From Fish to Fork in the Outer Banks

CE’s Associate Editor Laura Schober explores the vibrant seaside culinary scene of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
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Nestled along the Southern Outer Banks in Carteret County, North Carolina lies a hidden gem of the culinary world. With its breathtaking stretch of seaside towns, restaurants, bars and colorful beachside homes, the area known as the Crystal Coast is fast becoming a culinary mecca for food and wine lovers.

A Foodie Fest for Seafood Lovers

The historic, picturesque town of Beaufort, North Carolina is home to the acclaimed Beaufort Wine and Food Festival, held the last week of April each year over the course of five days. With the festival now in its 11th year, I came to discover all it had to offer, from sampling delicious wine and cheeses to savoring inspired food and wine pairings at the Grand Reserve Tasting and Auction gala.

As a highlight of the Festival, the Grand Reserve Tasting and Auction attracts both locals and tourists who come to experience the exciting and inspired creations from a dozen regional and national chefs and over 15 winemakers. Visitors can treat themselves to blind wine tastings, a champagne brunch, a craft beer seminar, wine dinners and a fashion show luncheon showcasing collections from local retailers, among many other events.

Three-hundred wines from France, California, Italy, North Carolina and other regions are showcased throughout the week, and over 100 of those are tasted and rated by an expert panel that consists of two Master Sommeliers, an Advanced Sommelier and other industry professionals. This year, the Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 was crowned “Best in Show.”

 Enjoy signature dishes from the region's best chefs at the Grand Reserve Tasting and Auction.

Enjoy signature dishes from the region's best chefs at the Grand Reserve Tasting and Auction.

Using a bounty of fresh, seasonal produce, locally raised meats and Atlantic-caught wild seafood, the chefs brought a myriad of modern, daring and delicious dishes to the table. The 2015 Grand Reserve Tasting and Auction featured enticing fare from such culinary talents as Chef Jeremy Law of SoCo Farm and Food in Wilson, North Carolina – his venison and Californian Terra d’Oro Zinfandel pairing was one of my favorites – and Chef Jason Smith of Raleigh, North Carolina’s 18 Seaboard, whose fresh Atlantic shellfish was perfectly complemented by a glass of Antinori Vermentino wine from Tuscany.

 Dining alfresco on the Crystal Coast.

Dining alfresco on the Crystal Coast.

Enjoy Fresh Catch at Local Restaurants

With unforgettably unique flavors and talented chefs at the helm, the Crystal Coast’s dining scene truly shines when it comes to “fish-to-fork”cuisine – and that’s no surprise considering the Crystal Coast has one of the longest and most diverse fishing seasons of the Atlantic. Various breeds of fish are abundant from season to season, so visitors can fish all year long. If you want to try your hand at fishing, you can embark on a head-boat group fishing tour or take a private-chartered fishing excursion.

While over 80% of US seafood is imported, you're much more likely to find fresh, seasonal and local catches at restaurants, farmers' markets and grocery stores on The Crystal Coast thanks to its Carteret Catch program. As a partnership between fisheries, restaurants, retailers, distributors and researchers, Carteret Catch supports more than 20 restaurants.

Among the region’s coastal restaurants, like Beaufort’s City Kitchen and Atlantic Beach’s Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant and Bar, sustainably caught fish and shellfish reign supreme but vegetarians and meat lovers will also find something to love. City Kitchen’s melt-in-your-mouth baked oysters topped with creamed collards and onion bacon jam was a highlight of my visit while the roasted beet salad with goat cheese mousse, arugula, candied nuts and a spectacular mustard-fig vinaigrette was another standout dish. Seafood lovers will also delight in the restaurant’s absolutely scrumptious smoked salmon Benedict on housemade rye with sun-dried tomatoes and herb cream cheese.

Amos Mosquito’s also offers an excellent catch of the day – the night of my visit, I indulged in a mouthwatering sesame-seared tuna drizzled with soy sauce and served on a bed of jasmine rice and sautéed edamame. And, if you’re looking for a pint or place to unwind after a long week, the Idle Hour Biergarten (also in Atlantic Beach) is a must-try for a taste of local, national and international brews and cocktails plus soups, salads, sandwiches, bratwurst and more. Its sister restaurant, Pescara, is one of the newest restaurant additions to Atlantic Beach, having opened across the street in June. The tantalizing menu, inspired by coastal Italian cuisine, includes house-made pasta and fresh local seafood such as yellowfin tuna, shrimp, lobster and clams. Pescara’s kitchen also boasts a wood oven that churns out succulent wood-fired flatbread, lamb and chicken.

Whether you’re a foodie or looking for a family friendly vacation spot, the Crystal Coast, with its small-town charm, hospitality and many excellent restaurants, is not to be missed.

Carteret Catch’s Top Tips for Selecting Fresh Seafood

  1. When buying whole fish, make sure eyes are clear, bright and shiny and skin is firm, smooth and elastic with no slimy feel. Look for a bright red blood line in the gut cavity and avoid pale, dull or gray gills. There should a mild scent but not an overly “fishy” or sour odor.
  2. Fresh-cut fish should have a moist appearance, be translucent in color and have firm, elastic flesh with a mild scent. Always check the sell-by date to be sure.
  3. Look for live shellfish with tightly closed, moist shells and a mild scent. If open, they should shut when tapped; otherwise discard.
  4. Shucked oysters should have plump, cream-colored meat that’s free of shell residue and sand with a mild odor. Their liquid should be clear or slightly opaque, not cloudy.
  5. Raw shrimp should have translucent shells with a moist appearance and grayish-green or tan color. Flesh should be firm not mushy with no blackened spots or edges on shell (exception is spot prawns).
  6. Make sure sea scallops are free of excess liquid and are creamy white, light tan or slightly pink in color. Avoid ones that appear shriveled or dry.