WILMINGTON — On Friday, Apr. 30, local chef Dean Neff officially opened the doors to his new seafood restaurant, Seabird, located in the heart of downtown Wilmington. Over the last year, Neff has been renovating the historic 3,000-square-foot building at the corner of Front and Market streets with the help of building owner James Goodnight out of Raleigh.
A visual feast, Seabird’s modern decor — designed by Smith Hanes out of Atlanta — is filled with textures, in the tiles and lines of the space, from the historic windows to the columns and bookshelves that break up the main rooms, down to the draperies and fabrics used in its seating and bar stools. Nautical themes come to life in nuanced ways: porthole windows on the swinging doors into the kitchen, aquatic artwork on the walls, shadow boxes of marine life, and of course carefully crafted plates of fresh, local seafood.
“We wanted to do a soft opening over the weekend to see how it would go,” Neff said on Monday evening.
Seabird operates Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. and on Sunday, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. for dinner. Neff plans to launch breakfast at the restaurant on Wednesday, May 5, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Its coffee program, featuring Counter Culture sips, will run through 2 p.m.
“Sometime this summer we will start lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he added.
According to the chef, opening weekend welcomed around 70 walk-ins Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. By 5:30 p.m. Monday, diners were filing in quickly at every corner of the eatery. Window seats overlooking downtown’s Front Street, as well as at the first-come, first-serve bar, were full of chatter, drinks and bites. By 6 p.m. the main dining areas were populated by couples and families alike.
Seabird’s menu highlights the bounty of living in southeastern North Carolina and having access to copious seafood. North Carolina oysters — Stones Bay, Duke’s and Soundside Salt — are available by the half dozen, served with lemon, hot sauce, pomelo mignonette, sambal cocktail and housemade saltines. Oysters also come broiled with Hollandaise, barbecued or Rockefeller style.
A seafood tower is stacked with smoked tuna, pickled North Carolina shrimp, raw oysters, deviled grouper, blue crab claws, and little neck clams, served with a dollop of harissa mayo here, a bite of cucumber slaw there.
Six small plates make up the first portion of the menu, including a slow-smoked yellowfin tuna salad, as well as smoked catfish and oyster pie, a play on Britain’s fish pie. Six entrées feature more seafood offerings, including swordfish schnitzel, served with preserved lemon jam, cirtus-braised bok choy, braised sugar snap peas, spaetzle and mustard emulsion.
“I knew I wanted spaetzle on a dish because it’s something I grew up eating often,” Neff said. “I think, like most of the items on the menu, I made it because it felt like it was something that I wanted to eat.”
“The swordfish schnitzel has been selling well,” general manager Matt Krise confirmed. “And the pasta dish — Dean makes a spaghetti dough with plankton in it and it’s topped with crab.”
A taste of the South isn’t left off the menu either, as fried flounder and red corn grits are topped with lemon butter and kale pistou. Catfish pups and fried spring onions elevate normal fish-camp hushpuppies.
“The catfish pups are super popular,” Neff said.
A pea summer salad with succotash will fulfill vegan palates. Carnivores, too, will be pleased by the ghost pepper and sorghum ribs, as well as wings, served with schmaltz and fermented pepper sauce.
Neff works with local farmers, like Changin’ Ways and Seaside Oyster Farms, to bring the freshest ingredients to life on the Seabird menu. He told Port City Daily last month, “[W]e focus on season and relationships with people who bring us food.”
Click below to scroll through a gallery of Seabird photos:
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