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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Smoke on the Water closing? Nope, to reopen with new menu, leadership 

Smoke on the Water owner Allan Middleton has brought in a new partner to help oversee operations at Smoke on the Water after his former business partner, James Smith, passed away last August. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Though a sign on the Smoke on the Water door notes “closed,” it isn’t a permanent fixture.

READ MORE: ‘A man of character’: Family, friends mourn loss of local restaurateur James Smith

On Monday, the restaurant announced it’s enduring a rebirth of sorts, with a new menu to boot and new leadership. 

“I’m excited,” Pine Valley Market owner and now Smoke partner Christi Ferretti said.  “This transition is not going to be a light switch, but I know, once we get our feet under us, we’ll get there. We have a good team and we have a tremendous space.” 

Ferretti was brought in by Smoke owner Allan Middleton, a local real estate agent; he formerly owned and operated Robert’s Grocery in Wrightsville Beach before selling the market a few years ago. Middleton has owned the Riverlights’ restaurant since 2016 when he opened it with James Smith. 

Grouper was served as fresh catch of the day recently at Smoke on the Water. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“I was such a big fan of James’ food,” Middleton said Tuesday, adding he wanted to open a location with Smith for years but the timing never panned out until the Riverlights’ restaurant was presented.

More of a silent investor, Middleton said Smith was always the face of the eatery. He focused the Smoke menu on barbecued meats and some seafood dishes. But Smith’s unexpected passing last summer left a hole in leadership; the restaurateur willed his Fork n Cork brand to his family and Smoke became solely Middleton’s. 

With son Maxx, Middleton said the two put on an apron and immersed themselves into the restaurant business over the last nine months to fill in the gaps. The only problem: They had little experience in the industry.

“We barely knew how to boil water,” Middleton quipped, “but we are foodies who appreciate a good meal.” 

“It’s been a learning experience, for sure,” Maxx said. “It’s not an easy business.”

The open-air eatery, which seats roughly 125 people, overlooks the Cape Fear River and has a solid following, particularly in the Riverlights community. Ferretti wants it to become a destination for everyone looking for a place to grab a bite, a drink and enjoy camaraderie.

Its beloved outdoor deck, with garage doors and vinyl windows fully opening, blur the lines between an indoor and outdoor dining experience. Colorful sunsets are often soundtracked by local musicians performing.

Maxx already took the lead to implement a few changes during the down season. For instance, the outdoor deck, with its fire pit and Adirondack chairs, now has a third bar and cushy lounge seating going into summer. It’s something Middleton said he wished he built on years ago, as it prompts more convivial gatherings.

“But we really wanted Smoke to become more than just a destination for great sunsets,” Middleton said.

Enter Ferretti.

Middleton met her years ago, as his family often frequents Pine Valley Market on College Road. Alongside being a lunch spot, PVM has a vast catering business. For more than two decades, Ferretti has done hundreds of weddings, corporate functions, and fundraisers, oftentimes for upward of 500 people.

“I was always so impressed with her food and tenacity,” Middleton said, questioning how many chefs can just pick up a phone to call industry stars like Jose Andres, Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay.  

Ferretti has helped oversee charity functions for GLOW Academy, which brings in Food Network stars annually. She also has worked with World Central Kitchen, founded by Andres, during its two stints providing meals to people in Wilmington affected by hurricanes Florence and Dorian.

Middleton said he was gun shy at first in reaching out to Ferretti about partnering in the business. But he saw vast potential to grow the restaurant and desired someone with more experience to take the helm.

“And her passion is evident,” he said.

In January, Ferretti began visiting the restaurant to consult. Slowly since, menu options have changed and policies refined. 

Shrimp and avocado tostado. (Port City Daliy/Shea Carver)

With it has come some hard decisions, too. Monday, they had to execute layoffs, roughly 20%. Both Ferretti and Middleton said it was tough having to let go of 10 people — a mix of both front- and back-of-the-house. The restaurant employs 50 still, and regulars will recognize familiar faces, such as manager Sydney Hansen

“She is a godsend,” Ferretti said.

A few new faces have been brought in to help with front-of-the-house as well. Ferretti asked Khristen Hunter — who replaced the Burgaw Own Your Own restaurant winner Karoline Schwartz after she stepped away from the win in January — to home in on hospitality and guest services. The two met during last year’s restaurant competition, as Ferretti was a judge.

“I was always really impressed with her skill set,” Ferretti said, noting Hunter is only on loan as she works to get her restaurant open, still a year out. “She’s super positive, she’s super high energy and very attentive to customer service.”

