By Patrick Evans-Hylton | Photography by Edible Photography OBX
The dark blue waters are still off Roanoke Island, and a canoe with four men inside floats on the placid surface. Two are standing, two sitting, with nets and weirs – a rake-like device made of reeds – cast.
Beneath them, the waters are teeming with life. Crabs, herring, mussels, rays, oysters, scallops, tortoises, trout, and more. Small ripples radiate when the nets and weirs are thrown in, and the fresh catch is added to the harvest already filling the boat.
Behind the canoe, others wade in the waters, using wooden spears as de facto harpoons to pierce fish as they swim by.
Later, on the tree-lined shore, the fishers will join others who have stacked logs and set them ablaze. A grill of sorts is fashioned above the fire; four stakes are evenly positioned, and more are affixed on top. The dressed seafood is added, smoke enveloping the catch of the day, its flesh roasting and juices dripping below, hissing and popping.
A feast will be enjoyed by all.
It’s a timeless scene, in fact, although it could be current, this one played out in 1585. Observed and described by English renaissance man Thomas Harriott in his 1588 account, “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” the images of Native Americans fishing and cooking their catch were also captured in time by engravings from Theodor de Bay in the same work.
It’s more than 400 years since, and although a lot has changed on the narrow strip called the Outer Banks, many of our most cherished tastes and traditions have only improved with time.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see OBX-style cuisine evolve from broiled or fried dishes to where it is today reaching into the endless possibilities in the culinary universe,” says Wes Stepp, noted chef/owner of Red Sky Cafe, Red Sky Cafe Catering, and NC Coast Bar & Grill in Duck.
“I think the visitors we get each summer inspires this evolution; they bring stories of what chefs are doing in other areas. With the blessing of some of the freshest and best seafood in the world, we start with the strongest of base ingredients and we are compelled to present it and prepare it in inspired, new ways.”
Stepp has been cooking professionally on the Outer Banks for 30 years, and his Southern-contemporary menu at Red Sky Cafe has been served up for 20 years.
The chef recommends the Shrimp with Redneck Risotto.
“It’s always on top; it’s the pony I rode to the show,” he says. “The risotto is prepared in a traditional manner with one slight deviation; instead of arborio rice we use stone ground grits, hence the ‘redneck,’ laced with Asiago cheese.
“To that we add local shrimp, cajun cream, and apple-smoked bacon. It’s sure to make the most ardent grits haters into newborn fans.”
At Stepp’s newer restaurant, NC Coast Grill & Bar, it’s fresh seafood too, but with a twist.
“The preparation is globally-inspired; Korea, India, and European culinary techniques are used for preparing the best ingredients from the Outer Banks,” he says. “A diner once told me, ‘It’s not just a meal, it’s an experience.’”
Stepp recommends the chef board at NC Coast, an impressive arrangement of tapas and housemade beignets; “Charcuterie, OBX-style,” he says.
Drive south from Duck to Kitty Hawk, where Pok’s Art Asian Fusion Kitchen & Catering also adds an international flair to OBX eating. Chef/owner Pok Choeichom has been cooking for 35 years, including eight at his current restaurant.
The space is great for quick pick-ups and offers delivery across Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Southern Shores. There’s a diminutive dining room to enjoy the cuisine at the restaurant, and Choeichom notes the eatery offers on-site catering, and dinners cooked for folks for their convenience, particularly visitors at their vacation homes.
“I love access to the best, fresh, local seafood,” he says. “It’s important to use fresh, local ingredients as much as possible.”
The chef rattles off his favorites, “Crab Slough oysters, soft-shell crabs when in season, green tail shrimp, Outer Banks tuna, and all other types of fresh-caught fish.”
Crab Slough oysters are an OBX treasure, growing wild in the Crab Slough area of the Pamlico Sound. They are sweet with a buttery finish, and have a big sloppy kiss of saltiness. Open the deep cup and find the oyster inside, and, most likely, a hitchhiker – a tiny “pea crab” living inside the bivalve.
Look for fresh flavors at Pok’s Art, but with a nod to Choeichom’s his Asian heritage.
“Housemade Pad Thai, sautéed fresh Thai basil, housemade spring rolls, and crab rangoons,” the chef recommends as signature dishes.
Further south still and just west of Whalebone Junction, Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe has been a favorite since 1996. Overlooking the Roanoke Sound, local fishermen pull up at the restaurant docks daily with their fresh catch, where it is cleaned and prepared at the eatery.
Vicki Basnight and her family own and operate the venerable restaurant.
“I was born and raised here,” she says. “The water, fishing, shrimping, clamming, my large family, and just being here on this strip of land is what I love. I am lucky to have grown up on the Outer Banks.”
Basnight’s family have fished these waters for generations.
“Using locally-caught seafood is something we have taken pride in serving. Our chefs make the seafood shine without overpowering the delicate freshness.
“Seafood from these waters is what we grew up eating and as long as our commercial folks bring it in, we’ll prepare it and serve it,” says Basnight.
Visit Lone Cedar Cafe and start with she-crab soup and crab dip before moving on to one of the seafood combination platters, blackened fish, seared fish, or shrimp and grits, she notes.
Try the clam chowder, too.
“One of my favorite dishes is something we always had growing up; my momma’s clam chowder. She loved going clamming and being the daughter of a commercial fisherman. She could always catch a cooler full.”
The dish is filled with fresh clams, potatoes, bacon, onion, and love from Basnight’s mother, Sandy.
Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe is at 7623 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head. Call 252-441-5405 or visit www.LoneCedarCafe.com.
NC Coast Grill & Bar is at 1184 Duck Road, Duck. Call 252-261-8666 or visit www.NCCoastOBX.com.
Pok’s Art is at 3701 N. Croatan Hwy., Kitty Hawk. Call 252-715-4421 or visit www.OBXToGo.com
Red Sky Cafe is at 1197 Duck Rd., Kitty Hawk. Call 252-564-8606 or visit www.RedSkyCafe.com.
Patrick Evans-Hylton is a chef, food writer and food educator in Hampton Roads. Reach him at PatrickEvansHylton@gmail.com.
Seared tuna on peppery greens with goat cheese, seasoned pepitas and citrus vinaigrette
Looking for a way to enjoy some OBX fresh catch at home? Several species of tuna — that large, fast, fleshy fish that can be enjoyed in scores of ways — are harvested from the coastal waters. A simply grilled piece of tuna shines atop peppery greens accented with creamy goat cheese, flavorful pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and a crisp vinaigrette that pops with citrusy flavor.
Make the vinaigrette.
Combine 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper in a large lidded jar. Shake until well mixed and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake again just before serving.
Make the pepitas.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Mix 1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), 1 tablespoon canola oil, and Chesapeake Bay-style seafood seasoning together in a small bowl. Transfer the mixture to a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring occasionally and watching to make sure the seeds do not burn. Set aside to cool slightly.
Make the tuna.
Season both sides of a 20-ounce tuna steak, about 1 inch thick, with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.
Warm 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat until the butter melts. Place the tuna in the skillet and cook for about 2 minutes per side for rare and about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Do not overcook.
Transfer the tuna to a cutting board, allow to rest for 2 to 3 minutes, then cut into quarter-inch slices. Set aside.
Divide 6 cups lettuce greens among four plates and top each serving with sliced tuna and a drizzle of the vinaigrette. Slice 6 ounces of goat cheese and arrange two or three slices of goat cheese on the side and garnish with the pepitas. Yields 4 servings.