Note: You are not at the wrong post/timeline. We are posting our seefare articles when we have the chance so while we were in some of these locations some time ago, the good food and experiences we had are worth telling about.
As we eased into Belhaven, NC and pulled into our slip at River Forest Manor and Marina we were greeted by the dockhand Josh. He couldn’t have been more polite and friendly. Is it just Southern charm? Who cares what you call it, it’s just nice to arrive and have the people taking your lines seem like they enjoy what they do and the people they meet. As he ticked off the short list of what to do around town he explained to us that during slow season the restaurants take turns being open during the week so that they don’t take customers from each other when there’s a limited amount of business to be done. It’s quite civilized. As luck would have it, Josh stated enthusiastically, Spoon River – the one restaurant we had read great reviews about before arriving – was the restaurant open during our one night stay. It was not to be missed, he continued, “truly first class but not pretentious, you can go as casual as you want,” they serve fresh local oysters – “as a matter of fact, the owner gets them from my friend and they don’t get any better.” They also have fresh seafood and local beef and are farm to table, featuring local produce. “One thing is for sure, I promise you will not be disappointed,” he smiled. The marina offers courtesy golf carts to take into town, so how could we say no?!
What is it about golf carts that make grown men act like little boys? Rhetorical question, of course. And, it’s not like we didn’t spend the day driving a very large piece of machinery… The evening took on a chill pretty quickly so we bundled up and headed off to what we hoped would be the first class evening we had been promised. As we zipped down the quaint, unlit street in our open-air vessel we were giddy with excitement. Giddy is an odd word to use for three guys, but we were cold, thirsty, hungry and loving the golf cart so maybe I meant giddy-up!
There’s a boater’s saying — only approach the dock as fast as you are willing to hit the dock. The same applies to golf carts and curbs. There’s also a saying that where you eat affects how you eat…and we were in for a treat. As we gently pulled up to the restaurant it had a welcoming glow about it.
This old building with her high, tin ceilings and great old bones had been decorated meticulously with an elegant, slightly whimsical and almost magical touch that the daylight didn’t give justice to. It felt like a perfectly procured movie set and those inside dining looked as if they had been hired by central casting. A long table was filled with what looked like watermen, with ball caps and stocking caps and work boots and beards. White linen napkins on laps, their table was cluttered with martini glasses and wine glasses and cocktail glasses and empty plates of appetizers. Off in another quaint corner, a group dressed to the nines looking as if they were celebrating a special occasion. Beyond them, a table of three who were our dock mates from River Forest Marina, a fun and fine bunch of fellas. It was a place for people of all makes and styles and the kind of place that had a special buzz about it.
We were seated immediately by a woman who looked as if she had stepped off the pages of a Ralph Lauren ad with her crisp white shirt beneath a tattersall plaid, form-fitting riding jacket and riding pants tucked into brown leather boots. Yes, we were impressed and yes I had to look up tattersall plaid. She immediately made us feel like we had met before and were just becoming old friends. She introduced herself as one of the owners and if there was anything we needed please just ask. She slipped away for a moment and then quickly returned with warm bread and our server, Lori.
Lori was warm and gracious and gave us excellent advice on what cocktails to order. She was a particular fan of the Wasabi Dirty Martini — made with Tito’s Vodka, olive juice, wasabi powder and blue cheese olives and shaken well. The flavors melded wonderfully and after one sip it was a new favorite for A.J. Paul went with the Red Safire martini made with St. Germaine (an artisanal liqueur from France made from the elderflower), Bombay Gin and pomegranate juice, shaken and served. As our resident gin lizzie, Paul really enjoyed it. I went with something that my mother would say matched my personality, a Stubborn Mule, made with North Carolina Defiant American Single Malt Whiskey (gotta try the local goods!), orange liqueur, candied orange rind and ginger puree served over ice with an orange slice. It suited me quite well. They have a great mixologist and the choice of cocktails evolves with the seasons and the availability of fresh ingredients for drinks that feature herb infusions.
We paired our cocktails with fresh, local oysters and we were not disappointed. All you have to do is look at the picture, it was a piece of art and without doubt, one of the nicest presentations of oysters we’ve ever seen.
