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Friday, May 17, 2024

Wine shop owner expands with pop-up restaurant, event space in former Castle Street eatery

Creative Tastings is located at 701 Castle Street, an offshoot of Wilmiington Wine, hosting pop-up dinners and events. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — It’s been an inevitable progression, according to Wilmington Wine owner John Willse: to open a satellite kitchen and event space essentially expanding services he and his partner, Beth Guertin, have created at their quaint Castle Street wine shop.

At the beginning of the month, the pair opened Creative Tastings in the former Vientiane Kitchen space, a Laotian restaurant that operated a little more than a year before shuttering in November 2022. Before that it was home to The Hungry Sparrow, a Cuban eatery.

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Willse and Guertin had little work to do on the 3,000-square-foot building, aside from cosmetic upgrades, such as installing original art, like the metal dragon created by Doug Campbell hanging at the front counter. A fresh coat of paint brightens the space, as four-tops and two-tops can seat a little more than 30 people.

Located at 701 Castle St., the 88-year-old building has welcomed upward of 100 diners the last three weekends for Willse and Guertin’s pop-up dinners. The prix-fixe menus are $55 for five courses and change weekly.

“We’re calling it, broadly, a global culinary journey,” Willse said, though clarified, “it’s really Beth’s baby.”

Guertin, the chef in charge, has a proclivity for Asian-fusion flavors. She has been studying Korean food and culture for 20 years.

“I’m Korean and at birth, and I was brought here to America when I was 2 years old when I was adopted,” she said. 

Every bite is balanced. That’s what appeals to her about the style of food, which combines layers of spicy, savory and sweet. 

“So while there is a lot of red pepper, it also has brown sugar to balance it — and it’s not super hot,” Guertin explained.

John Willse and Beth Guertin of Creative Tastings. (Courtesy photo)

The first week Creative Tastings diners were treated to traditional Korean barbecue. Everyone sat in a family-style setting — tables pulled together to encourage engagement and chatter. 

“Asians in general are a familial culture,” Willse said. “And we are a familial culture at Wilmington Wines.”

Willse took over the operation in 2015 after working in fine-dining restaurants around the nation and even living in Thailand a few years to operate a business management consultancy firm. When he bought the wine shop, he added culinary events, such as client dinners, cheese pairings, even art lessons paired with wine that represents a particular region globally.

Yet, Wilmington Wine is only about 300 square feet.

“It’s not the biggest space in the world, but we make it work,” he said.

More added events and limited square footage became the genesis for Creative Tastings.

So far, Willse and Guertin have hosted three dinners, all well-received. The first weekend sold out. 

It included a starter of mandu, steamed vegetable dumplings, and kimbap — sticky rice rolled in seaweed with pickled vegetables and a barbecued meat (bulgogi).

“Kimbap is similar to sushi, except instead of using raw fish we use marinated beef,” Guertin said.

The second course consisted of braised pork belly lettuce wraps, with the main entrees including bulgogi and the assortment of “banchan,” or accoutrements of pickled items like kimchi and and other vegetables. It was served with bok choy, spinach salad, and pickled radish, along with braised potatoes and zucchini.

Beef and pork ribs also made an appearance, as well as the Korean noodle dish, japchae.

“It’s a glass noodle actually made out of sweet potato starch instead of wheat or rice,” Guertin explained.

The dinner was capped off with Dalgona coffee, a reverse latte. Milk is the basis but whipped espresso is added to it. Guertin also made red-bean profiteroles. 

“Red bean is really popular and a typical Korean dessert,” she explained. “They take adzuki beans and sweeten it and make a paste, which we stuffed into the pastry.”

The second weekend’s dinner was an Irish theme to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Guertin said Creative Tastings will have more specialty weekend dinners aside from only doing Asian fusion. She hopes to collaborate with guest chefs.

“So we may do a French dinner for Bastille Day,” she said, “or bring in somebody to do Italian.”

The dinners are bring-your-own-bottle currently, but of course with Wilmington Wine only a block away at 605 Castle St., the goal is to have customers stop by on the way to a Creative Tastings dinner. A curated sip can be provided for the courses.

Willse, who also is the acting president of Castle Street Collective, said the goal is for the two operations to be symbiotic and remain community-focused. 

“We’re Castle Street-driven and we kind of do everything with that in mind,” he said, adding even the china purchased for the restaurant came from nearby neighboring business the Mission.

When not hosting dinners on weekends, Willse plans to rent the Creative Tastings space. He also said Wilmington Wine clients can choose to host wine dinners there instead of having the couple, Willse and Guertin, cook and present at one’s home.

While the passion of Creative Tastings is at its core wine and food, it goes beyond the typical pairings.

“Beth is also a phenomenal artist,” Willse said.

She created the imagery that is showcased in the windows and on the walls at both Wilmington Wine and Creative Tastings. Guertin received her master’s in history from UNCW, as well as bachelor’s in studio art and art history at UNCW, having specialized in Asian art and architecture.

She will begin teaching art classes likely by summer as well at the corner of Seventh and Castle. Unlike the copycat picture-painting business model that some wine and art businesses have, Guertin said the goal at Creative Tastings is to teach people about art history and let them explore their own creativity.

“It’s not just copying a picture we have done,” she said. “We explain the style and its origins and some of the famous well-known artists that you can refer to, to look at their work. And then we teach you a technique in it, give you the materials, and guide you, but you’re doing your own original creative piece. And we pair wine from the region. So if we choose to cover German expressionism, we would pair it with a German riesling.”

Tickets to Creative Tastings weekend dinners are limited and can be purchased here; however, menus aren’t revealed ahead of time. It adds to the fun of the business model’s culinary exploration, Willse said. 

“Probably next month, I’ll be incorporating brunch into the equation on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he said.

Doug Campbell’s metal dragon installed at the Creative Tastings counter. (Courtesy photo)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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