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturdays and until 8 p.m. on Sundays, dining at Casey’s requires many notches in the belt to be released upon exit. Or just wear elastic.

Other Soul Food favorites in Wilmington include Basics and Saltworks II, while buffets tempting our readers come from Hibachi Supreme Grill and Golden Corral.

Ice Cream/Frozen Dessert
Taking the cherry on top for the first time in our poll, The Fuzzy Peach scoops up the win for Best Ice Cream/Frozen Dessert. A sweet that lacks calories but not taste, frozen yogurt, i.e. fro-yo (just fun to say, eh?), is one of the few desserts folks can indulge in without feeling like they’ve betrayed their daily calorie intake.

What started out as an idea from UNCW graduates has turned into a successful franchise. The colorful walls, lively staff and modern furniture make people feel “cool” as they walk through The Fuzzy Peach’s doors.

Co-Founder and CMO Rocco Quaranto says, “We focus on our three core values: Offering the best products, providing world-class customer service to our customers and having a fun and inviting atmosphere inside of all of our locations.”

With spots in Racine Commons, downtown, Carolina Beach, Leland and Monkey Junction, it’s not hard to get fuzzed around town. Diners get the freedom of personalizing their desserts, whether going for one flavor of fro-yo or four, one topping or 10, in a bowl or a waffle cone, as a sundae or not. Quite the competition has risen out of fro-yo artists building the “record cup.” Every store has one: a champion who has weighed in the highest scoop and toppings. Currently, the Leland location features a 4.41-pound whopping medley of deliciousness. Customers get to literally go as nuts as they wish.

“It’s a lot of fun and people really want to set the record and get their 15 minutes of fame,” Quarantano says. “The catch is: You better eat it all!”

The Fuzzy Peach’s latest move is their debut of Arctic Nachos. Quaranto quips, “It’s delicious and so much fun to eat.” Waffle chips sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar come in a basket; folks just add their fro-yo and an additional mountain of toppings for a fun snack that needs no spoon.

Others topping out in the category include Kilwins and Velvet Freeze.—Chelsea Pyne

Mediterranean Cuisine
Olympia has been serving Wilmington fresh, Mediterranean-style food for over 15 years. Locally owned and operated, they specialize in Greek but have a large variety of other flavors on their menu to choose from, too, like local seafood dishes or even Italian foods like chicken parmesan. Yet, items like their Moussaka, roast leg of lamb or spanakopita are what keep locals happily returning.

Originally from Long Island, NY, Olympia started back in 1980 by Antoinette Voulgaris’ father, Nicky Voulgaris. “My father has been in the restaurant industry most of his life,” Antoinette says. “In his early career, he was known as ‘the dancing Greek waiter.’ After many years of living in Long Island, my parents decided to beat the weather up north and head down south to beautiful Wilmington.”

Olympia’s main focus is to serve the freshest and healthiest variety of food while maintaining a menu with a lot of traditional Greek dishes. “We specialize in seafood prepared with a Mediterranean flare,” she notes.

Serving both a lunch and dinner menu, foodies will be sure to see a wide selection of fresh salads and plenty of traditional Greek mezes [appetizers], along with entrées, sandwiches and even pizzas galore. And if folks are looking to celebrate en masse, Olympia offers a party room and full bar to help mark any special occasion. Diners also can enjoy outdoor seating, along with free Wi-Fi everyday at 11:30 a.m. when the restaurant opens off Oleander Drive.

Other highlights in this category come from Black Sea Grill and The Greeks Mediterranean Deli and Market, both downtown.—Trent Williams

Outdoor Dining
Living in a coastal town means folks look forward to every ray of sunshine and warmth on their skin as much as possible. Thus, it infuses every part of life: from exercising outdoors to strolling the dog park to even dining underneath a bright blue Carolina sky. In Wilmington the place folks flock to for their dose of tranquil waterway dining is Bluewater Grill, crowned Best Outside Dining establishment for 2013.

