WILMINGTON — Thirty years ago Military Cutoff Road was two lanes and pretty barren, Cathy Pleasant said as she sipped a glass of red wine with her husband Scottie at the newly opened Blue Surf Cafe Arboretum West. The Pleasants have lived on “this side of town” for more than 30 years, they concurred.
“There was a horse farm nearby, but nothing else out here, really,” Cathy said.
“We used to ride our bikes back there when we were kids,” Scottie added, pointing toward what was once a dirt road.
Though Military Cutoff Road was used by Army convoys to cut across to Wrightsville Beach during World War II, nowadays, it welcomes upward of 50,000 cars traveling daily on its four lanes.
“When Mayfaire moved in, this area really took off,” Cathy continued.
That was 2004.
“It’s not slowing down, she added.
Heavy traffic flow, naturally, is great marketing for any restaurant. Yet, Blue Surf owner Colleen Kochanek admits she wasn’t so sure about opening a second eatery in the area when she began considering an expansion a few years ago. Her flagship Racine Drive café — also owned by partner Stephanie Norris and Blue Surf’s chef, Jon Webb — sits only 3 miles away. It doesn’t seem too far when looking at the pins on a Google map, but when considering the traffic bloat, it feels further.
“We were actually thinking about going downtown,” Kochanek said. “Then someone reached out to me and said, ‘We think this would be great for you.’ And, at first, I was like, ‘No, it’s too close to Racine.’”
Tribute Properties built Arboretum West, with 360 residential living spaces and 18,000 square feet of commercial space. Almost 5,000 square feet belongs to Blue Surf.
Kochanek said it wasn’t until she accepted lunch one afternoon with the real-estate broker and saw plans for the site that the wheels began turning. Mainly, the eatery’s 1,500 square feet of outdoor space convinced her.
“We can seat about 50 or 60 outside,” Kochanek said. Up to 85 people can dine inside the 3,300 sqaure feet.
Despite being located facing the congestion of Military Cutoff, a fountain of running water masks the sounds of horns honking and drivers zooming past. Her goal was to make sure the open-air patio remained serene, even tranquil.
“Somehow, it does feel like a totally different part of town,” Kochanek said, leaning back into a modern outdoor sofa, plush with cool blue cushions, accented by light wood. Some of the decor actually is her third choice in furniture, she said. Covid caused shipping delays and backorders in China.
“But it turned into a happy mistake,” Kolchanek said. She ended up only ordering from the U.S. and worked with local company Smith + Gsell Design Studio to see through her vision.
“I can be very opinionated,” she quipped, “but I knew I wanted plenty of soft seating. I wanted people to feel like they can just hang out, no rush. And in the winter, obviously, we put heaters in the fireplace.”
Heaters are also installed on the ceiling. Oyster shells are embedded in concrete pillars that surround a large hearth, front and center on the patio. The outdoor bar opens indoors as well, so diners can feel the salt air blow through the large garage-door-like panels.
Kochanek said the restaurant’s coastal casual approach is a touch more high end than Racine’s counter-service café. Arboretum West offers table-side service, a full bar, more menu items, and the atmosphere is refined, with pendant and exposed Edison bulb chandeliers and nautical color palettes. Abstract waves adorn art on the walls, along with coastal scenes from local photographer TJ Dreschel.
“A finer dining experience is what we are aiming for,” Kochanek added, “but not really fine dining — but at least a step or two up from the café. I think we are definitely at least two steps up.”
Lighter, brighter flavors
“I love how open the space is,” Scottie Pleasant critiqued later in the evening.
A plate of braised beef, asparagus and grilled potatoes arrived in front of him; his wife indulged upon a chicken and coconut-pesto noodle dish. Each entree arrived within 15 minutes of ordering.
“We go to the other café for lunch and usually get salads,” he said.
Chef Webb brought some of the café’s popular items to the new menu, including the salads, as well as the mojo pork and plenty of comfort-food sandwiches, like the meatloaf and Cubano. Webb, who’s been with the restaurant for eight years, also elevated the creation of new items.
“I buy a little bit more exclusive products for this place,” he revealed.
He uses North Carolina-brand Buck Naked grass-fed beef in the filet entrée, as well as Harris Farms bacon for the soon-to-come brunch menu. He also will be pouring 100% Vermont maple syrup over waffles and pancakes.
One of his favorite newer selections is shrimp za’atar. “We always use fresh, never-frozen seafood,” Webb said. It’s served with lemon aioli, vegetable quinoa and sautéed vegetables. The kicker comes from the in-house za’atar spice.
“I came across it and started making it just a couple months ago,” Webb said. “I’m obsessed with it. You can buy it in a bottle, but the one that I make uses a lot of citrus zest, which we zest by hand. I don’t think you can mimic that with something out of a bottle or jar.”
Webb said he leaned into lighter, brighter flavors on Arboretum West’s menu. He wanted to carry forth Blue Surf’s reputation of offering somewhat healthier options.
That mission started in 2013 when Kochanek bought into the restaurant and wanted to steer clear from fried foods. A fish and grits entree at Arboretum West comes with a catch of the day, but it’s grilled.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love a fried seafood platter sometimes,” Kochanek said. “But we really want to focus on clean flavors. I’m not saying our menu is super healthy, but we made a conscious decision with it.”
