here are menus I’ve saved, framed, and hung on the wall in my own kitchen like artwork, the ones printed on fancy textured cardstock and whose descriptions read like poetry: North Carolina yellowfin tuna, charred and encrusted in chili, in sesame, in smoked sea salt; Oregon Inlet triggerfish with seared greens; local red snapper topped with shaved radishes.
Roll these words — chef words that I didn’t know 20 years ago, 30 years ago — over and over on your tongue: emulsion, mirepoix, tapenade, remoulade, vinaigrette.
Lemon brown butter. Saffron, quinoa, capers. Crème fraîche.
I’ve had meals that have convinced me that North Carolina seafood chefs are wizards, concocting culinary magic in their kitchens, and then, to the table, here the food comes, as beautiful as it sounds, presented on bright white plates and looking just like summer — vivid, ripe, with artful swirls of colorful sauces, strawberry and raspberry reds; dollops of frothy pesto; tendrils of tiny, leafy microgreens.
I didn’t know this food years ago, this contemporary interpretation of all that our ocean offers, and I’m grateful I’ve found it now. These meals have enhanced and expanded my enjoyment of the coast, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also remember the menus I’ve kept, not on a wall, but imprinted on my memory, dishes I can call out by heart, and I’ll bet you remember them, too: the oval platter from the Breezeway at Topsail Beach, piled with perfectly fried flounder — you’ve got four choices here with seafood: broiled, grilled, fried, or steamed, and none of those are the wrong decision — and, yes, this plate looks like summer, too. Fish golden and crispy, salty and warm; sunshine-yellow lemon slices hugging the edge of the plate; hot hush puppies in a red plastic basket; cool tartar sauce in a squeeze bottle within arm’s reach.
After dinner, you grab a toothpick from the stainless steel dispenser on your way out and walk out back to the dock for the sunset over Banks Channel, and you’ll set out again tomorrow, a determined plan to eat seafood every single day for the week you’re at the beach, and that’s not the wrong decision, either.
So many choices! How many times have you eaten the soft-shell crabs at Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City; the crab cake sandwich at Sam & Omie’s in Nags Head; the shrimpburger wrapped in paper from Big Oak Drive-In, consuming the whole thing while leaning against the side of your car, using the hood as a makeshift table for your onion rings and chocolate shake?
Think of those buckets of Hatteras Island littleneck clams pulled from Pamlico Sound, ready for steaming back at the house. And the stops at Mott’s in Wilmington or Capt’n Pete’s Seafood Market in Holden Beach, the one under the bridge. Check the chalkboard for the daily catch — rockfish, mahi-mahi, grouper, perch — and let the woman with the curly red hair know what you want. Watch as she scoops tiny ice pellets into the bag, ties it up, and sends you on your way, your cooler full of fresh fish and a reminder that, fancy or simple, it doesn’t get better than this.
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