By Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher © 2013
Following the success of Wilmington’s July 4th impressive fireworks display, which we were lucky to see from the Battleship North Carolina, we continued our holiday weekend exploration with dinner and a carriage ride tour in Historic Downtown Wilmington.
One was great; the other, not so much.
Let’s start with The Basics: It’s a locally owned and operated restaurant located in Wilmington’s popular Cotton Exchange shopping and dining area near the Hilton waterfront on the Cape Fear River.
We were promptly seated for our 7 p.m. reservation in one of the coveted window seats for two where we could watch the foot traffic along North Front Street.
First a word about the name. Celebrated chef/owner Mary Long, who ran a successful eatery in Athens, GA, before coming to the Port City, has explained, “I felt that Wilmington needed a dose of good Southern cuisine, and I feel passionately that people need to respect the Southern traditions of cooking as its own cuisine and not just a cute way of eating fried chicken. . .
“At The Basics, we try very hard to preserve the history and to advance the tradition in new ways. The prix fixe menus we do at night combine traditional Southern foods and ingredients with new ways of preparation and combination to update the old standards.”
We want to explain how difficult it was to choose from a menu that covered all the basics for us in terms of good Southern cooking (but with an upscale twist).
Our server Kaitlyn patiently walked us through the specials and the menu, eagerly answering all our questions. Her observations made us anticipate the feast to come even more so than when we arrived.
“I was a regular here before I started working here,” she confided, “so I’m all about what the kitchen’s putting out.”
On our visit it was putting out so many temptations that we took longer to order than usual. In Fletcher’s words, “Everything on here I could order.”
Exactly. Kaitlyn nodded knowingly. “Everything here is handmade,” she explained, “so they put just as much love in the sides as they do the main dishes.”
Asked about their signature dishes, server Kaitlyn came up with two immediately and then added two more: BBQ that is house-smoked, pulled pork; Shrimp and Grits poached in green tomato bacon gravy; The Bird, a half smoked chicken rubbed with sugar and species and served with hoppin’ john on the side; and the Meat Loaf, which she labeled “phenomenal, amazing.”
No wonder we were stumped, but we managed to come up with an appetizer each and an entrée, then, on Kaitlyn’s suggestion, figured out what a great deal The Basics Wine & Date Night package is. You get two appetizers, two entrées, two desserts and a bottle of wine, all for $60.
While Fletcher ordered from the menu — fried oysters to start followed by The Bird, Kathy turned her attention to the specials board as she sipped the specialty cocktail of the night, a Blueberry Fizz. Perfect for summer, the sweet concoction features vodka, champagne and blueberry/lavender simple syrup served over ice and garnished with fresh blueberries and a sprig of lavender.
She finally opted for a decadent blue-cheese risotto chilled to hold together, then coated in panko and deep-fried. Delicious. Fletcher’s oysters had a very light breading and were also tasty though they could have stayed in the fryer just a bit longer for a tad more crunch and color.
For the main event, Fletcher declared The Bird a winner, managing to clean his plate of the half-a-chicken, while Kathy again went for one of the specials: Grilled swordfish topped with grain mustard and served over gouda grits and asparagus spears.
Satiated, we asked Kaitlyn if we could come back for our third course, those tempting desserts, after our carriage ride tour, and she said, “Of course.”
As great as our dinner was, our tour was, well, a bust. The older gentleman leading our 30-minute horse-drawn carriage ride down brick streets alongside historic mansions was simply not very good or very, very tired. We suspect he was on his 10th or so tour of the day, and he acted like this was his last one. He would mention a house with a comment that a former governor lived there. End of story. He’d point out identical side-by-side homes a wealthy resident built for his daughters. End of story. Where were the anecdotes, the details, the fun stories? Sorry, Springbrook Farms, but your guide on this one let us down.
We met a family from Pittsburgh, PA, on our tour that had paid $60 for the outing. Afterward, we apologized to them for what we thought was a tour guide who totally missed the mark. “Oh, really?” was the response. “We were just so thrilled by the architecture.”
There you go, Beautiful Wilmington, you are the star.
If You’re Going: The Basics is located at 319 North Front Street, accessible streetside in The Cotton Exchange. They are open for breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch and dinner. Be forewarned, however; even though the sign for parking for The Cotton Exchange notes it is for shoppers and diners, you still my be ticketed, as we were. Yet, there’s no one manning the booth to get any kind of ticketed validated. The solution is simple: Take your ticket to the shop or restaurant where you were, and they’ll take care of it.
For more info on the Battleship North Carolina, visit www.battleshipnc.com. For a free Visitors Guide about the area, call 866-266-9690 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more, visit www.GoWilmingtonAndBeaches.com.
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Luxury Travel Examiner Kathy M. Newbern and spouse, J.S. Fletcher, report on luxury destinations, spas and cruising around the globe. They are award-winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers and created YourSpaReport.com and YourNovel.com, their personalized romance novel business.