Operated by LM Restaurant Group, Mindy Stroupe, corporate communications manager, says their recent renovations from 2010 have upped the ante. “The spacious outdoor dining patio includes an updated, full-service bar and a gorgeous view of the Intracoastal Waterway. Large patio fans and shades make the space comfortable for diners during the hot summer months, and Bluewater’s dock access makes it easy for boaters to tie up and enjoy a convenient meal in their flip-flops and shorts.”

It’s casual, relaxing and entertaining. Bluewater brings live music to the forefront of entertainment every Sunday at 4 p.m. from April through October. Folks will hear a lot of sounds, from funk to beach music. They’ll kick off their new season with Harbor Bash on April 7th with the Manny Lloyd Band!

“The view is what bring people to the restaurant, but it’s our attentive and gracious staff that keep people coming back,” Stroupe says. “We spend a lot of time on our menu. We use the off-season to tweak items and relook at our offerings. We strive to offer unique, chef-driven dishes, as well as culinary favorites that are expected at an American seafood restaurant.”

Second and third go to Dockside and Indochine respectively.

Oysters
“Oysters, oysters, oysters—you can have our oysters raw, steamed, Southwest, Rockefellar, Imperial, Scampi, Oscar and the list goes on and on,” Louise Forbes-Simpson, owner of Dock Street Oyster Bar with partner Steve Maillard, says.

Since 1999 the duo has made the downtown dining establishment a seasonal hit. They focus on fresh and local, as well as simplicity and innovation in the preparation of their seafood.

“When oysters are not in season, we work with local purveyors to ensure quality of product brought in from other areas,” Forbes-Simpson ensures. “We taste-test every batch to ensure quality.”

Starting the first week of March, the staple eatery, located on, yep, Dock, will showcase a new menu for spring and summer. Plus, they’ll have a new bar menu. “The new menus will feature several local favorites made with as many fresh, local ingredients as possible.”
Of course, the oysters are what shine. But don’t expect to indulge in them fried; Forbes and Mallard focus on grilled and steamed seafood for healthier options.

“I like my oysters chilled and freshly shucked with a mist of lemon, a dot of our own Dock Street Peri Peri hot sauce and an ice-cold beer!” Forbes-Simpson notes. “Life is good when you think outside the shell!”

Here, here!

Other shucking into the nominations are Shuckin’ Shack and Hieronymus.

Mexican
While finding good, local Mexican cuisine can be done rather easily in Wilmington, encore readers made a sweeping choice to catapult a new winner into this category. K-38 Baha Grill, located at 5410 Oleander Drive, has been a fave for the past two decades on Wilmington’s scene. They focus on Mexican flavors with added West Coast California flair. “It feels great to win especially right around our 20th anniversary!” Christina Perry of the K-38 human resources team, says. “What a great birthday gift!”

The restaurant closed on January 8th, 2013 to undergo reconstruction and will reopen mid-March. Folks can expect to see a new bar with amazing tile work and perhaps a few new menu items. Still, however, the team will not be ridding the most popular dishes locals love to devour. “Baja fish tacos are a huge hit,” Perry says, “as well as our Tower 7 burritos and Stetson rolls”—the latter consisting of achiote-marinated chicken, guacamole, Monterey jack, Roma tomato, red cabbage and chipotle aioli. “The fresh flavors and the authenticity show in all of dishes,” Perry promises.

Every night folks can expect specials including their famed Wannabe ‘ritas, which are only $3 on Mondays, along with fish tacos. Tuesdays welcome half-priced fajitas and dollar PBRs; Wednesday has $2 hard-shell tacos; and Thursday promises half-off Miller Lite drafts and select quesadillas.

News about their grand re-opening will come soon on the pages of encore, so keep reading in coming week.

Second and third go to El Cerro Grande and La Costa.

