SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Lots of movement happens around the Port City when it comes to new openings and closings of restaurants, food trucks, bars and bottle shops, as well as the launch of organizational and nonprofit foodie events and festivals. While Port City Daily already covers the majority of such news, smaller shifts and changes sometimes fly under the radar.
READ MORE: Catch up on other food news of the week
“Small Bites” offers another way to let readers know what’s happening on the local food scene — what to expect when it comes to expansions of existing establishments or menu changes, temporary closures and renovations, added hours or grand openings, pop-up events and other newsworthy tidbits.
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Wilmington Distillery heads to former Dock St. Oyster Bar location
A new distillery will open on Dock Street between Water and Second in 2022. Owned and operated by Matt “Chewy” Karn, best known for IZZYz white rum, Wilmington Distillery will be a “boutique craft tasting room to experience low volume craft liquor / spirits made on site,” according to the City of Wilmington building permit.
The distillery will take over the 3,800-square-foot space at 12 Dock St., last occupied by Dock Street Oyster Bar. The architect is listed as Stan Fowler, as well as contractor Gregory Greg of RGR Construction and Roofing.
Restaurant equipment will be replaced with a copper still, according to Karn, who said he will churn out various spirits including rum, vodka, moonshine, and limoncello.
“Eventually, I’d like to make whiskey but, you know, that takes time,” Karn said.
He confirmed it will be the first storefront he’s operated for his spirits. IZZYz got its start in 2018 in a space space with Diablo Distillery in Jacksonville. He’s eyeing a spring launch at the downtown location — ”hopefully by Azalea Fest, if all goes well.”
From cheese to keys
The Cheese Board is no longer located in downtown’s City Market, which lost its historic status in October after the property owner applied for permission to transform the market into a multi-story residential project with commercial space. Cheese Board owner Brad Nuznoff confirmed the wine and cheese shop’s last day at 119 S Water St. was Christmas Eve.
But it’s not the last downtown visitors will see of the operation. Nuznoff is moving the bar into a new space four times the size of its current 700-square-foot digs.
“I can’t say exactly where quite yet,” he told Port City Daily. “The paperwork is being signed soon. But I can say it’s going to be downtown — new construction — and I’m 99.9% sure it’s going to remain on Water Street.”
The 2,300 square foot space will be called The Cheese Board Piano Bar. Nuznoff will host dueling piano nights on weekends, he said, curated by Broadway performer and pianist Brian Whitted. Whitted works with Opera House Theater Company frequently, as musical director for “The Piano Men” and other revues.
Nuznoff also will continue welcoming local musicians to the Cheese Board stage. “We’ll have Donna Merritt and Joel Lamb regularly on the baby grand,” he said.
The new space will feature an expanded menu, too, still highlighting cheese and paninis, but also adding in specials during event nights. It won’t be a full-fledged restaurant, Nuznoff clarified: “no fryers, no hood systems.”
“But we are adding desserts,” he said. “And we will have liquor and remain LGBTQ-friendly.”
Cheese Board will continue to host drag Bingo, trivia and karaoke nights, which Nuznoff expects to grow with the space’s enhanced capacity.
“So we can do the events we were doing but like 30 times better,” he said.
It also will grow its staff to have two bartenders on at a time and someone working the kitchen.
If everything goes according to plan, the upfit of the new space is budgeted around $180,000-$200,000, according to the bar owner.
Nuznoff is currently working to secure the Cheese Board Piano Bar’s architect and contractor and is shooting for an Apr. 1, 2022 opening.
New food truck to serve Puerto Rican street food
Last summer a trio of friends — Carlos Canales, Luis Torres and Itzia Maldonado — were homesick for the food and flavors of Puerto Rico. They came to the states in January 2020 to work in the health industry and have been employed at Trinity Grove, a senior community, through the pandemic.
Once they were able to explore Wilmington more after lockdown, they found themselves having to travel to get a taste of home.
“There is no Puerto Rican food here,” Maldonado said. “We kept saying, ‘How are we gonna get Puerto Rican food?’”
Trips to Jacksonville and Fayetteville helped sate their cravings, but the hour or so drive to either place wasn’t feasible on the regular. So Canales began perfecting his own pork and rice and pigeon peas recipes — two staples of the cuisine.
In July the three friends decided they would launch their own operation and fill in the gap of Puerto Rican street food in Wilmington.
“We originally wanted to start with food,” Maldonado clarified, “but it was just a way to get our foot in the door with drinks.”
A small trailer called IlmiRicans would set up during weekends only at markets and family-friendly events to serve pina coladas (alcohol-free), a variety of frappes — Oreos, strawberry-banana, tropical fruits — and coquito (“like eggnog, served around the holidays in Puerto Rico,” Maldonado said).
“With the drinks, we could get our foot in the door and start exploring and learning about the health department and the requirements, and how the process was going to be, if we were to incorporate food at some point,” Maldonado said.
After six months of learning the ins and outs of the local food truck game, the group is ready to evolve the concept. In the new year, IlmiRicans will ditch the drinks to focus solely on food.
The menu will consist of loaded fries, served with pork, chicken or ham, cheese, sour cream and a Puerto Rican remoulade (ketchup, mayonnaise and garlic).
IlmiRicans also will serve two kinds of French-bread sandwiches: Cubans and tripletas, the latter topped with three meats, remoulade and potato sticks.
“The sticks add some crunch to the sandwich,” Maldonado said. “It’s a popular topping back home.”
Mofongo will consist of smashed plantains, with garlic and butter, molded to be served as a side item. Or, as a heartier small plate, diners can also add chicken, ham or Canales’ slow-roasted pork — marinaded in Adobo, pineapple juice, garlic and white vinegar for 24 hours. Prices will range between $8 and $12.
The entrepreneurs originally operated the drink trailer only on weekends, during days off from their full-time jobs as certified nurse assistants (Torres is a nurse and respiratory assistant). However, come January, the food truck — a new, larger vehicle outfitted with new equipment — will be open nightly and on weekends at local breweries and other popular spots.
IlmiRicans will focus on savory foods and it’s menu may change up roughly every six months. “We want to see how people react to the food and how the word gets out,” Maldonado said, “but maybe we will add in some fritters eventually.”
Masa Sushi opens at Independence Mall
A new sushi bar has opened in front of Independence Mall. Masa Sushi and Eastern Kitchen (3532 Oleander Dr.) is owned and operated by Jun Li, owner of Nikki’s Sushi located inside the food court of the mall.
The Masa menu is vast with over 30 sushi rolls, plus nigiri and sashimi. Specialty dishes include Chinese classics, such as Kung Pao and General Tso, as well as noodle dishes, like yakisoba and chow fun. Chef’s specials — short ribs, fish and bean curd, mushroom medley — round out offerings, along with plenty of appetizers, soups, salads and desserts. Prices are $4 – $28.
The restaurant had a quiet opening at the beginning of December and is serving lunch and dinner Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Seabird closed until Dec. 31
Chef Dean Neff’s downtown seafood restaurant, at the corner of Market and Front streets, will close until Dec. 31, he announced Tuesday.
Covid-19 exposure was listed as the cause and Neff said before reopening the modern eatery, all staff will have to pass multiple Covid-19 tests, showing negative results.
“We anticipate being able to safely reopen for New Year’s Eve service and will communicate all updates on social,” a post on Facebook noted.
Anyone who has a reservation at Seabird before Dec. 31 will receive a call with the option to reschedule.
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