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Chow down with John Batchelor at 1618 West Seafood Grille

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Chow down with John Batchelor at 1618 West Seafood Grille

Since opening in 2004, 1618 West Seafood Grille has established itself as one of the Triad’s premier restaurants, helmed from the beginning by management-partner Nick Wilson and chef-partner George Neal.

The restaurant is open for dine-in by reservation only, and reservations are spaced sufficiently apart to promote safety. All personnel are masked, and other CDC guidelines are carefully followed. Takeout is especially secure. Payment is taken over the phone when you order, and a dedicated parking space near the door allows contactless pickup. [A personal note: for takeout here and all other restaurants, please make a special effort to tip generously these days.]

Chef Neal’s cuisine is one of the few in our area that can be characterized as unique. He juxtaposes ingredients that are seldom presented together, so diners encounter contrasting taste experiences, as opposed to the more common blending of complementary flavors.

Contrasting ingredients often demand different wines, and the list here is exceptionally well constructed to accommodate such requirements. Multiple by the glass selections can be ordered in three different sizes, so appropriate pairings can be ensured. And if I understand the new regulations correctly, you can include BTG wine or beer orders with takeout.

Crispy Shrimp illustrate such multiplicity, showing at least three primary flavors in one starter. The shrimp bear a tempura texture, their light exterior giving way to simple, pure, natural shrimp flavor, gently enhanced with lime and ginger. (Pause a moment to reflect on how frequently shrimp dishes get all their flavor from their treatment, with little or no actual shrimp taste coming through.) A corn and chorizo sausage stuffed pepper flanks the shrimp, a sweet potato puree alongside.

In Duck Confit Spring Rolls, the duck is appropriately fork-tender, exuding deep flavor, accented by cranberry gastrique. Goat cheese mousse is rich and mellow. Butternut squash, almond, and arugula salad complete the assembly.

As you might expect from the restaurant’s name, most of the entrees are seafood-based. Seared Chilean Seabass receives a simple treatment, yielding a crusty exterior, enhanced with  creamy queso. A crisp polenta cake resides alongside, joined by red beans and coleslaw. A blue tortilla hosts a small portion of pulled pork barbecue.

Halibut gets a riced potato crust, lending texture as well as flavor, sharpened with mustard demi glace and pepper relish. Mac ‘n Cheese is filled with smoked shrimp and bits of pancetta, rolled into a large collard leaf. This makes for somewhat awkward eating, but the flavors are really good. Cauliflower is treated with brown butter.

Large Scallops are seared pleasantly brown, sprinkled with toasted almond slivers and arugula. Strips of pulled pork rest alongside, joined by sliced roasted beets and butternut squash, plus goat cheese mousse. (I was advised in my fact-check telephone interview that the pork has since been changed to duck confit.)

Black and white sesame seeds form a crust for Tuna, clearly sushi grade, a balsamic glaze on the side, plus wasabi oil- especially good flavor matches. Sautéed cabbage extends the sesame theme with sesame oil. Wasabi mashed potatoes round things out.

Meats and chicken are not neglected, of course. Beef Tenderloin reveals exceptional depth of beef flavor, topped with Béarnaise sauce. An earthy mushroom risotto sits alongside crunchy asparagus, wrapped in bacon. Three mushroom caps have been stuffed with crab meat, a Parmesan crisp sail rising from the center. Butternut squash relish lends vibrant color along with sharpened flavor.

The kitchen was out of Pork Tenderloin on my last visit, so I ordered a Burger instead. It turned out to be the most elaborate rendition I think I have ever encountered. The patty itself is thick, coarse-ground in house from ribeye, tenderloin, and tres major (similar to sirloin) and hand-packed. It is dressed with braised red cabbage, pumpkin chili, and pickled carrots, all hosted on a brioche bun. Instead of mayonnaise, the bun gets a swath of collard greens aioli. The elaborate assembly is surrounded by onion rings, treated with honey. Unconventional, definitely, but near masterpiece in impact.

The restaurant closed for about a week around Christmas due to a positive COVID test by an employee prior to opening one night. They did not open that evening, and remained shut down until every employee had tested negative. That strikes me as the best way to handle a bad situation, and although I share in a lament for lost revenue, I applaud the decision. In the current situation, this can happen anywhere (and has happened elsewhere during the same time period).

Just reinforces the need for vigilant safety measures from both restaurant personnel as well as customers. Here’s hoping we can all stay safe and healthy and still continue to enjoy good food in or from good restaurants! Sign up on the restaurant website for news of discounts and other special events.

John Batchelor has been writing about eating and drinking since 1981. Over a thousand of his articles have been published. He is also author of two travel/cookbooks: Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast, and Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants and Recipes from Western North Carolina. Contact him at john.e.batchelor@gmail.com or see his blog, johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com.

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