COUNTRY Pâté: Caprice Bistro has won Best French on the encore polls since it opened in 1999. They continue impressing with dedicated service and divine food, including their country pâté. Photo courtesy of Caprice Bistro

COUNTRY Pâté: Caprice Bistro has won Best French on the encore polls since it opened in 1999. They continue impressing with dedicated service and divine food, including their country pâté. Photo courtesy of Caprice Bistro

French
There is so much to love about Caprice Bistro, where to begin is the hardest decision to make. But, without fail, the numerous meals they churn out always provide a great start.
“Quality food, not fancy food” is what Chef Thierry Moity and his wife and co-owner Patricia guarantee customers. “Keep the plates consistent with good flavors, good ingredients, and nice presentation,” he says. “It provides something warm and reassuring to our regular patrons, and provides something to our new clientele. Integrity in the kitchen with our standard fare means that our staple dishes remain the same as when we opened 12 years ago.”

And they do—specifically their famed creamy seafood stew, Waterzooi, or the duck confit, or one of their many delicious orders of mussels served one of five ways (on special Tuesday nights, too, nonetheless). Moity often plays around with new specials and menus to keep the restaurant fresh. He judges what to create by what’s in season or available in market. Recently, he added “faux gras,” a mousse parody on the famed foie gras, made of duck liver.

“We offer it warm or chilled,” he says. “It’s typical country bistro fare, and most importantly, it is a cruelty-free food, avoiding the force-fed goose (or duck) farms.”
A lifetime chef, Moity traversed Europe, including Belgium, which is apparent in his style of cooking, learning the ways of many revered chefs, and meeting his life-love before moving stateside. Together, they have owned restaurants from New York to Charlotte. Wilmington is lucky enough to have scored the culinary team permanently when they opened Caprice Bistro at the foot of Market Street in 1999. Their client base has snowballed year after year since, likely because of the cozy atmosphere, including a martini bar upstairs, and delicious food, wine and fine service.

”It’s nice to be recognized year after year,” Moity says. “We are not perfect but we keep working toward consistently good experiences at our tables. We are thankful for those guests who keep coming back.”

Always pristine, with courteous interaction and the utmost knowledge, Wilmington and Caprice lost a great friend last week when their resident head waiter Lee Nam passed away on his 45th birthday. Nam followed the Moities from their restaurant in the Queen City during their relocation to Wilmington.

Thriving on knowledge of all fine foods and drinks, Nam served warm laughter and smiles, along with many great stories to friends, coworkers and customers who knew and adored him. His dedication to Caprice has become an institution unto itself.

“He was my favorite man in Wilmington,” local bartender Dale Saunders said. “Aside from Caprice’s amazing food, he would be the reason I would stop by the restaurant.”

His service and friendship indicate how the Moities run Caprice: like family. He left an indelible mark and a lifetime full of memories that will continue to interject their magic onto the establishment forever more.

“Lee was loyal and faithful,” Moity says, “and he expressed an integrity in his service and in his commitment to Caprice Bistro.  He cared about each guest, the staff, and the restaurant. He just had such rare qualities beyond his skills as a server. He was a part of the family and he will be missed. Cheers.”

Brasserie du Soleil and Le Catalan place second and third on our polls. —Shea Carver

Sports Bar
During a layover in London, Lou Moshakos ventured into a genuine British ale house. He was greeted by a warm hospitality and a true neighborly atmosphere. Inspired, once Moshakos returned home, he and his family opened the original Carolina Ale House in Raleigh in 1999. Since, the single restaurant has evolved to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida—with locations in Virginia and Tennessee coming soon.

In Wilmington, our local Carolina Ale House has been nominated for Best Sports Bar in encore’s Best Of awards for three years, “and it still feels awesome!” Mindy Stroupe, Corporate Communication Manager for LM Restaurants, Inc., exclaims. “We pride ourselves on being a better alternative to the typical sports bar, from fresh ingredients to excellent hospitality. Being voted best confirms that our hard work is not going unnoticed and is appreciated throughout the community.”

So, what does Carolina Ale House do differently from other sports bars in the area? “Many people to do not realize that Carolina Ale House is primarily a scratch kitchen,” Stroupe tells. “The corn chips for the spinach dip are made in-house, the pizza dough is rolled and topped to order, and all the chicken, burgers and buns used are fresh, never frozen. Even the chef-inspired daily specials are made from scratch daily, like Papa Lou’s Lasagna and Yankee Pot Roast. The best part is guests are getting quality, fresh food at very affordable prices.”