The oysters lay on a bed of shredded and sliced cucumber, local greens, fresh rosemary and thyme and a pile of bright, yellow lemons. They were served with five (yes, five!) different types of sauces (though they needed none) — a cherry and pineapple chutney, a dark sauce (a secret recipe we were told), fluffy, whipped wasabi cream, a tangy aioli and a sweet and sour cocktail sauce. We each tried one oyster as purists with nothing on it, and then tried each sauce to understand what it would add. We really enjoyed the unique flavors that they brought to the fresh oysters.
The menu, simple 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of paper, offered five apps, nine entrees and a feature (special) with straightforward descriptions. There was nothing pretentious about it and as Lori explained, there was something for everyone and the farm to fork concept of locally sourced ingredients made each dish special.
Throughout our entire experience Teresa kept popping by our table to check on us and when our entrees were served she breezed back around to present them. I chose the feature of the night, which was fresh, local ahi tuna seared to perfection on a bed of braised, local greens served on top of penne pasta, pan tossed with white truffle oil, fresh parmesan, sea salt and cracked pepper. I’ve not had a pasta and fish combination before and it was the crisp greens that created a nice balance between the tender fish and the al dente pasta. The truffle oil with its earthy mushroom flavors and the fresh parm and its umami flavors made this dish nicely layered. Sidebar for a moment: “Umami” is a Japanese word and is one of the five basic tastes (along with sweet, sour, salty, bitter) and it means savory.
A.J. was looking to put a little South in his mouth so he chose North Carolina Black Drum Fish, Imperial Style. The pan-fried Black Drum Fish had a sweet, mild flavor and was firm with large moist flakes. The Imperial Style sauce (a classic mayo-based sauce) used in Captain Neil’s fresh local crab meat was light with a hint of lemon. Both were served over brown rice and with roasted, seasonal local vegetables and layered with a champagne beurre blanc sauce (a French sauce made by gradually whisking cold butter into a champagne reduction). A.J. is not one for heavy, saucy meals and this entree was seemingly both. However, the sweetness of the crab and the fish, the crisp, earthy vegetables and the perfectly prepared beurre blanc sauce worked harmoniously to keep this rich dish balanced.
Paul decided to forgo the seafood which had been his staple the entire trip and go for the Wet Aged Filet with Red Bliss Mashed Potatoes, Seasonal Local Vegetables, and Forrest Mushroom Demi. A wet aged steak has been vacuum sealed and aged for 28 days, marinating in its own juices to make it tender. It was the most tender filet Paul has ever had with a more complex flavor and excellent texture. The mushroom demi was a classic glaze with a robust mushroom flavor, a hint of shallot and sherry and an almost indiscernible end note of lemon. The red bliss potatoes were properly mashed, not creamed and they soaked up the glaze beautifully. The roasted, seasonal local vegetables were savory and perfectly cooked.
All of the dishes were served on a bed of local greens, shredded carrots and cabbage which added to the colorful palettes of these masterpieces. After the delicious meal, we were offered some tempting dessert options but we were full and fulfilled. Teresa wouldn’t take no for an answer and treated us to what I can only describe as complete chocolate decadence with local ice cream, pecans and chocolate and caramel drizzle, paired with a carafe of Chamborg and three glasses of St. Hilaire Limoux Blanc de Blanc Brut, a sparkling wine from Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon, France, to toast the evening. If you are looking for a very affordable but enjoyable bubbly, this is a fine choice.
We asked her to join us but she was quickly off to tend to other lucky guests. As we sat and polished off what we didn’t think we could even eat, we realized that the place had emptied and most of the tables had been cleared. We gathered our things and asked Diane if she could find Teresa so we could thank her, and Teresa came back with a bottle of sparkling wine saying that she hated to leave a bottle open and would we share one more toast with her. She was engaging and inspiring and her desire and vision to create something special in a small town was admirable…and she and her husband are doing it. It was such an excellent night that we were beginning to think maybe we’d crashed the golf cart and were all unconscious in a state of collective euphoria!
Of all the places we have been, the food at Spoon River rates at the very top of our list, along with the service and the ambiance which was extraordinary. Thank you Josh, you were right, our experience was truly first class. Until we eat again, Slainté ! — The Admiral