Hunter is helping elevate the dining experience. The long-term goal, once she exits, is to either hire someone Hunter can train or promote within, according to Ferretti.

“We’ll need a little grace to get through the transition, especially with training new people and policy changes — trying out how to do things better to become more efficient,” she said.

To help with the back-of-the-house, Ferretti reached out to long-time friend and Wilmington chef Jessica Cabo to consult in the kitchen and revise items. Smoke’s executive chef Ken Hanson still is onboard. 

“I’m just here to reinspire since James passed away,” Cabo said. “This is a great crew, who take a lot of pride here.” 

Ferretti and Cabo met more than a decade ago and worked together when Ferretti managed Cafe Johnnie in Cameron Art Museum 12 years ago, before it became CAM Café. Cabo oversaw CAM before moving to Blockade Runner as head chef. She’s been consulting since exiting there last year.

Smoked burnt ends. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Jess is here to identify issues and give the team direction,” Ferretti said, adding the kitchen footprint is small and requires adjustments. “And she is known for her approach to fresh and light food, something I wanted to see more of as we adjusted the menu.” 

Cabo has centered her attention on fresh seafood over frozen, to align with the coastal offerings in the southeastern North Carolina region.

“The ‘smoke’ part was already covered in the restaurant’s menu,” she said, “but I wanted to add more to the ‘water’ part.”

The menu is broken down to feature each.

Diners will still recognize the steamer pot (clams, oysters, shrimp), oysters on the half shell, and peel-and-eat shrimp. However, the shrimp is coming from North Carolina now and the oysters are brought in from multiple places besides just Stump Sound, such as Dukes of Topsail and Momma Mia.

Local vendors include Inland Seafood and Seaview, as well as area farmers to procure local produce, such as Red Beard Farms, Old Heritage Farms and others.

A new smoked fish dip recipe has been added. Cabo soaks the fish in a wet brine — salt, peppercorns, lemon zest, brown sugar — before smoking it. 

Smoked fish dip. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“From there I add as little as possible, except for yogurt, sour cream, mayo and lime zest,” she said.

Cabo also has tweaked sandwiches and entrees; one includes a fresh catch of the day. Three weeks ago, during a sneak peek of the menu with friends and family, it consisted of grouper. The dish was served with pureed parsnip, beets, sugar snap peas and a chimichurri sauce.

The setup of the dish will change daily according to the fish. 

Grilled shrimp and an avocado tostada has also been revamped from Smoke’s previous nachos. A simpler handheld, it saves the kitchen crew five minutes per dish — a lot of time when bustling through a full house of guests.

“They were dressing each singular tortilla chip with ingredients and a standup shrimp, which was beautiful but not functional,” Ferretti said. 

The tostada’s earthy flavor of the avocado and succulent charred shrimp is a complementary pairing to one of Smoke’s most unique drinks: coconut margarita. The sipper has all flavor profiles to satisfy the palate: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

The drink menu will remain the same for now, Ferretti said, and continue to include the restaurant’s famed smoked Manhattan, a suggested pairing with the new burnt ends appetizer.

“That’s my favorite,” Middleton said.

The burnt ends have replaced the brisket sandwich, though the restaurant’s beloved pulled pork sandwich and burger remain, the latter also topped with a new slather of flavor. 

“Rather than a Comeback sauce, we added in the smoked barbecue sauce to pickles, roasted garlic and mayo to top the burger,” Cabo explained.

Wings doused in an Asian sauce. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Another restaurant staple comes in the wings, one of Ferretti’s favorites. They’re smoked, flash-fried and doused in one of three sauces — two of which are Smith’s creations, the Buffalo and smoked jalapeno. Cabo has devised one that has Asian flair, a sweet-and-spicy Sunset Sauce.

“The texture is awesome because you get that really soft, sweet meat on the inside but frying them gives a crispiness on the outside,” Ferretti explained. 

Middleton also praised the dressing served with them. Half of the blue cheese is smoked in-house and added to regular crumbles and yogurt for a creamy, less pungent take. 

“We’re not redoing everything here,” Cabo said, “just giving it, you know, a little uplift.”

The menu has slowly been rolling out over the last few weeks and feedback has been positive so far, both Middleton and Ferretti said. They’ve noticed an increase in sales particularly on raw oysters, whereas before the steamed ones normally took priority.

The new menu will debut at the soft opening Wednesday with family and friends; Smoke opens to the public again Thursday. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday for dinner at 4 p.m., though the restaurant is booked for a private party this Friday. It opens weekends for lunch at 11 a.m. and live music is going to remain a part of its operations as well —  offered Tuesday, Thursday, some Saturdays, and Sunday. 

Smoke on the Water new menu. (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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