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A food lovers' guide to the Outer Banks 

New trends in marine cuisine transform beachside dining

If you haven't been to the Outer Banks recently, here's what you've missed: the successful return of sweet bay scallops to Carolina aquaculture; the launching of a cooking school in Manteo; the rise of a top-notch gourmet fish market; the locavore overhaul of the islands' most luxe resort; neighborhood bistros and funky bars focusing on fresh, local seafood with inventive seasonal menus; the cheery arrival of Southern California spa food; Slow Food-style tours to crab shedders and fishing docks; and a 14-acre farm providing sustainable produce for the islands' eateries.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of food lovers converged on Manteo, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck to celebrate the seafood scene at a four-day event called Taste of the Beach, which featured more than 40 dinners, tastings, cooking classes, demonstrations and tours.

If you didn't make it to the festival, don't worry—the Indy went for you, identifying countless ways to approach and appreciate fish and shellfish in the Outer Banks all year long. With our guide in hand, go assemble your own food festival, in your own good time.

Serve it up

Rules of the road

Here are a few hints to help you navigate to and from the wide variety of eateries that populate the Outer Banks, including 180 in Dare County alone.

  • Mile markers are useful in Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, since the towns blur into one another. Mile Post (MP) 2 is at the north end of Kitty Hawk; MP 16 is at the south end of Nags Head. The turn-off to the far-north communities of Southern Shores, Duck and Corolla occurs at MP 2. The turn-off toward Manteo occurs at MP 16, after which you'll cross a bridge and follow the signs.

  • Croatan Highway ("the big road") is the main five-lane drag through Nags Head up to Kitty Hawk; that's where you'll find Food Lion, Dairy Queen, movie theaters, pancake houses, etc. Parallel to it, a few blocks east, is Virginia Dare Trail ("the beach road"), which is the narrow, mostly residential oceanfront road. Do pay attention to whether numbered addresses say north or south. Duck has only one main two-lane road; Manteo has both a main drag (Highway 64 business) and a historic waterfront road (Queen Elizabeth Street).

  • Many places are open seasonally, so if it's not summer, call first; the rule seems to be that most close at least January and February, and many have limited hours October through April.
—Jane Hobson Snyder

Ben Sproul, president of the Dare County Restaurant Association, is a lifelong surfer with sun-bleached hair, a hearty laugh and a mind that loves spreadsheets almost as much as waves. In his role as spokesman for his industry, he talks about countering "push-back," reaching "early adopters" and "doubling last year's numbers."

It was Sproul's idea to change the association's annual $15 "booze party" that had "gone on autopilot for 20 years" into a $40 evening exposition to showcase Dare County's wide range of places to eat. This year, Taste of the Beach 2009 started at 9 a.m. on Thursday and ended at 9 p.m. on Sunday.

The association brought real estate agents on board to offer Thursday-Sunday stays in homes that usually rent only weekly. They also won a grant from the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau to promote the festival statewide: "We did all the big newspapers in Richmond, the Tidewater, Raleigh, Triangle, and radio, TV, Internet advertising," explains Sproul.

The result? The expo on Sunday sold out, at 400 tickets. The cooking classes all sold out, as did tapas crawls in Duck and Manteo, and pretty much anything having to do with oysters—shucking, eating, steaming, slurping.

"That's what I thought Taste of the Beach should be about: learn a little something, eat a little something," says Sproul, modestly.

When he's not planning major festivals, Sproul is co-owner of The Pit (Mile Post 9 on the big road; see "Rules of the road" at right for navigation tips) in Kill Devil Hills, which includes a cozy upstairs bar/grill, a downstairs music venue, and a surf shop in back. It's best known for $1 Taco Tuesdays, a local favorite; last July, they sold 1,700 tacos in one day.

The menu at The Pit is eclectic pub-grub, with overtones of surfer-dude: the "S-Turns" wrap, the "Jammin' Jamaican" and the "Banzai Burger" are all $8 and under. Don't let the beach-bum vibe scare you off: Once you're settled with a beer and a quesadilla (try jerk chicken with pineapple), gaze at the photos of local waveriders or the funky surfboards (painted by Sproul), and you'll feel your cares float off like driftwood.

Just north of the Pit is the Kill Devil Grill (MP 9.75 on the beach road), open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. An old diner car from the 1950s, it was relocated from Richmond and is still going strong. It's advertised as "one of only six diners listed in the National Register of Historic Places," and the bar area with leather swivel-stools and shiny chrome trim has been left essentially untouched, including the picturesque jukeboxes.

