Fusion cuisine served bistro style on the Carolina coast

by Brian Clarey

You can still get oysters out on the Carolina coast, though its inadvisable in months that don’t have the letter “r” in their name. And you can still find Calabash style seafood, all you can eat, in at least one restaurant every few miles.

But the wave of fusion cooking broke over the Outer Banks and points south more than five years ago, and in the tidal pool was created a string of fine restaurants and bistros that incorporated the bounty of North Carolina’s fishing fleet and our culinary traditions with the philosophy and techniques of haute cuisine.

Which means that sometimes the Calabash is served with a buerre blanc and paired with a crisp sauvignon.

To continue the metaphor, some of these treasures were washed back out to sea, Stardust in Morehead City comes to mind, while others, like the Blue Moon Bistro in nearby Beaufort, continue to thrive.

And further south by Wilmington and Southport, the demand for good food with beachfront attitude continues to grow.

These days in Wrightsville Beach you won’t find many clam bars or oyster shacks, but you will be able to find a good piece of locally caught flounder coaxed to the peak of its potential by the talented chefs who are drawn to the Carolina coast.

One such place is the South Beach Grill, named not for the famed Miami enclave of fashion models and Eurotrash (thank God), but for its location on the southern half of the sliver that is Wrightsville Beach.

It’s a funky little bistro housed in what was once a 1970s-era bank, with wide front windows and sturdy brick architecture. The interior fits in with the style, using polished dark woods, coastal blues and yellows to achieve a sense of seaside elegance without pretension; mirrored walls mimic the view from the shore to the horizon on the beach a block or so away.

The staff is young, tan, eager and fairly knowledgeable about the food.

“My favorite is the seafood Napoleon,” our waitress told us, and on her say-so we opted for a tasting menu of four appetizers including the Napoleon, which we saved for last.

The first dish out of the gate was a plate of seafood nachos: large wedges of flour tortilla with diced tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream. Much of the flavor was derived from the sauce, a bisque-like concoction with portions of coarsely minced scallops, shrimp and fish with creamy texture and a sensible spice to it. The flour tortillas, which I initially balked at, proved to be a sturdy medium for the dense toppings. We cleaned the plate.

Next up was a tuna carpaccio. I assumed the dish would be more like a traditional carpaccio, with thin slices of raw tuna and a wasabi-infused oil. I was wrong, and also a bit disappointed when our server brought out quarter-inch slices of seared tuna basking in an herb-infused oil and leaned against a pillar of rice. I soon discovered the wasabi hidden in a white sauce and, with the flavors properly distributed, we again cleared the plate like dogs.

Next came a serving of oysters casino, with the plump bivalves (likely imported from the Gulf of Mexico in this r-less month of July) hidden beneath wilted greens, pancetta and parmesan cheese.

The dish could have been good. I wanted it to be good. But there were a few problems in the execution. The oysters were not properly shucked – whoever popped them neglected to sever the thick muscle beneath which holds the meat to the shell. Also, the oysters were not cooked long enough: the chopped vegetables on top retained their raw crispness and the oysters were cold and nearly raw beneath the toppings. And because it hadn’t been melted, the flavor of the parmesan was undiluted and, in my opinion, way too strong. We left one untouched on the plate.

Next came the seafood Napoleon, the favorite of our server. It came out as a tall pile of spiced shrimp and fish between slices of battered and fried tomatoes and was quickly reduced to a smear on china. While much of the flavor was drawn from the batter on the tomatoes, it was a good flavor and my dinner companion and I agreed that the dish would work as well (if not better) with green tomatoes substituted for red.

But the South Beach Grill must be doing something right. It’s been in business for the last eight years and the group that operates it recently opened another restaurant called Savannah in the middle of the isle, featuring what they call “low country casual.”

Bear in mind that I paid only one visit to the South Beach Grill and tried only four menu items, appetizers at that, so my analysis is nothing more than a report of an isolated visit.

And, the problems with the food notwithstanding, I will be back.

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