Vegetarian and vegan options exist as well, in an effort to appeal to many palates. Kochanek praises Webb’s creativity and palate: “I strongly believe in finding really good people and letting them do their thing, giving them the leash to do what they do well — because I’m not a chef or bartender or pastry chef.”
Katie George came on as Arboretum West’s pastry chef. George makes homemade fresh sweets daily, including a soufflé cheesecake with orange zest and a traditional chocolate cake, among other items.
“We will also start selling her desserts at the café,” Kochanek informed.
“And I’m going to turn all of the specialty hot chocolates at the café into alcoholic options,” Wes Miles chimed in.
Miles devised the bar program at Arboretum West, which includes many specialty cocktails. Locally crafted beer, as well as higher end wine, including prosecco on tap, will be offered.
After living in L.A. for almost a decade, Miles said he has been used to creating everything fresh from scratch for his craft cocktails. At Arboretum West, his crew is hand-juicing all items possible: lemons, limes and oranges; watermelon, pineapple and cucumbers; strawberries, celery, and ginger. He may have to bring in jugs of OJ for mimosas once brunch kicks off, but he’s hesitant even on that front.
“It will be the best jug of OJ, if so,” he said.
“I worked for someone who was the sous chef at 11 Madison Park for three years,” Miles continued, “and he was a farmer. He just refused to do anything that wasn’t crafted fresh.”
Miles also was able to work with fun equipment out west — extractors, mixers, juicers, sous vide vacuum packs.
“We bought some stuff to elevate the program,” Kochanek said.
“I knew that there was a niche for something like this here,” Miles said.
Aside from carrying top-shelf spirits, he also has fresh shrubs and syrups. Rather than using bitters, he prefers vinegars: champagne, red wine, Balsamic.
“One, it’s healthier, right?” Miles said. “It also applies a different dimension in a lot of ways without just having to add sugar and acid.”
One cocktail that has followed him for the last couple of years is the ‘67 Ranchero.
Named after a ‘67 El Camino, the drink is made with tequila, serrano pepper, celery shrub, and rimmed with Tajin lime spice — a mild chili, lime and sea-salt blend that’s often served on fruit or corn south of the border.
“The kicker about this drink that most people don’t expect is the celery,” Miles said. “Also, I’m all about that Tajin life.”
He’s also about the carbonated water fountain installed in the restaurant. It allows Miles to play around with mocktails more easily and provide more options with fresh ingredients for non-alcoholic drinkers.
“I think a lot of people make that an afterthought,” he said. “We almost shame the non-alcoholic people — ‘You get a Becks and that’s all!’ One of my friends in L.A. released one of my favorite books, ‘Zero Proof Cocktails,’ and I have it in the back to refer to at all times.”
“It brings smiles to people”
Closer to campus at Blue Surf’s Racine café, service has picked back up since slowing down through Covid-19. Like most, it sustained itself through takeout and delivery. In fact, Kochanek said 25% of the business is still takeout.
“I think that portion of our business will continue,” she said. “But I think what happened to us, which was great, is we had a ton of regulars picking up and we also have all of these new people that found us during Covid.”
More so, Kochanek suspects the opening of Arboretum West is having a residual boost on the Racine café; numbers over the last month have been comparable to 2019. Overall, she said, the restaurant has been a solid investment since she bought into it.
“Sales have been up year over year,” she revealed, sans a downward bump during hurricane years and of course last year through Covid-19.
Still, she managed to keep all staff employed at the café during the pandemic. Yet, opening the new spot has come with a few labor challenges. Right now, Blue Surf Arboretum West is only open for dinner, as shortages are dictating operations. Kochanek opened with 20 front-of-house staff and bartenders, but back-of-the house has been a different story.
“We can’t open for lunch yet because we don’t have enough to cover the kitchen,” she said. “I think we need about two or three more, a couple prep people.”
She is projecting opening for weekend brunch in hopefully two weeks, with her sights set on breakfast eventually as well. For now, just having customers for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., is a thrill now happening after two-years-in-the-making.
“There’s something about the restaurant industry that’s home to me,” Kochanek said. She is a lawyer by trade, who started out in domestic law before moving onto legislation.
“That can be stressful,” she said, “but this — this is a different stress. And I love it. I love getting a very diverse group of people together and creating dinner for people. It’s fascinating. It brings smiles to people.”
Cathy and Scottie Pleasant were grinning as they finished their meals at the bar and closed their tab. Miles approached and asked how everything tasted.
“We will definitely be back,” Cathy said.
“We’re close by — we rode our bikes here from Eastport,” Scottie added. The Pleasants can make it from Eastwood to Station Road in a 10-minute bike ride around the back of Mayfaire.
“It’s better than sitting in traffic,” he added.
Kochanek smiled. The outdoor patio was abuzz with people chattering, as cars whizzed by behind them.
“It’s like having a shiny new baby,” Kochanek said, while surveying the restaurant and checking in on customers.
It’s clear another Blue Surf is not far from the back of her mind. Downtown may not be out of the woods quite yet.
“I mean, we just need to get this baby up and running,” she said. “So, yeah, maybe not another one right now — but, yessir, eventually.”
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