Eat Up: Tasty Twist on Myrtle Beach | By Kevin Hann | Toronto Sun 

 

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Something's fishy in Myrtle Beach -- and that's a good thing.

The popular vacation destination has built its reputation on pristine beaches and immaculate golf courses. Now, it's emerging as a culinary hotspot for millions of visitors who travel there each year.

In the land of the buffet, Calabash is king. Calabash is a small fishing town, just north of Myrtle Beach in North Carolina, nicknamed the Seafood Capital of the World. Southern seafood buffets are often referred to as Calabash for the local way of cooking: Fresh seafood lightly dredged in flour and cornmeal, and fried.

There's no disputing Myrtle Beach's Calabash buffets, like Giant Crab and Benjamins on Restaurant Row, are wildly popular. But, there's an exciting food scene taking hold on the Grand Strand that's drawing rave reviews.

It can be found in places like 21 Main, a prime steakhouse occupying a mansion in the North Beach Plantation complex. If you expect to splurge on one meal while visiting, this is the place to do it.

"Every single night, someone tells us it's the best dining experience they've ever had," says 21 Main manager Ron Fish. "We set the bar high and work every day to keep things at a high level of consistency."

The dining room has an open feel. Black napkins provide stark contrast to the crisp white linen tablecloths.

Steps from the front foyer is a seafood raw bar stocked with fresh local shrimp, little neck clams and oysters. The zesty seafood sauce is made in-house along with all salad dressings, stocks and sauces for main entrees.

Smiling waiter Patrick Mayfield arrives tableside with a basket of warm breads and house-churned butter. He notes there's a cellar housing 150 different wines.

The French onion soup is silky, packed with ribbons of onion and topped with smoked Gouda. The mac and cheese is a masterpiece of creamy goodness capped with fried onion strips.

But, steaks are the star of the show at 21 Main with the Delmonico (boneless rib eye) being a crowd favourite, Fish says. All steaks are aged 21 days and hand-cut on the premises. They are salted and peppered before hitting the searing grill.

"We have the best steaks and service around," Fish boasts. "If people come here once they inevitably come back.'

Murrell's Inlet, about 20 minutes south of Myrtle Beach, has for decades been a go-to place for waterfront dining.

Two years ago, things took a fantastically fresh twist with the opening of Wicked Tuna, which has set itself apart from the competition.

"We have a fishing boat that fishes exclusively for us," says corporate executive sous chef Dylan Foster. "We have a cutting room downstairs where we're processing 600-1,000 pounds of fresh seafood each day."

It is one of the only restaurants on the U.S. east coast that employs its own fishing operation. The processing room ships out to five other restaurants the corporation owns in South Carolina.

Whereas some restaurants boast of locally caught seafood, it's actually product that has been shipped to Atlanta for processing, then trucked back to the Grand Strand for cooking. That's a week of freshness lost.

"We cut out all the middle men to give people the freshest product around. If it's caught on Monday it's eaten by Wednesday," says Foster, who lists the Trigger Imperial as one of his favourite entrees. It's Trigger fish topped with a scallop, shrimp and parmesan crust, served over andouille sausage and asparagus risotto.

Steaks are also of the highest quality to be found on the Grand Strand.

"I hand cut them myself," says Foster, who's specially licenced to oversee processing and distribution of the operation's meats and fish.

"There's attention to detail, from the ground up," he adds. "Everything here sets us apart -- from the sushi bar to the marina to the view. Everything is top notch."

The grilled seafood platter ($27) comes with a generous portion of mahi mahi, a skewer of seasoned shrimp, four tender scallops and a juicy crab cake with garlic mashed potatoes.

Locals rave about the Wicked Tuna roll ($17) with tempura shrimp, lobster salad and cucumber inside, and seven-spiced tuna with ponzu sauce, sweet chili and wasabi mousse on the outside.

The beefy bacon-cheeseburger ($12) is formed from prime filet, rib eye and strip steak, then grilled, topped with smoked bacon strips and served with a heap of waffle fries.

