By Becky Billingsley
Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, Myrtle Beach – Maybe it was because Chef C.R. “Robbie” Nicolaisen grew up working on the family farm, plus the fact his father was an executive chef, or perhaps because using farm-fresh ingredients tastes so darn wonderful brought him to WaterScapes restaurant in Myrtle Beach, where the farm-to-table philosophy is a promise.
Chef Nicolaisen has to prove he is up to the standards set by Chef James Clark, an extremely popular and esteemed chef who left WaterScapes in June to take a new position at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C. The execution of Chef Nicolaisen’s new dinner menu demonstrates he is up to the task.
This new chef is not a stranger to the Grand Strand dining scene. He grew up working on the family farm near Asheboro, N.C., was employed in several Raleigh-area family-owned restaurants as a teenager and learned how to can and preserve harvests from his mother and grandmother. His acquired skills helped Nicolaisen earn several academic scholarships he used at Johnson and Wales University when it was located in Charleston (it’s now in Charlotte), and he graduated Magna Cum Laude.
After a stint as a teaching assistant at The Citadel, where he won the Top Performer award, the young chef achieved his first executive chef position at age 24 with Hilton Hotels. For the next several years he honed his craft at large resorts and country clubs including the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, Sea Trail Golf Resort in Sunset Beach, N.C., and most recently at the exclusive Shoals Club at Bald Head Island, N.C.
Chef Nicolaisen said on Oct. 23 at WaterScapes that he loved the job at the Shoals Club, but since he and his wife, Rachael, and their 1-year-old daughter, Paisley, live in Carolina Forest, the four-hour round-trip commute to Bald Head Island was becoming unmanageable. When he heard his friend James Clark was leaving WaterScapes, he called him up.
“Should I put my name in the hat?” he asked Chef Clark.
Of course, Chef Clark said, and a week after Chef Nicolaisen sent his resume, he had the job.
“Now my commute is 30 minutes,” the chef said. “It was a no-brainer. And this property fits my [cooking] style. The Shoals Club was a good experience, but I felt like the Marina Inn was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Chef Clark and Chef Nicolaisen have many of the same philosophies when it comes to preparing excellent foods. They both support causes such as Farm to Table and the Sustainable Seafood Initiative and love scouring local farms and docks to stock their kitchens.
But of course the two men each have their own styles, and Chef Nicolaisen is showing diners he is worthy.
“Southern cooking to me is using ingredients indigenous to the south,” he said, “whether you call it Lowcountry or New Southern American. I like to use grains from Anson Mills, and use heirloom vegetables like sea island purple cape beans – things people don’t normally know about that have been around for a couple of hundred years. I get ideas from other chefs, like Sean Brock (of Husk in Charleston) and Mike Lata (of FIG in Charleston) – we feed off each other.
“I read a lot about food, and I learn a lot while dealing with local farms. Like at Fudge Family Farms in Alabama, where we get our pork…I can learn what they eat, whether it’s corn or acorns, and learn how that makes the meat taste a certain way. It’s better than commercial pork, which is pumped full of God knows what. With all of our proteins we try to be no hormones, no antibiotics. We pay a little more for it, but in the end it’s totally worth it…I think these products have a more pure and natural flavor. Some of the stuff you buy in the grocery store tastes almost plastic.”
Armed with premium ingredients, Chef Nicolaisen gives them simple treatments. He doesn’t mask the foods’ flavors with heavy sauces.
The chef’s experience in preserving food comes in handy so diners can experience seasonal flavors during off-seasons. For example, in the spring he buys “ramps by the boatload” from North Carolina, and then pickles them so he can use the tender greens to make the ramp butter he places atop Bistro Steak.
That cut of beef he uses is interesting. Remember several years ago when Hanger Steak was a “new” cut that was all the rage because it was less expensive and just as tender as some other cuts? Chef Nicolaisen enjoys the relatively new Bistro Steaks, which are cut from the shoulder.
“I think [Bistro Steak] will be big,” he said. “It has the chew of sirloin or New York strip, but the flavor of ribeye. I get them in and clean them, then vacuum pack them in sous-vide. Then I finish them on the grill. That way, they stay tender. If you try to take them from raw to medium, they’d be like shoe leather.”
The chef’s dinner menu honors the sources from which he procures his foods, such as fresh eggs from Travis Hughey in Andrews, all-natural chicken from Ashley Farms in Winston-Salem, N.C., vegetables from Indigo Farms in Calabash, fish from Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet and other seafood from Livingston Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville.
Those ingredients are turned into Blue Crab Bisque with cognac, charred corn, tomatoes and micro herb salad; Beet Salad with tangerine, baby greens, horseradish whipped goat cheese and boiled peanuts; and Lobster Deviled Eggs.
The above are appetizers ($7-$14) on the dinner menu, and a few more include incredibly tender Heritage Pork Belly with house-smoked blackberries and sorghum glaze; Cornmeal Fried Oysters with butter corn and leek ragout, guanciale (unsmoked bacon made from pig jowls) and smoked tomato jam; and McClellanville Lump Crab Cakes with late summer corn chow-chow, smoked onion jam and red chile mayonnaise.
The fresh fish board changes daily, but a couple of examples the chef might prepare are Grilled Barrelfish with sweet and sour cabbage, Carolina Gold rice and mustard “Q” sauce; or Pan Seared Dotted Rose Snapper with Anson Mills “farrotto”, braised fennel and tomato jam.
Other entrees are $19-$42, and in addition to the Painted Hills Bistro Steak with butter bean risotto, pickled ramp butter and whole roasted heirloom carrots with coriander, the menu includes NC Rock Shrimp over stone ground grit cake with sea island purple cape bean succotash, tasso-corn and red-eye gravy; Fudge Family Pork Chop with butternut squash and country ham gnocchi, collards and grilled peach-sumac nectar; and Ashley Farms Roast Chicken with beet ravioli filled with sweet corn and mascarpone, and with broccoli rabe and roasted fennel agrodolce (an Italian sweet and sour sauce).
The dinner menu also includes Prime Beef Tenderloin served with fingerling potato-leek ragout, butter-poached Brussels sprouts and red wine emulsion.
New lunch and dessert menus will soon be in effect. A sneak peek at the desserts Pastry Chef Miriela Ross will prepare includes Ricotta Doughnuts with sweet cherry jam, chocolate-hazelnut sauce and tarragon espuma; and a deconstructed “Carrot Cake” comprised of carrot genoise, cream cheese ice cream, maple glazed carrots and good bourbon reduction.
WaterScapes is inside the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes, and it is open to the public. It’s off U.S. 17 Bypass in Myrtle Beach just north of 82nd Avenue North; turn left before the security gate. The number is (843) 913-9371.