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Thursday, May 23, 2024

In a crowded downtown scene, Dram + Morsel embraces an evolving identity


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The large dining table embodies the spirit of Dram + Morsel, according to Operations Manager Nick White. “This can be for large parties, or it can bring smaller groups together to meet and mingle. It’s exactly what’s summed up in the words on our menu. Imbibe, indulge, interact, share.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON – In the crowded downtown bar and restaurant scene, many businesses struggle to create an identity for themselves. Dram + Morsel is taking a different approach to the problem, letting its identity evolve.

“We’ve only been open a few weeks, and we don’t know exactly what this place will be,” Operations Manager Nick White told Port City Daily. “We’re looking forward to finding that out over the coming weeks and months.”

White, who previously managed the Balcony, the event space on the historic Roudabush building’s third floor, said that a lot of thought went into the space. White said that owners Justin Smith and Gil Johnson wanted to create a distinct “lounge” experience, but also wanted to leave room for the place to grow.

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“You’re sitting on couches and easy chairs,” said White. “So we’re obviously not rushing you through a meal – or through your night.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“You can’t cram things down people’s throat, you have to let them discover it themselves,” White said “One thing we knew we did want was the lounge feel. It’s something downtown doesn’t really have, and it’s a very different atmosphere than most bars. I think that the lounge experience is something Wilmington is ready for, but nothing something they’re really aware of. It’s kind of the thing you don’t know you’re missing, until you see it.”

White described the lounge setting as “like the lobby of a high-end metropolitan hotel.” The goal was to create a space that was “quiet enough for a business meeting, happening enough for groups of people to come out and enjoy themselves. We don’t know exactly how people will take advantage of the space.”

While White and the owners, who also run Yosake and the Husk on the second and ground floor, put a lot of thought into creating a particular mood at Dram + Morsel, White said there was still a lot of debate. One major question: did Wilmington need another bar?

“That was not a short conversation,” White said. “Collectively we’ve got a lot of experience, at least enough to know that this could be a big risk. We knew that couldn’t force this space to be something people didn’t respond to. So, we’re just letting it evolve.”

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“We’ve been lucky to have some people on our staff who’ve served drinks in metropolitan cities where mixology has really taken off,” White said. “If we’re going to have a bar, we felt it should be a really good bar.” Dram + Morsel’s bar and dining table were built in Wilmington by Dvorak Design and The Final Cut.  (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)


Co-owner Gil Johnson said that the planning of Dram + Morsel took a long time. “It’s kind of all of our baby,” Johnson said of the collaboration, which took a year to lay out everything from the menu to the local artwork. “We looked for pieces that supported the mood without imposing themselves.”

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“The wall sconces are pizza pans,” Johson said. “Though you’d never know.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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“We had these made for us in Asheville. We liked the look, and it throws off the perfect level of light,” Johnson told Port City Daily.

“This is stuff we’ve collected,” Johnson said. “It’s stuff we’ve bought at auction, or found, or had made for us. The tables and bar we had made custom. But we were pretty picky, trying to find just the right kind of thing for this space. A lot of this has been in storage at my house for a year.”

Johnson and White were both excited about the menu at Dram + Morsel. White said, “it’s a little less of a traditional approach. We have a chef, kind of the house chef for the building. So he has supervised a little. But mostly we have three up-and-coming cooks who are now our chefs. We’ve pretty much taken the reins off them and let them loose.”

The spirit of open-ended exploration carries into the kitchen, according to Justin Carr, executive chef of Dram + Morsel. Carr said, “this isn’t anything we’ve cooked before. It’s all new dishes. We’re interested in seasonal and local, of course. But we’re going for outside the box, going for stuff you haven’t seen before.”

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Executive Chef Justin Carr (right) and Chef Nick Votel (left).

Chef Mitch Jones described the process.

“I had like one wild night of brainstorming, all the things I’d never cooked before but really wanted to try,” he said. “We knew we wanted smaller plates, and to keep the prices on the reasonable side so people wouldn’t be scared off from trying a bunch of things. But beyond that there were really no limits. So, then we just got to work.”

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Chef Votel (left) and Chef Mitch Jones (right). “Mitch is the less handsome one,” said Votel. “Not that he’s not handsome. Just, of the two of us, he’s slightly less handsome.”

From the kitchen, Chef Nick Votel – who was hard at work preparing sauces – noted that, despite the intensive work developing their current menu, the kitchen is open as the bar and lounge area to an evolving identity.

“We’re really proud of this menu and that we were able to come together and meld our styles. We worked through like 10 different menus. But truth is, we’re already looking forward to the next menu,” he said. “After we see what works, what people like. The next one, if anything, it will be tighter, a little more unified.”

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Dram + Morsel is located on the third floor of the Roudabush building on the corner of S. Front St. and Dock St. The restaurant and bar is open Thursday through Sunday, 5 p.m. – 2 a.m. and can be reached at (910) 833-5999. Below: a sampling of the food at Dram + Morsel.

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Captain’s Choice – Pinner Pale Ale-battered Vermillion Snapper, lemon-caper-dill aioli, potato sticks, chive. $12
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‘Taste the Rainbow’ – Yellow & red beet goat cheese terrine with beet paint, smoked salt, pickled mustard seed. $8
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‘Ebony and Orangey’ – Crème brûlée duo, orange cream and mint chocolate, with hand-whipped cream. $6
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‘Mushroom Trip’ – Truffled Portobello mushroom tartare with chickpea puree, endive scoops. $10
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‘Meat Pie’ – Seared Filet Mignon, smoked carrot puree, confit cippolini onions, pickled celery, red wine demi, puff pastry. $14

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