A dinner cruise - with delightful company and spectacular views of the water around us and above, an enormous, full rising moon - should have been enough. The night was still young when we arrived back at the dock, and Susan and I hadn't eaten much dinner and were still a little hungry. So instead of calling it a night and walking back to the hotel, we walked in the opposite direction to explore and find a good restaurant to have a glass of wine and an appetizer or two to finish off a perfect evening. Little did we know we'd find a rose among a lot of thorns.
Carolina Beach is described as the "Key West" of all the North Carolina beaches. When I think of Key West, I think of a laid back lifestyle, a lot of partying on Duvall Street, beautiful sunsets and fantastic restaurants. Carolina Beach has the laid back vibe and beautiful sunsets but I didn't see any great restaurants. Until now. Loosely tucked in between a McDonalds and Subway, just down the street from a Hardees, within a block of a quiver of fried seafood houses was a simple, non-discript tan building with a small sign on the door. Next door, a guitarist was playing a Jimmy Buffet song at an open-air bohemian bar as we looked at the posted menu and glanced in through the windows to see what this restaurant was like.
"I believe this is it," Susan said as we admired the white-washed pine shiplap walls, contrasting with stained, knotty pine boards through the windows. A surfboard here, an old photo there were accents that whispered coastal décor. The entire space was dotted with old fashioned, Edison-style lights giving off a soft, flattering glow to the interior and the people there. She was right - this restaurant was our kind of place - and we quickly walked in, were seated and within minutes, scanning the menu for just the right foods to order.
Susan is the family pickle-holic - if you pickle it, she will eat and rave about it - and she commented about the canned pickles by the front door - hoping they would be on the menu - and they were. Our first appetizer was the Redneck Appetizer Plate with the pickles prominently featured...
.....and it was the first thing we tasted from the plate. The rest of the redneck appetizers looked delicious - delicate, buttermilk angel biscuits (so called because if you die, these light, fluffy southern "angels" could take you to heaven), blue crab-deviled eggs, pimento cheese made with goat cheese, homemade strawberry-rhubard-basil jam, spicy brown mustard, salumi (not a typo - and I assumed it's a redneck salami but it's chewier, quite spicy and delicious), a few slices of sheep's milk cheese and all topped with bean sprouts. Everything was tasty but Mrs. Pickle-holic crowned the pickles the best of the best and she nailed it again.
I was photographing our food and the staff must have noticed and thought I was a real restaurant reviewer vs. the fake one I am on here as they brought us an incredible Amuse Bouche. I didn't tell them anything differently - that I was just a foodie and nothing more. Either way, the next "course" was something very special.
Fried and served with plenty of cocktail sauce is the only way I'll usually eat an oyster. I've avoided eating them raw.....but that was then and this is now. But how is a novice supposed to eat a raw oyster? I'd noticed other diners eating them straight from the shell so I copied them rather than using a seafood fork. Although slightly awkward, I immediately understood the reason for the technique. The unexpected kosher salt that stuck to the bottom of the shell touched my bottom lip, giving me a hint of salt as I tasted the naturally briny, succulent oyster covered in sweet but savory balsamic topped with grainy mustard and tomato. It was: To. Die. For. I'm ready - angel biscuits take me away.
Next up was the only stumble of the night (and a minor one) - a dish with blue crab on top of corn and butterbean succotash, with chunks of sweet potato and tomatoes scattered about. Crab is delicate and it was over-powered by all the veggies. We picked out the crab, ate a few bites of succotash and then focused on the brussel sprouts with burrata cheese, topped with chopped peanuts (adding a country, southern flair). Burrata cheese is a creamy mozzarella that is the shell for cream inside - such that when it's cut - the cream runs out all over the dish underneath. The burrata paired beautifully with the roasted brussel sprouts but unfortunately, the brussel sprouts didn't pair well with the crabmeat. I should have known better than to order these two opposite flavors together. Mea culpa.
Not to worry, dessert was next, and even though we've both sworn off sugar, we ordered a house-made chocolate icea cream and a homemade, rustic, apple tart topped with vanilla bean ice cream on top of a smear of caramel. Diets - and doctor's advise - be damned. The tart was delicious, as expected, but can every chef in America please (please) give up smears for lent next year (and every day there-after). I don't care for the way a smear looks even if it's a tasty smear.....not to mention the word itself.
The star of the desserts was the Mexican chocolate ice cream that had ribbons of dark chocolate mixed perfectly with cayenne pepper that was added to give the ice cream a hot, spicy taste along with the sweet. The cost? Three dollars - cheap for the scoop of this chocolate perfection. I would have spent more for this decadent and unusual treat. Much more.
The dessert was (for the most part) gone and we had one more sip of coffee, one more drink of tea, and it was time to go. On the way, Chef was preparing the meal for his staff....
....pan seared speckled trout, fire roasted pepppers, roasted, balsamic drizzled brussel sprouts, southern fried chicken....and we discussed our favorite restaurants because the chef takes his staff on foodie field trips all over the east coast. They invited us to stay and enjoy a little more food but two dinners was enough even for a foodie like me. It was time to go back to the hotel, so we said goodnight but neither Susan nor I wanted to leave.
The Foodie-Gods were looking after us by leading us not into temptation (to stop at McDonald's or a fried seafood house) and delivering us from evil (by sending us to Surf House). A little bit Key West, a little bit Carolina Beach, a little bit southern and a lot of deliciousness, this wonderful restaurant has it all - a charming interior, skilled and knowledgeable wait-staff and most of all: fantastic, inovative food. I can't believe our good fortune to stumbling into it - entirely by accident - no TripAdvisor or help from the hotel staff. If you're close by, try it out. If you're not, make a trip to Carolina Beach and have dinner. You may be in North Carolina but you'll feel like you're at the finest restaurant in Key West.
Open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner and Sunday Brunch.
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