Southern Appeal

Jul 31 • GRUB & GUZZLE, Restaurant ReviewsNo Comments

Rx Restaurant and Bar
421 Castle Street
(910) 399-3080
Price: $$-$$$
Bottom Line: Come hungry, and they’ll comfort you, Southern-style.

DELIGHTFUL DRUMSTICK RX prepares a great batter which turns out peppery and crisp. Photo by Bethany Turner.

Reviewing a new restaurant can be fraught with peril. Not that it’s physically dangerous, but trying to balance fairness with accuracy often proves a delicate tightrope walk with newly minted eateries. I never want to criticize a chef who is still experimenting and trying to find his culinary voice, but I can’t deny readers an accurate description of my experience. Thus, with both eagerness and trepidation as my co-pilots, I drove downtown to Rx Restaurant and Bar to review it less than a month after the doors opened.

Thankfully, my low-grade panic proved unnecessary. While I can’t say Rx gets everything right (and, really, who ever does?), I can say that I enjoyed a lovely meal.

Rx possesses a unique style, perfect for its sequestered locale. Located on the corner of Fifth and Castle (in what used to be Hall’s Drugs), far enough removed from any other downtown eatery, it blends in with the neighborhood of modest and upscale homes, antique shops, and (my personal favorite of its neighbors) Wilmington Wine. Rx’s minimalist décor, coupled with a menu of upscale comfort food, threads the needle between the beautiful antebellum parts of the area and the more humble cottages nearby.

Walking through the front door gave me reason to believe I was in for a treat. I recognized waitstaff from a few of my other favorite dining hotspots: Manna, Deluxe, The Fortunate Glass, The Little Dipper, YoSake and Port City Chophouse. Attracting quality staff, especially for an unproven commodity like Rx, is a sure sign that management knew what it was doing.

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a whiskey from a lovely, if diminutive, bartender and started scanning the menu. The attention to detail leapt off the page. Wherever possible the chef had listed the vendor who provided his ingredients: Mole Hill Farms, Heritage Farms, Nature’s Way, Pridgen Farms. It was as if the farmers got to take a bow, too.

Thematically, Rx offers an upscale version of Southern comfort food alongside traditional American favorites. Shrimp and grits and pork BBQ can be found under the heading “Staples,” while fennel-crusted tuna and sirloin steak rested under “Mains.” I decided to stick to the theme and save the sirloin for another day.

I opened my evening with chicken wings in fig BBQ sauce. The hearty stack seemed a bargain at only $7 and far surpassed any I’ve had in this city. Taking a rather wise “less is more” approach, the kitchen used enough sauce to impart flavor without detracting from the luscious dark meat of the bird—it kept all of the taste without the oily sauce dripping everywhere. The smoky character, with only hints of the fig, made the wings a savory delight and a must-try for any visit (the next night they were served in a chili Thai sauce, from what I hear, so every visit could predicate a different taste).

Rx also serves homemade mini-biscuits and hushpuppies, just as one would expect of any Southern establishment. It came in cast-iron Dutch ovens and tasted damn-near fantastic—and not too sweet. That’s the demise of many Southern cornbread or hushpuppy attempts: They taste like sweet, yellow cake rather than buttery fluff, the way cornmeal and buttermilk should taste.

Suddenly glad I hadn’t eaten all day, I threw caution to the wind and ordered a soup course. Black River watermelon soup with NC blue crab arrived; it was almost right. The sweet characteristics of the fruit blend beautifully with the succulent crab, but there wasn’t enough soup in the bowl to work a proper balance. Plus, it wasn’t cold enough for a chilled dish. Still, it seemed closer to right than wrong.

I’d like to be very clear that the next sentence is not a criticism: I found several pieces of shell in the crab meat. Why is that not a criticism? Because it tells me I’m getting fresh seafood—not canned garbage. I’ll gladly tolerate the occasional unholy crunch of a mollusk shell if it means fresh fare. Sweet, rich crab makes any meal better, and it certainly rang true here.

I’d like to digress at this point to introduce a new occasional feature to my food reviews. Many encore readers live herbivorous lifestyles, and I’ve been promising myself I would do a better job in engaging them. So, after weeks of meaning to do it, I brought along a vegetarian friend to dinner at Rx to give me some perspective. Though at some restaurants a vegetarian wouldn’t have a whole lot of insight, I do owe it to readers to tell the story from another point of view. Thus, without further ado, I shall endeavor to retell his opinions on the “Chef’s Selection Vegetable Plate.”

For starters, it was the one course for which we waited an unseemly amount of time. Though not bad for six plates all night, for vegetables, it seemed time-consuming. Still, my buddy swears it was worth the wait.

The balance of color struck me immediately: bright reds, greens and browns swirled about, as favorites included pickled cabbage and fried okra. The cabbage exhibited a beautiful melding of pickling spice which didn’t dampen or bleed vinegar. It maintained its crispness, and the vinegar accented the other flavors on the plate without dominating them. I’m no fan of okra, fried or otherwise, but the crisp tan shell on Rx’s made me wish I were. My dinner guest raved over it; I suspect others will, too.

I opted for the skillet fried chicken, sage gravy and mashed potatoes, with squash and peppers. The golden brown batter on the chicken would have made Colonel Sanders envious (I mean back when he was alive and preparing good fried chicken—the stuff they serve today can’t even be mentioned in the same category with the Rx version). Peppery and crisp, the drumstick captured all of the best qualities of the meat and accentuated them with a delightful seasoning of the batter.

The popularity of whipped potatoes has compelled too many chefs to put out a potato so overly mashed, it barely qualifies as a solid. Not so at Rx. The hefty side dish contains small pockets of unmashed potato. The dish has weight and texture; it’s not for everyone, but it is for me. I will add, however, that an $18 price tag for two pieces of fried dark meat seems a bit steep. The price does nothing to detract from the genius of the flavor, but it does give me pause before ordering it again.

Dessert proved a near miss. The dark chocolate cheesecake, while mixing well the sweet and savory aspects of the plate, lacked the creaminess I look for in that style of dessert. The cake flaked on the fork in a manner more reminiscent of Parmesan than cream cheese.

I expect Rx to be very popular for quite some time. The good news is those who are willing to wait should be able to get a table, or make a reservation. Rx changes their menu daily, giving people more reasons to return. Plus, they’re venturing into exotic culinary territory on some items, including fried Buffalo pig ears with blue cheese—another item which appeared on the menu the night after my visit. Late-nighters will enjoy the fact they’re serving until 2 a.m. (and with live deejaying)—just be sure you don’t skip lunch.

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