Rx (Wilmington, NC)

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(Rx Interior)

Rx opened in July of this year and specializes in upscale southern fare. The ‘Lowcountry’ cuisine emphasizes esoteric grains, proteins, and a focus on cured meats, borrowing from French, Caribbean, and Native American cuisines. The restaurant is co-owned by Executive Chef James Doss and his childhood friend Josh Novicki, who doubles as a DJ in New York. Doss was most recently at Husk in Charleston, where my brother and I dined this past March. It is clear that Husk informs Doss’s geographically specific culinary style, with a laundry list of Southern ingredients. While I wasn’t enamored with Husk, I was eager to compare the two and so my brother and I made a reservation on a recent weekday evening.

Rx was originally used as a pharmacy, serving as the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. Rx is therefore tasked with reconciling the fact that its building was originally used for a different purpose, and there are two ways that a restaurant can tackle this issue: negate its history, or attempt to integrate it within a comfortable restaurant ambience. An example of the former would be Acadia in Chicago, which has a sterile contemporary design that isolates itself from its South Loop address. Instead, Rx follows in the mold of restaurants that embrace their historically diverse origin, such as McCrady’s in Charleston or Arrows in Maine, by synthesizing past with present. Upon entering, one can discern vestiges of the drugstore design; the enormous bar was evidently used for multiple cash registers, while the hyperbolically cavernous dining room likely housed several shopping aisles. I prefer the synthetic approach of Rx et al that embraces the history of the building, because in my experience it generally results in a more unusual environment that is fluidly integrated within its setting. Alternately, the rupture with the local landscape is what I find so distasteful with Acadia and Blackbird in Chicago.

My brother informed me that on most nights, Rx is a packed house and something of a “scene” restaurant. However, we had a late reservation on a weekday night and so there were just a couple of other tables taken and the bar area was quiet as well. One unusual aspect of the décor is that the sheer size of the bar is formidable and it is really the centerpiece of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the most notable aspect of the interior was the enormous flat-screen television, which was televising the UNC basketball game. The issue with such a large television—which was large enough to be easily ‘watchable’ across the vast dining room—is that it presumes that the diner has some interest in the televised program, which we did not. In most restaurants, a large television at the bar wouldn’t pose much of an annoyance, but because the bar and dining room were in the same room the television was a garish distraction that made it difficult to delegate my attention toward my table. Normally, I enjoy the way restaurants combine the private space of the table with the more public space of the rest of the restaurant, but in this case the television was simply too overwhelming and made it difficult to focus.

The menu at Rx changes every night and offers many different components that lend themselves to distinctly different dining experiences. There were 11 small plates, 3 staples, 5 mains, and 3 table sides. The staples are large enough to constitute a one course meal and so they are probably best enjoyed at the bar. Meanwhile, one can also order the conventional three course experience (beginning, middle, and end). Rx also caters to the popular small plate approach, as the 11 small/appetizer plates constitute a capable template from which to craft a small plate experience of 3-5 courses. What the menu structure loses in precision it gains in flexibility, and this is probably necessary to appeal to the diverse Wilmington dining demographic. My brother had tasted much of the menu from past visits and provided recommendations. He started with the pork belly and then chose the fried chicken for his main, while I selected the pork cheeks and then the flank steak.

The bread service arrived in a cast-iron crock and consisted of house-made biscuits and cornbread. The lighting was terrible (candles would be a real benefit in this regard) and I was relegated to using flash—luckily this was not a problem as the dining room was not full and there were no other patrons nearby. At any rate, while I preferred the bacon cornbread at Husk, both the biscuits and cornbread were warm and tasty.