It may qualify for historic-diner status, but the food is way better, thanks to the oversight of owner Bill Tucker. A bowl of baby arugula with fried-green-tomato croutons and homemade remoulade was topped with a crabcake so hearty any salad-eater should feel ashamed. ("They're 3.5 ounces each—we weigh them before we bread them!" promises bartender Jason Worthy). A fish sandwich made with fried local flounder achieved a nirvanic balance of crunch and flake, even if it needed a shake of salt. But the salt & pepper fries were perfectly seasoned, providing reassurance that maybe it is a diner after all.

The Ocean Boulevard Bistro & Martini Bar (MP 2.5 on the beach road) in Kitty Hawk is a jewel of a place. With art-deco flair and deep sapphire accents, it's a welcome hideaway from the tourist traps and knickknack shops leering a few blocks inland. Set in a residential area, it keeps a homey feel, the kind of place you'd aim to wear a pretty dress but not fret if you forgot to brush sand from your toes.

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Chef Donny King of Ocean Boulevard Bistro & Martini Bar in Kitty Hawk entered his Tuscan Clams and Shrimp Chowder in the chowder cook-off at the annual Taste of the Beach festival on the Outer Banks earlier this month. - PHOTO BY BRETT A. CLARK
  • Photo by Brett A. Clark
  • Click for larger image • Chef Donny King of Ocean Boulevard Bistro & Martini Bar in Kitty Hawk entered his Tuscan Clams and Shrimp Chowder in the chowder cook-off at the annual Taste of the Beach festival on the Outer Banks earlier this month.

Chef/proprietor Donny King is a big advocate of local sourcing: "We use a fisherman out of Stumpy Point. We like dealing with the local guys—for one, they're our neighbors!"

King genuinely seems to relish his neighbors. He powers about the place, talking to regulars, meeting newcomers. He's proud of having won the local chowder cook-off last year: His impressive entry featured saffron-accented clams and mussels, smoked paprika oil and roasted potatoes—which gives you some idea of his nightly menu.

Offerings change seasonally, but emphasis is on fresh Carolina fare like an entrée of pan-fried catfish with blackened oysters, braised collards, lemon aioli and smoked peanuts; or pan-roasted duck breast with whipped butternut squash, honey-roasted parsnips, scuppernong wine beurre blanc and preserved figs. Entrées are in the mid-$20s; salads and most starters are under $10. A vegetarian menu is available.

Though Ocean Boulevard Bistro is not ideal for young 'uns, older kids may enjoy sitting on the patio, where they'd rather watch the occasional swimsuit-clad pedestrian than talk to you anyway. (Those who prefer their action inside, call to reserve the popular four-seat bar that's an open window on the kitchen.) Dinner is served seven nights a week starting at 5 p.m., and on Fridays the live music goes till 1:30 a.m.

Lox aside, who wants fish for breakfast? For a quick eye-opener near MP 2 on the beach road, grab a little made-to-order sin from Duck Donuts. They arrive "bare" out of the oven; you select a coating, which is sprinkled/ poured/ shaken before your eyes. Some of the 11 options are shredded coconut, maple icing, good-old glaze and (hands-down favorite) cinnamon sugar. With three locations—in Duck, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk—Duck Donuts is open every day at 7 a.m., seasonally.

If you haven't been to Manteo yet, it's worth taking an afternoon. Located approximately 10 minutes west of Nags Head, you'll find the closest thing to a historic village north of Beaufort, with the picturesque shops and storefronts you'd expect from a town with a 16th-century replica ship in the harbor.

Manteo's Full Moon Cafe is perfect for a lunchtime wrap or slice of quiche, or for wine and pasta in the evening. It holds a prime spot on the waterfront road. If you're asked to wait for a table, stroll through the adjoining art gallery.

Click for larger image • Patrons fill the dining room at the Full Moon Cafe in Manteo during the Tapas Crawl, part of an annual four-day festival celebrating Outer Banks dining. - PHOTO BY BRETT A. CLARK

Just up the block, on Sir Walter Raleigh Street, is Ortega'z Southwestern Grill and Wine Bar, only 18 months old but already stealing the heart of many a local. Lisa and Marcelo Ortega's small-plate offerings make superb use of their cumulative experience in Northern California and Chile. Light and flavorful cremini mushrooms are battered in Bare Knuckle Stout and dipped in housemade barbecue ranch; bison is braised and skewered over rice; tequila-lime tuna is barely, lovingly seared; and the highfalutin' second cousin of a Duck doughnut (a delicate apple-cinnamon churro) finishes things up just right. Doesn't really feel like you're on the coast, but you can't eat seafood every night. Might as well sit at a stainless-steel bar watching televised bullriding.

