The three-tiered restaurant complex in the former Roudabush building at 33 S. Front St. in downtown Wilmington has seen changes in recent months. New chefs add creativity and innovation to the third floor’s Dram + Morsel, as well as the first and second floor’s The Husk and YoSake. Their concepts are unique, as they dish out globally inspired small plates, pan-Asian fare and even hot dogs (vegetarian, included). The culinarians are giving local foodies lots of reasons to climb the stairs (or, for an easier in, take the back elevator) to check out the evolving food scene in one of downtown’s most historic buildings.
Dram + Morsel
33 S. Front St., third floor
Morgan Avery has worked in many aspects of the local restaurant scene since 1997. He got his start at downtown’s Slice of Life and went on to cater big-name, big-budget weddings on Bald Head Island. As he lists his varied résumé, each entry notes how his experiences influenced his work in the kitchen. He refers to his time at the former Tango du Chat as carte-blanche creativity—where he learned French techniques. He grew his affinity for dessert preparation at Caprice Bistro. Then there were challenges and benefits of using local seasonal ingredients at Pembroke’s in The Forum.
“It’s all been pretty eclectic, and fun,” he tells. “I’ve worked with some great chefs and learned a lot. It was better than spending the money getting a culinary degree.”
His attitude fits in with what Dram + Morsel is adding to the downtown dining landscape. The atmosphere is comfy vintage, with couches, tables and lots of light during daylight hours. Sleek art and cozy illumination add another layer after dark, not to mention a craft cocktail and wine and beer list suited for any palate. “This is definitely more of a night-time spot,” according to the chef.
With that in mind, Avery has been experimenting with items like sliders and shareable plates, inspired by his diverse background and a world of ingredients from locally sourced seafood. He utilizes Marcona almonds and Spanish olives, and manages to blend Asian ingredients from the sister restaurant, YoSake, downstairs. Dram + Morsel “Snacks” menu includes updated versions of pulled-pork nachos, chicken taquitos and lobster corndogs.
“I’m rethinking what I’m doing and what’s important for Wilmington’s dining scene all the time,” Avery says. “I’m always tweaking things.”
His latest menu includes globe-hopping entries like tuna ceviche, a braised pork belly with seasonal vegetables and scallops with a house-made parsley tagliatelle.
But Avery is also adding more to enjoy at Dram + Morsel. His own interest in wine has led him to plan regular wine dinners. In fact, prior to working at Dram, he was hoping to obtain his first-level sommelier certification.
“I think it’s a great learning process, to really taste wine and develop dishes to go with it,” he notes.
Avery has been working with his staff to create noteworthy desserts and offer more vegan and gluten-free options. Almond-butter and chocolate torte will appear on the refined menu, as well as Avery’s lemongrass-infused creme brulée. Recent experiments have also brought to the kitchen a vegan “cheese” sauce, made with cashews, nutritional yeast and depth-providing seasonings, like smoked paprika. He’s planning to include it as a topping choice for nachos and fries.
His latest menu also includes a vegan slider—a tabbouleh-inspired dish of local vegetables and rice flour in a lettuce wrap. One recent special included local Shishito peppers, served on a bed of rich Romesco sauce.
Then there’s the new Sunday brunch menu, which includes favorites like eggs Benedict and shrimp and grits, as well as a French toast with a custard batter, spiked with coconut milk and a veggie-friendly tofu hash.
Even after his years in the restaurant business, it seems unlikely Avery will be a victim of what he says he sees happen to many chefs: getting caught in a specific foodie time or movement.
“It’s easy to get stuck,” he tells. “It’s one of the worst things a chef can do.”
On the opposite end, the best part of his day is sitting at a table overlooking downtown Wilmington when it’s quiet. He uses the time to process the inspiration he gets from Instagram accounts, favorite chefs and new cookbooks. “This is such a great time for us,” he tells. “It’s a great time for new ideas.”