Other values include daily lunch specials starting at $5.99, with dinner specials coming in at a meager $9.99. Daily draft specials range from $2.50 to $3.50 along with $3.50 cocktails. “We are currently running a limited-time-offer menu centered around basketball, featuring an insanely good roast beef sandwich and flavorful Asia Chili Pork Ribs,” she says. “During March Madness we’ll be running a Text to Win promotion with ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament tickets up for grabs.”

Carolina Ale House also offers trivia on Tuesdays and live music on Wednesday nights (see www.carolinaalehouse.com or encore’s Soundboard music calendar for the schedule). Stroupe says this only amplifies the restaurant’s ability to cultivate a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. “Not only does Carolina Ale House’s food and value separate it from its competition but also the hospitality and lively environment,” Stroupe shares. “No matter which location you walk into, you’re surrounded by local sports memorabilia, creating a comfortable neighborhood gathering place. The activity at the bar, the upbeat tunes of the music and the camaraderie shared by guests during a big game make Carolina Ale House the ultimate place for food, sports and fun.”

Dribbling into second is Buffalo Wild Wings, and going long for third is KickBack Jack’s.

New Restaurant
“We opened with a lot of buzz, as the building itself has a strong history with the Wilmington community,” Mindy Stroupe, corporate communications manager for LM Restaurant Group, says. “People came quickly to check out how the building had been transformed—we actually used the original architect for the remodel—and to check out the menu. The good news is people not only came once, but they returned, and continue to return—often. We’ve gained a loyal following of locals, which is exactly what we hoped.”
Hops Supply Co. opened in October 2012 at the former Eddie Romanelli’s (and then Flat Eddie’s) building. Recognizing that “hops are the heart of flavor for beer”—as it says on their site, www.HopsSupplyCo.com—the restaurant focuses on bold craft beers and creative cocktails, as well as protecting the integrity of their wines and supplying innovative American fare. In short, they’re a gastropub.

From the roasted beet salad (featuring goat cheese, grapefruit and hard-cider honey vinaigrette) to the farm-egg BLT (which I can attest is a delicious but messy combo of a fried egg, bacon, white cheddar, butter lettuce, tomato, and pesto aioli on wheat), Wisconsin-native Chef Tiffany Eslien fashions an inventive menu with seasonal ingredients. Brunch also is offered Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and all day on Sundays, with items such as the Green Eggs and Ham Omelet (colored so by spinach and asparagus) and a Bloody Mary with house-made mix.

“Our Short Ribs are extremely popular,” Stroupe confesses. “We pile shredded short-rib meat on nachos, served tostada-style with southwestern toppings. It’s also the main character in a unique corkscrew pasta dish with roasted bell peppers, roasted tomatoes, spinach and cheese. We also feature Short Rib Sliders on our weekday Take5 [$5 appetizers] menu available at the bar 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close. ”
This year, as the seasons change, so will the menu, Stroupe says. They also plan to carry new keg wine options and rare choices in craft beers selected by their own cicerone-in-training, Joe Bush. “HopsCo will also begin hosting special events open to the public called Master of Craft, including beer dinners, cooking classes, guest chefs and much more,” she shares.

“Hops Supply Co. only had one chance to earn Best New Restaurant, and we did it!” Stroupe exlaims. “We couldn’t be more proud of our team of staff and management, as they have put their heart and soul into this brand and have made it the success that it is today.

Dishing up second is Rx Restaurant, and spooning up third is Roko Italian Cuisine.

Bakery and Desserts
My boyfriend’s parents live in Florida, and they joined us in Wilmington for his mother’s birthday in 2011. We ordered her a chocolate cake from Apple Annie’s—and she’s been raving about it ever since! When we celebrated his father’s birthday last year, carrot cake from Apple Annie’s was the natural choice.