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My pork cheeks were served with roasted root vegetables (parsnips, basically), Swiss chard, parsnip puree, and crispy onion rings. The kitchen actually forgot the onion rings, and my server (who was relatively new to the restaurant) was unaware that they were an intended component. They were then brought separately after a brief delay, which is why they are on an ancillary plate. The onion rings wound up being superfluous and the breading was unpleasantly thick and greasy. The pork cheeks went well with the parsnips and were served in a teriyaki-like sauce that reminded me of Sean Brock’s “Kentuckyaki” sauce. Another pleasing aspect of the preparation was the fennel pollen garnish, which I find aesthetically superior to the micro green garnish that has become so popular in upscale casual restaurants nowadays. Where micro greens often obscure the main ingredients, fennel pollen adds a splash of color without compromising the visual attraction of the central components.

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The pork belly is my brother’s favorite dish at Rx and one of the main reasons he returns. One of the main benefits to a neighborhood restaurant like Rx is that one can develop a relationship with a particular menu item, and my brother has ordered the pork belly many times. The preparation never changes and the meat (sourced from Heritage Farm) is served with a local egg and stone-ground cheddar grits. The pork belly is a staple on the dinner and brunch menus and I can imagine the combination of pork belly, egg, and cheese being popular among local hipsters at the Sunday brunch service. It was a delicious dish that showcased the intersections between Lowcountry and hipster cuisine.

I don’t often order steak, and the accompaniments were the impetus behind my selection: Anson Mills toasted farro, broccoli, fennel, mushrooms, and bourbon jus. Again, the garnish was fennel pollen. With its combination of southern vegetables and Old-South grains, this dish would have been at home at Husk. Neither the flavors nor the composition were very precise, although the bold flavors remained balanced enough and it was a delicious dish that I couldn’t improve on in any way.

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My brother’s fried chicken was selected from the “Staples” portion of the menu and its portion was large enough to obviate the need to order a starter. It was served with sweet potato mash, braised kale, Nature’s Way Honey, and Texas Pete. I didn’t try the chicken; the kale was excellent. However, brother and I both have low “sweet” thresholds and the sweet potato mash was too much for us.

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By this time, my brother was full (he hadn’t been able to finish his chicken) and I was satiated as well. One’s level of satiation is also contingent on the meal’s pacing, and the brisk pacing hadn’t quite given us enough time to digest. However, I ordered dessert anyway—a bourbon bread pudding with apples and house made caramel ice cream. It was not well prepared. The cake and ice cream had solidified into distinct masses, and I couldn’t penetrate the ice cream with a spoon.

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The service was attentive and friendly, although not particularly endearing. Our server had clearly worked in the food service industry, but more likely at a diner. For example, she remarked that she was astonished by how much we had eaten—this unsettling remark made me wonder why the restaurant wouldn’t be accustomed to their patrons eating three courses. She also didn’t have a strong knowledge of the menu and was unaware that the pork cheeks were intended to be served with the onion rings. My brother remarked that there has been a great deal of turnover on the wait staff and hopefully their servers can acquire some polish as the restaurant matures.

Rx is clearly borne out of the Husk mold of commemorating the cuisine of the “Old South.” The indigenous ingredients reflect a fetish of Lowcountry cuisine and should satisfy those looking for a “genuine” or “authentic” Southern experience. However, one of the limitations to Rx and Husk is that neither actually engages with other cuisines or offers much that’s revisionist—McCrady’s is far more successful in this regard—and it’s very difficult to locate an authorial voice in the cuisine. Obviously, the décor is original enough that there is an original “feel” to the restaurant, but it would be nice if the cuisine were a bit less beholden to regionality or could interpret regional ingredients in new ways, as McCrady’s manages to do. Evaluating Rx is a bit difficult because while I was not wowed by it, I don’t think they’re very ambitious to begin with and likely accomplish what they set out to achieve. We enjoyed ourselves and it was nice to receive this caliber of execution in Wilmington, but Rx is firmly planted in the neighborhood category and not likely to reward a special occasion experience. It’s nice to see that Husk is creating an embracing of Southern cuisine that has inspired new restaurant ventures, but outside of McCrady’s, fine dining Southern cuisine remains difficult to find.

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