Do oysters on the half shell taste even better at nine in the morning? In a restaurant that also does right by olive oil muffins with passion fruit curd, should you go marine or sweet? Eat breakfast at the front bar at Seabird, which opened last spring in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, and these questions float through your head.
Dinner promises much, including a riff on cioppino, thick with clams and grouper and scallops and fennel, with a slab of rouille-smeared sourdough planted in the bowl like a flag. But let’s stick with breakfast for a moment, just for the chance to focus on the face of a recent visitor who cracked a smile that could light up a pirate alley at midnight when he learned that, in addition to shucking and serving raw oysters at nine, Seabird also offers plates of baked barbecue oysters, built on a Worcestershire butter roux stirred with minced, harissa-spiced shrimp. Do I even have to tell you that face was mine?
Oysters here model what great restaurants promise, beginning with the oyster plates that reference the vintage platters sold in antique shops, with shallow divots for the shells and baroque decorations around the rims. Modern and curvilinear instead, these plates look like they were imagined by the architects who designed Brasília, the South American civic fantasy. Sourced from nearby Hold Fast Oyster Co. and only available at Seabird, the raw oysters nested within—dubbed Seabirdies—are worthy of the presentation. Glossy and muscular, they taste uncommonly vivid and smell subtly of the brackish water they filter.
Seabird is an anomaly in Wilmington, an understated spot in a downtown heavy with blender-drink bars and tourists in flip-flops. Before the husband-and-wife team of Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton renovated two downtown storefronts to make one restaurant, the front room here did business as the River Rat, a sticky-floored dive. To open Seabird, Neff and Clopton leaned on a wealth of restaurant know-how that began at Hugh Acheson’s Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia, where Neff worked as a sous-chef before becoming executive chef. When Clopton, who had no professional experience, applied for and won a pastry position there, Neff fell in love with her brio, and with her talent.
They also relied on the Atlanta designer Smith Hanes, who imagined a restaurant that could visually hold its own on Charleston, South Carolina’s upper King Street. He installed tuck-and-roll seafoam leather-backed booths and barstools, and a terrazzo bar top that suggests a shell-scattered beach. Pop-art renderings of mermaids, steamboats, and warships share wall space with a shadow-box display of shellacked crab shells, rescued from his late father’s kitchen, where they served as vessels for deviled crab. In a world where designers often think too much is not enough, Hanes manages to sample nautical themes without going theme park.
The drinks list is small and smart, like the restaurant itself. Order the house martini, and you’ll taste the brine that plankton lends. Start with a bijou, and you’ll get a mix of gin, green Chartreuse, and sweet vermouth that moves an evening along fast. For dinner, oysters and everything else pair well with a salty and sour Westbrook Gose, or a bottle of crisp Oysterman Muscadet from the Loire Valley.
The seafood tower is a stunner. Chewy clams and a fat crab claw crown the top, and chunky knuckles of crab anchor the base. Most towers are built on raw goods, but Neff also depends on his kitchen’s skills. Deviled grouper, smoked and bound with crème fraîche and butter, comes formed into little quenelles. Slices of yellowfin get rubbed with harissa and kissed with applewood smoke. Sambal-pickled shrimp, light and clean, swim in a small saucer. No matter what follows, you will want what the menu calls broiled hollandaise, in which fried oysters, tossed in hot sauce, ride a float of hollandaise that bobs with lump crab. The heat balances out the richness.
Many restaurants go flat after the appetizers. Not Seabird. On the prod of a fork, Neff’s panko-crusted swordfish schnitzel reveals luxurious flesh that recalls dark-meat fried chicken. For his flounder and grits, he cuts down whole fish, fries trim rectangles, sets them atop pools of grits, and adds a cucumber-and-green-tomato slaw to render a traditional fry-house entree worthy of a white-tablecloth perch.
Like his olive oil muffins, pastry chef Jim Diecchio’s olive oil cake plays like a soulful and sweet reminder that an olive is a fruit. The Carolina Gold rice pudding, made with coconut milk, topped with benne and pumpkin seeds, and served with a bright persimmon sauce, is vegan, if you were wondering.
This would be great for breakfast, I told a friend who joined me for dinner on my second night in Wilmington and fought me for the last bite of that pudding. As if he had noticed the battle, our waiter leaned over to tell us that the same dish does appear on the breakfast menu. Sure enough, there it was, the sleeper in a morning pastry roster that includes doughnuts with orange-chocolate glaze. He disappeared before I got to ask, Should I eat that pudding before or after a round of barbecue oysters?