The 550-seat venue overlooks the Marsh Walk area; boats can dock just feet from the outdoor patio and dishing area. It's the perfect setting for a summer supper.

Not all the culinary action is at the beach, however, as visitors to nearby Conway have discovered.

Darren and Cyndi Smith opened Rivertown Bistro on Third Ave. near Hwy. 501 in 1994.

"Back then there were no celebrity chefs and no farm-to-table movement," Darren recalls. "We didn't know if it would really blossom but we had some really good articles written on us and by word of mouth things just got better."

Rivertown is rated as the No. 1 restaurant in Conway on Trip Advisor.

The building was converted from a law office and restaurant that was closing. The landlord just happened to be a farmer and started providing straight-from-the-field produce while a friend of Darren's harvested honey and offered up the freshest available. The trend continues today as a farmer's market sets up behind the restaurant each Saturday, enabling the Smiths to buy the best local produce, artisan breads and cheeses.

"We try to give the customer the best product we can buy," Darren says. "We're about eclectic comfort food. No matter what we're offering it's going to be original."

The crab dip appetizer with crusty garlic toast is quite simply fresh crab mixed with a few seasonings and no fillers.

French onion soup is crafted from a velvety beef broth, large slivers of onion, home-baked croutons and slathered with melted Gruyere cheese.

Pork takes on a southern twist as meaty tenderloin medallions are lightly breaded and fried, smothered with bacon gravy and served with rustic mashed potatoes and blackened green tomatoes.

A lunch wrap jammed with grilled portabellos, zucchini and peppers is a heart and healthy choice.

A basket of crispy fried yam chips with zesty tomato ranch dip is a meal in itself and a great side with any meal.

"We have menu integrity," Darren adds. "It's worth the 20-minute drive from the beach so you don't have to wait in line for two hours to eat chain-restaurant food or food you have no idea where it came from."

FAVOURITES

Myrtle Beach has been a second home for more than 26 years. Whether it's golfing with buddies or vacationing with family, there are several restaurants that have become favourites among us. Here are a few:

1. BENITO'S, North Myrtle Beach

Our favourite place for Italian. Crisp, thin-crust pizzas come straight from a wood-fired brick oven. Generous portions of pasta and succulent veal dishes. Service is first-rate.

2. RIVER CITY CAFE, Various locations

The go-to place for a cold beer and burgers cooked from freshly ground chuck. Onion rings so big you might only get three to an order. Licence plates and graffiti on the wood-panelled walls. Definitely a laid-back atmosphere and wallet-friendly. My buddy Howie recently took a stab at the "OMG" burger platter made from two patties topped with hickory smoked bacon, Swiss and cheddar, lots of mayo, lettuce, tomato and fried onion strings, stuffed between two fried egg-and-cheese sandwiches, served with fries, two giant onion rings and coleslaw. Not the place for anyone with a peanut allergy as diners can dig into a barrel of roasted nuts and discard the shells on the floor.

3. ORIGINAL BENJAMIN'S, Restaurant Row

America is the land of the buffet and Original Benjamin's is the king of the Grand Strand. Seafood is the big attraction here, from low-country specialties to endless snow crab legs every day of the week. This place has it all -- from prime rib to steaks, a made-to-order pasta station, a massive salad bar, an on-site bakery and a wide selection of freshly made pastries, cakes and pies. Overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, it seats 1,000 people so the 170-item buffet is constantly being replenished.

4. LITTLE PIGS BBQ, Hwy. 17 Bypass at 62nd Ave.

A hole-in-the-wall joint tucked away in a tiny strip plaza. This favourite among locals serves up some juicy pork that's been smoked and slow-cooked for 18-20 hours. Meaty pulled pork sandwiches and chopped pork plates are deliciously affordable. Sauces are scratch made on site. Not many tables but excellent for takeout. Lineups out the door are common. Just follow the scent of hickory smoke wafting across Hwy. 17 Bypass.

NEED TO KNOW

-- A great source for Myrtle Beach and area dining information is myrtlebeachrestaurantnews.com, where you'll find out about the latest openings and features on some unique places to eat.

 

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