Get some class

With the energy, connections and determination of a cruise director, Amy Huggins is just begging to plan a seafood adventure that your family will never forget. As owner of Outer Banks Epicurean, she provides cooking classes, in-home demonstrations and food-based tours from Corolla to Ocracoke.

Not only are there weekly summertime cooking classes in Southern Shores, there's an "OBX Vacation Memory Cooking Lesson," intended for six to eight people. For $395, she'll bring the ingredients to your house, teach an impromptu cooking class, feed you a three-course feast, and even tidy the kitchen, leaving you with recipes to keep. (Some of the bookings can get pretty elaborate: "We have one teacher that's really into French cooking and knows all about shellfish. He can teach classes all in French, if you want!")

Beyond cooking, there are seemingly infinite ways to customize a tour.

"We do a soft-shell-crab tour in season, coming up the end of April and May. We can take you back to Colington, see the shedders, see why the light shines so bright for 24 hours a day, take a boat ride—we have access to some really cool historic boats down in Wanchese—then come back and teach you how to cook some soft shells."

Interested in a choose-your-own-seafood tour? Tuna will be running almost all year long, shrimp (called "greentails") in the summer and fall, and blue crabs and clams all summer.

Huggins is passionate about the Slow Food/ Slow Fish movements, and applies their tenets to her tours and classes, which are heavy on education. It's no wonder, since she also directs the Small Business Center at Manteo's College of the Albemarle. The college now offers a culinary curriculum, and the Manteo campus just acquired the professional kitchens of a former public school. A new cooking program, outside the culinary curriculum, is also being developed: Curious home cooks and summer vacationers will enjoy continuing education, while those hoping to find work in one of the Outer Banks' 180 restaurants will master commercial skills.

Click for larger image • Amy Huggins of Outer Banks Epicurean teaches cooking classes to culinary students and curious tourists. - PHOTO BY BRETT A. CLARK

"We have such a seafood tradition here. The crab pots in the yards—that becomes part of your vernacular and your daily conversations about what's being caught, and what's high tide, and what are the winds. You can't help but become a part of it.

"It's our dream to make a seafood center in Hatteras, where we could bring in students from all the best culinary institutions in the world and teach them about fish in the Outer Banks. They could learn to catch them and cook them. We could have a world-class center."

Huggins has agreed to share recipes from this year's Taste of the Beach classes.

Pack it up

Whether your day's ambition is to snuggle under the Kitty Hawk pier, go birding down at Pea Island, yacht-watch at the docks, or just sprawl on your own sundeck, you can never go wrong with a blue sky and a picnic.

Fortunately, Washington, D.C., chefs Scott Foster and Dan Lewis have abandoned big-city life to open the North Outer Banks' only gourmet market, Coastal Provisions (1 Ocean Blvd., Southern Shores). With carefully prepared foods like bisque, sandwiches and crabcakes and fine packaged goods like wine, cheese and bread, the market's crowning glory is an 8-foot seafood counter with a pristine selection of local catch. (Recently, a lovely rosy-red, sashimi-grade tuna loin was priced at a very attractive $8.99/pound.)

No meal is complete without chocolate, and if you can picnic out of the heat, you'd be remiss not to include Coastal Provisions' outstanding chocolate pavé, which is akin to a flourless cake (theirs has a nip of brandy, for complexity of course).

Chef Lewis shares his pavé recipe with readers.

Go to the source

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Kill Devil Grill's fish sandwich platter features N.C. flounder and salt-and-pepper fries. - PHOTO BY JANE HOBSON SNYDER

Want to see where your seafood and produce comes from? Since the Outer Banks is pretty geographically condensed, it's easy to do, and makes for a good field trip when you want a day off from sunbathing.

The Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park, on the southern end of Roanoke Island, represents the heart of the fishing industry for much of the East Coast. The colossal operation includes related industries from boat building to trucking, fisheries to charters. It's an impressive way to see where our seafood is coming from, and how it's packed out for points unknown.

Businesses like the Broad Creek Fishing Center welcome tourists, whether for chartering boats, buying the day's catch, or just nosing about. If you're around when the commercial fishermen come back in, watch them show off their largest catch of the day, or check out the open-market style fish cleaning station where the cutters clean the charter boats' catch. Or just walk the grounds, where you can see the Bodie Island Light House and maybe a little wildlife.

While you're in Wanchese, pick up something for dinner: Some die-hard locals swear by O'Neal's Seafood Harvest.

