Steamers: A 20-year evolution of experience, philosophy

By on January 2, 2017

Winter seems like a great time to visit a year-round restaurant. But restaurants are more than just the food they serve. They have a history, and in many cases, are an integral part of our local culture. So here, we will offer something different: A look at the origins of a restaurant, then a sampling of its fare.

Steamers recently moved from Corolla.

Steamers opened this past summer in Southern Shores Crossing in the space formerly home to Meridian 42.

First of two parts

For the previous 21 years, it was tucked away in a tiny space at Corolla’s TimBuck II shopping center, selling mostly to-go pots of steamed seafood, along with sides and desserts.

Steamers opened in 1994 as a full-service restaurant — albeit a tiny one — equipped with eight tables and fifteen bar stools.

Linda Coats, a co-owner of the current Steamers, was also a co-owner of the original restaurant.

She gained experience working at the iconic J.K’s in Kill Devil Hills under the tutelage of J.K Norfleet. When J.K.’s was destroyed in a fire, Norfleet relocated to Raleigh and Coats moved to Windmill Point, where she served for two years as the manager of what was to become another local landmark eatery.

Co-owner Chris Braswell cut his teeth working in restaurants while in college, doing everything from “slinging food in the kitchen to working out front in a five-star establishment where tuxedoes were the uniform we wore.”

After college, Coats and her partner hired him as Steamers’ marketing manager.

The new venture didn’t quite take off the way the owners imagined. Coats and her partner had picked a staff deep in culinary skills, but for various reasons, they began to drift away. Shortly after opening the “wheels had come off,” and Steamers was bereft of key employees.

Coats turned to her former employer, J.K. Norfleet to help put the wheels back on the train, while Braswell found it necessary to handle the kitchen. His return to the kitchen came with an epiphany: he discovered he preferred the role of chef to that of marketing guru.

Things got back on track and Steamers thrived.

Two years after the 1994 opening, they added a second, smaller business in TimBuck II, where based on an idea she had read in a food magazine, steamer pots of crabs, clams, lobster and shrimp for carry out formed the centerpiece of the new venture.

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Co-owners Linda Coats and Chris Braswell.

Coats found the to-go operation more to her liking, so she sold her interest in the restaurant to her partner and brought Braswell with her.

“It was hugely successful from the start,” Coats says, and there they remained for almost 20 years before they decided it was time return to their roots.

The 2016 version of Steamers is a combination of everything Coats and Braswell had done in prior iterations; the full bar, inside dining and the to-go service– now neatly bundled under one roof in Southern Shores.

Coats is the face of the business, greeting diners and visiting tables to make sure every patron is satisfied. The look and feel of the restaurant. the comportment of the hostesses, bartenders and waitstaff are a reflection of her philosophy and experience.

And speaking of decor, the modern motif featuring subdued blue colors with a slight Euro feel reminds one of  interior designs in larger cities.

Braswell is makes the magic happen in the kitchen and his philosophy of how a chef should operate suffuses the entire operation.

The pair combines these approaches in a fashion that seems to come together nicely.

Braswell has two rules: Start with the highest quality, freshest food you can obtain, and do as little as possible to obscure the natural flavors.

“If you have a super-high quality cut of beef or a fish fresh off the boat, you don’t need to do much to it to make it taste like it should. A touch here or there to balance things out, but if you are overpowering the food with sauces, spices and other stuff, then you are probably doing so because what you started out with was flawed or inferior,” Braswell said.

 

Execution is also a key factor the two owners insist upon in the kitchen.

Braswell says the staff knows they can refuse to serve anything — a beer, a to-go pot, an entrée or a dessert if it is not up to standards.

A fried hush puppy is as important as a grilled ribeye or a top half-roasted chicken.

“It’s an onus more than authority,” Coats said. “The staff knows that if they don’t approve of the food, they are not to deliver it to the customer.”

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The bar and, below, looking down from the second floor.

All of this may seem counter to the foodie revolution and its exotic concoctions, but Braswell sees it differently. Some aspects of the modern food movement he embraces wholeheartedly.

Their chicken is free-range, organic and North Carolina bred. When roasted, only the top half, the best part, is used.

Baby-back ribs spend three hours over low heat, then are finished on the grill to caramelize the fats. A light basting of a simple sauce is applied, placing them between wet and dry on the “rib sauce” scale.

Their pulled pork spends 12 hours over low heat, fueled by hardwood charcoal in a Big Green Egg. When finished, a mild vinegar-based sauce is lightly applied.

They cut their own steaks and offer only one cut — the rib eye — allowing a focus on quality from butchering to plating.

Even the hush puppies start with cornmeal stone ground from a 300-year-old mill in Guilford County.

The same standards apply to the seafood. Braswell starts by stationing himself at local suppliers such as Carawan’s when the fishermen and dealers come in with fish fresh from the docks. He is also no stranger to the Wanchese docks, and when it comes to clams and scallops, he uses other sources, the identity of which is keeps close to the vest.

Indeed, his clams have never seen the inside of a freezer, much of the seafood on the menu was likely acquired that morning and the scallops are dry-packed — no water or preservatives are added.

So, the farm-to-fork and boat-to-plate aspect of the food revolution is a huge part of Steamers’ reputation. On the other hand, Braswell’s preference for a light touch when it comes to seasonings, sauces and batters is almost counter-revolutionary.

But it’s why Steamers, with its modern, upscale décor that reminds one of an Aloft hotel sans the overdone hipster motif, can get away with offering so many simple dishes, even fried foods, on their menu.

The light touch, the attention to detail (the cooking oil is changed often, for example) and the freshness actually translate into fried clam strips, scallops and shrimp that taste like, well, clams, scallops, and shrimp.

Which makes perfect sense.

Braswell also employs his college experience into his approach to being a chef:

“Marketing and other courses taught me to problem-solve. When it comes to food, especially in this age, chefs tend to either follow the lead of whoever mentored them, or ‘Google’ recipes online until they find one they like,” he said.

“But I take a different approach. For example, with clam chowder, I am going to research fifty different recipes and try to figure out what each chef was trying to achieve. Once I understood all of them, I have a better sense of what clam chowder ‘is’, and I could borrow from this recipe or that and add my own knowledge.

“I love to pair ingredients, menu items and I pay close attention to the texture of the food that leaves our kitchen. I do this on every dish I create. So I’m a self-taught chef more than anything else.”

Next: We give the food a try.


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