“Apple Annie’s is a family-owned business and we have been in the bakery industry for five generations,” owner Christine Longordo shares. “We came to Wilmington in 1984. We bake hundreds of different items daily and use the best possible ingredients in a cost-effective manner. We strive to make our products not only appealing to the eye but also delicious to taste.”

With locations on Kerr Avenue and Military Cutoff Road, Apple Annie’s serves not only delectable oatmeal cookies, chocolate rum balls, traditional biscotti, and other sweets but also fresh rolls and breads daily. Once located in New Jersey, the bakery has won the hearts of Southerners in Wilmington since the move. “We have won [the Best Of award] before and it helps increase our business,” Longordo tells. “It is always an honor to win recognition from locals!”

Rising in second for Best Bakery and Best Desserts is Sweet ‘n’ Savory, while La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries takes third for Best Bakery. Sweetening up third for Best Desserts is Circa 1922.

SEAFOODIE DREAM: The staff and owner of Michael’s Seafood jump for joy as Valerie Watson announces their Best Seafood win, marking their first on encore’s annual polls. Photo by Charles Cothran

SEAFOODIE DREAM: The staff and owner of Michael’s Seafood jump for joy as Valerie Watson announces their Best Seafood win, marking their first on encore’s annual polls. Photo by Charles Cothran

Seafood
The winner of encore’s 2013 Best Seafood award is no stranger to accolades. Captain M’s Seafood Chowder—of Michael’s Seafood, of course—is a multiple-year champion of the International Seafood Chowder competition, amongst many other awards for the creamy dish. The fame all began in a northern country club, where two passionate restaurant execs fell in love.

“Dreams became reality after Michael and I met in 1995 at work, actually,” owner Shelly McGowan tells. “He was the Executive Chef and I managed three dining rooms. We were a great team at work and both had dreams of opening our own place one day. We got married in 1996, moved from the cold north to sunny North Carolina three months after we got married, and a year after that, Michael’s Seafood Restaurant opened. After lots of blood, sweat and tears, the rest is history.”

Michael and Shelly crafted a menu that culls new fans each summer in Carolina Beach. “We have a niche and reputation for fresh, healthy food,” she says. “We do not do any of the typical Southern ‘Calabash-style’ fried food. We don’t do anything fried. We don’t even have a fryer in the kitchen—never have, never will.”

Sadly in October 2012, Michael, a lung-transplant recipient, lost his battle to Cystic Fibrosis—though he and Shelly were fighters for the cause for many years. Since 1998, the couple helped raise over for $370,000 cystic fibrosis and lung transplant research with their Shrimp Open Golf Tournament. The community, and especially the restaurant, banded together to support Shelly and her two sons.

“Michael and I built this business together for the last 15 years,” she says. “Along with us, we have our management team and staff that we have worked ‘along side’ and not by the ‘sideline’ and have molded to run the ship how we would day in and out. Our staff and customers miss him greatly. His laugh, his jokes, his silly personality and especially his leadership. He would be so proud of them to be doing exactly what he taught them to do. They have all stepped up to the plate more than ever! I am so proud of all of them and consider them my family. I want my staff to celebrate this award. They are the ones who earned it. We wouldn’t be here without them!”

The uplifting support has allowed growth and success despite the loss of Michael’s Seafood’s legendary captain. The internationally celebrated chowder is offered in all Harris Teeter stores’ seafood departments. Shelly says to be on the lookout for four more soups coming soon. And in early March, three doors down from Michael’s, she is opening Big Apple Bakery. It will be a New York-style bakery specializing in bagels, breads, cupcakes, cookies, pastries, muffins, coffee, espresso, and more.

Swimming in second is Catch and reeling in third is Hieronymus Seafood. —Bethany Turner

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2 Responses to Food & Beverage – Best of Wilmington 2013

  1. Tammy says:

    I’m fairly certain Michael of Michael’s Seafood passed away in 2012, not 2010 as is written.

  2. encore says:

    Yes, you are correct, Tammy. That was a typo. Thank you for bringing it our attention.

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