Seems like everyone's got a place at the beach these days—even vegetables (after all, a fish taco wouldn't be much fun without them). The Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, across the narrow Currituck Sound from Duck, is a fully integrated organic and bio-dynamic 14-acre farm, with a butchery, smokehouse, brewery and a restaurant. Its mission is "to reduce the food chain from 2,000 miles to 200 miles, to produce healthy chemical-free food, to support local sustainable farms and to reduce the import of processed and frozen food."

Though its beloved Manteo outpost has closed, Uli Bennewitz's farm continues to supply several Outer Banks restaurants with produce, sausage and craft-brewed beer.

"Uli does stuff there that's on the forefront, it's what's going to happen. Like with his beer bottles, he doesn't recycle, he reuses them, which is huge," says the Sanderling Resort's Executive Chef Joshua Hollinger, who is on the forefront of the OBX locavore trend (see "Sanderling chef brings locavore approach to the beach").

Tour the whole farm Wednesdays at noon; the restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner, and the brewery for self-guided tours.

Nourish the body

Start up the narrow road to Duck from Kitty Hawk and you feel a palpable change in the air. Is it ... money? Whatever it is, the sidewalk looks groomed and the neon signs have disappeared. The architecture has clean lines, with blue-gray cedar shakes and earth-tones. It feels like the Hamptons: no conspicuous consumption, every structure blending judiciously into the landscape, all low-key, well-tended elegance.

On any given day at Aqua Essence Day Spa and Aqua S Restaurant in Duck's tiny downtown, husbands hunch over the bar watching the game while their wives lie upstairs undergoing mysteries known only to the fortunate few. Shortly, the couple will reunite on the soundfront deck for lunch or dinner or perhaps a seven-times-distilled organic vodka tonic. Very vacation. Very zen.

Co-owner Lynette Sumner explains.

"South of Los Angeles, there's a place I went with a girlfriend. We had manicures, pedicures, then champagne, light lunch ... then massage, glass of wine, and then we had something else, and then a little tincture to drink at the end. I knew, this is it."

At the time, Sumner was a sommelier at the Sanderling, working with Chef Kenny Sloane, a graduate of Johnson & Wales. Last year, they spun off and opened up just south of the Sanderling, which also has a spa.

They distinguish themselves from the mama ship with words like "sassy" and "signature libation." And though both spa menus emphasize fresh, organic ingredients, often from their chefs' own gardens, the Sanderling's is deliciously restrained, featuring reasonable portions of excellent shrimp salad and Vietnamese veggie rolls, while Aqua's is more decadent, featuring entrées like short-rib risotto and grilled N.C. tuna.

Click for larger image • Chef Kenny Sloane grows kitchen greens behind his Aqua S Restaurant in Duck. - PHOTO BY BRETT A. CLARK

In the summer, Aqua's side deck jams with live music, and some nights the kitchen offers wine tastings and tapas for only $10. Always call ahead: The Four Seasons, across the street, does not have an in-house spa, which makes Aqua very popular.

"It's within walking—or stumbling—distance," points out Sumner.

Float with the fish

Like downhill-ski-shooting and equestrian-archery, kayak fishing is one of those sports that sounds like it was invented over one too many beers.

But it's a rapidly growing fad that provides a blissful, quiet way of communing with nature—and a legitimate method of catching dinner.

Marcella Turonis, a guide with Kitty Hawk Kites, is completing an associates' degree in marine science at the College of the Albemarle. She's been going kayak fishing for a few years.

"Usually May through August, or October even, depending on the water temperature—if it gets too warm we don't catch a lot—you can catch trout, red drum, croaker ... which are really funny because they actually croak when they come out of the water, they make a froggy sound.

"If you catch striper in the summer, though, you don't want to keep them because they get parasites. It's a winter fish. (They're called striper, striped bass, rockfish—all the same thing.) You can also catch crabs out here. Shrimp, usually June-July; you could pull a little net in a kayak, or you can throw a cast net out. Shrimp's been really good the past couple of years."

Kayak fishing is growing more popular as word spreads, says Turonis, and it's more eco-friendly than alternatives.

"Last summer, we started doing a lot of tours because gas prices were so high; people didn't want to pay $1,500-$2,000 (or even $700 to go in-shore fishing) on a regular boat when they could just rent a kayak, throw it in the sound, paddle around for a couple of days and do the same thing you could be doing for a fortune."

It seems like a body would have to be particularly coordinated to juggle paddle, rod and bait at the same time, not to mention a live fish, but the boats are stable and well rigged, Turonis explains.