His hope for the work he does at Dram + Morsel is that some of his passion shines through in the food he prepares. “What I really want to do is showcase the love I have for this town, and food, and this great building,” he boasts. “I want to show that.”
Raul Benitez and Ross Casey
YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge
33 S. Front St., second floor • (910) 763-3172
The role of head chef is generally known to be a one-person job. It’s his or her vision, the theory goes, that rules a particular kitchen. Most who work in restaurants, though, know cooking is often a collaborative art—it just might not happen with more than one chef in the top position.
“I’ve worked in kitchens with more than one head chef,” YoSake’s Raul Benitez says. “I know it doesn’t always work.”
Such isn’t the case at the popular Asian-inspired restaurant. Benitez is joined by Ross Casey as dual head chefs. Their partnership is relatively new, but they are calling it a success. One reason: YoSake is a busy restaurant, especially on the weekends. They both agree it can help having someone else by sharing responsibilities that come with making a busy night run smoothly.
“It’s hectic, and that’s just YoSake,” Casey tells.
Their kitchen is responsible for making wings, tater tots and other pub grub offerings that the craft-beer drinkers at The Husk, on the first floor of the Roudabush building, are craving.
Another reason it works is both men are married, and each have a young child. With two people as head chef, it means their days off are more secure than many others in similar positions. Even though his daughter is only 4 months old, Casey likes to take her to the aquarium and the beach during his downtime. Benitez’s 2-year-old son likes fishing and cooking, and even has his own chef’s coat with “Dad’s sous chef” embroidered on it.
“Oh, I’m going to have to get one of those, too,” Casey adds.
Their days off don’t typically overlap, but they make a point to get together, usually on Thursdays, to collaborate on their menu and nightly specials.
“That’s when we have time to do it,” Casey informs. “Fridays and Saturdays are just too hectic.”
Even though they come from different culinary backgrounds, they each know they have something to add to the creative process. “Plus, we are both relatively new to pan-Asian cooking,” Benitez tells.
“We can work together from there,” Casey agrees. “We work on all the ideas together, from the sauces to the ingredients. We taste each other’s food and critique it.”
Casey and Benitez came to YoSake earlier in 2017; the restaurant already had a well-established menu, covering everything from sushi to curries to noodle bowls. Diners who have tried a nightly special in recent months have experienced combined palates of the chefs—a result of a combination of their skills and techniques. A Korean short-rib special particularly stands out to Casey.
“Yeah, that was good,” Benetiz agrees.
The meat was marinated for 14 hours and slowly braised—paired with a coconut-ginger sweet-potato purée. Other specials featured clams in a lemongrass-coconut broth and shrimp summer rolls with cilantro and lime sauce. It showcased Casey’s seafood skills and Benetiz’s influence of adding Latin flavors to the Asian techniques.
Casey most recently spent more than six years at Dock Street Oyster Bar in downtown Wilmington, learning and perfecting how to work with seafood.
“It was a great experience,” he praises. “I would say I had a lot of on-the-job training.”
Benitez is newer to Wilmington, but worked at the large Corned Beef & Co. bar and grill in Roanoke, Virginia, before spending time as a sous chef at Sweet n Savory Cafe near Wrightsville Beach. He hadn’t planned on working in the restaurant industry until his cousin helped him get a job years ago.
“I gave it a shot,” he says. “As it turns out, I was good at it and had fun doing it.”
The pair know the challenges they face. They avoid potential problems by talking with each other before they discuss issues with their staff of 14 or so. “We try to be very straightforward with everyone,” Benitez explains. “And we’re open to ideas from the staff and from each other.”
They also know just how popular the food already is. The restaurant always has used fresh, local and seasonal fish and produce to create popular dishes. “We want to just see if we can impart our own touch,” Benitez says.
“Going forward, there are lots of big plans,” Casey adds.
They will keep creating innovative nightly specials. More so, they will introduce new menu items and desserts in the coming months. They also hope to have some news nibbles for The Husk. “They have good bar food, but we might see if we can add something, especially for football season,” Casey tells.