Click for larger image • Wes Gutekunst of Kitty Hawk Kites uses a kayak for a DIY seafood supper. - PHOTO BY BRETT A. CLARK

"The kayaks have a storage hatch; you could ice the hatch down a little bit, or you can put the fish in a cooler in the back of your kayak. A lot of people take a fishing kayak and go up the Roanoke River and they'll camp for a few days, so you could put all your camping gear down in the dry hatch and keep a cooler in the open hatch in the back.

"If you catch something too large to fit in the hatch, you could tow it; I always carry a tow rope. It'd be fun to catch something that big!"

The difference between a regular kayak and a fishing kayak is that the fishing kayaks are sit-on-top, and they have slots to hold a fishing rod. They're very versatile: You can take them in the ocean, paddle around in the sound, or explore the narrow seagrass canals in the marshland.

Turonis' favorite kayak trip is the nighttime bioluminescence tour, which launches out of the Kitty Hawk Kites store in Whalebone, on the causeway between Nags Head and Manteo. The same tour also runs in daytime.

"I've seen more wildlife on that tour than on any other: so many different varieties of birds; I've seen dolphins because they're swimming up and down in the sound; I've seen turtles and snakes and different kinds of crabs I don't see anywhere else. We'll go through the canals, and, if it's calm, out into the open water where the fishing channels are cut. That's where we'll see the dolphins."

Kitty Hawk Kites will provide all your gear, be it for wildlife tours or fishing tours. Even a novice can learn quickly. Tours are customizable and range $100-$150/person for approximately three hours. State law requires a fishing license, even for the most amateur. You can register easily on www.ncwildlife.org, or drop by any of the bait and tackle stores; an annual license is $15; a 10-day license is $5.

Staging a food festival off-season has its benefits. Rentals are more affordable for tourists, and for locals, it heralds an end to the dreary winter. It provides a chance for restaurateurs to test out new menu items, and it entertains visitors when it's too chilly for sun sports.

click to enlarge Click for larger image • "Taste of the Beach" organizer Ben Sproul co-owns The Pit, a restaurant/ bar in Kill Devil Hills, where he displays his handpainted surfboards. - PHOTO BY JANE HOBSON SNYDER

Some locals are, of course, baffled at all the fuss. One barfly wandered into a Taste of the Beach tapas crawl and asked gruffly, "Why's it so crowded?"

Lynn Mills, a year-round resident of Manteo who had come in with her husband, laughed at it all.  

"We had no idea it was going to be like this!" she said. "We had to wait 20 minutes to be seated!

"Typically in the summer it's real busy. But I guess this is becoming what they call a shoulder season—you know, busy on both ends."

Eating is obviously the easiest way to enjoy what the Outer Banks has to offer. But take some time to slow down and look around: You'll find an area rich in talent and raw materials. The waters on all sides are full of life. The farms across the sound are flush with produce. The economy is eager for tourism, and the chefs are tuning in and turning on to the local foodways. Festivalgoers Debby and Randy Wingfield, of Mechanicsville, Va., are the grateful beneficiaries of it all. 

"That's why we wanted to do this, to taste all the restaurants at one time," said Debby.

Her only disappointment was an understandable one: "You can't eat all day long!"



Coastal celebrations

There are lots of opportunities throughout the rest of the year—and within easy driving distance from the Triangle—to celebrate the bounties of North Carolina's waters.

5th Annual Beaufort Wine and Food Weekend
April 22-26
Crystal Coast area: Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, Morehead City, Beaufort, Cape Lookout
Coinciding with Beaufort's 300th anniversary, the weekend includes a "Grand Tasting Village," a Pinot panel, sommelier seminars and a Moët & Domaine Chandon brunch, as well as cooking classes and wine pairing dinners featuring Triangle-area guest chefs Ashley Christensen, Michael Chuong, Scott James and Walter Royal.

First Annual Bald Head Island Food and Wine Festival
Sept. 25-27
Bald Head Island
Learn to pair North Carolina wines with regional and local foods. Events include tastings, a wine cruise, a wine pairing dinner and sparkling wine brunch.

The 23rd Annual N.C. Seafood Festival
Oct. 2-4
Morehead City
Featuring carnival rides, fireworks, seafood, arts and crafts and "Cooking with the Chefs: Learn it, Taste it, Love it!"

MUMfest
Oct. 10-11
New Bern
A combination of fun, entertainment and coastal Carolina seafood that annually attracts more than 80,000 festivalgoers to New Bern's historic downtown and waterfront.

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