The most obvious first impression of Emerald Isle eatery Caribsea – Fish Prime Raw is the view. From its third floor perch in the new Transportation Impact building on Crew Drive, expansive views of the ocean and the sound can be seen from just about every vantage point. It's hard to look away, but once visitors do, the upscale yet comfortable décor of Caribsea comes into focus. It has a cool nautically-infused industrial vibe that pays homage to its island home with a somewhat hipper translation of beach interior. The color coral is nowhere to be seen. Instead rich blues mingle with colorful artwork and galvanized steel signs.
Executive Chef Patrick Hogan's pride in the restaurant is instantly apparent as he shares insight about design decisions and the artists who have contributed to the space.
"The most fun," Hogan said, "has been the opportunity to be involved from the ground up, literally. From the layout to the design to the décor, I've been actively involved from the beginning."
Hogan may best be known along the stretch of the island for Carlton's, a restaurant he opened with his father in 2003. More specifically, it is the restaurant's much-lauded crab cakes that often made an impact. The cakes are sold in stores along the island and can be found on the Caribsea menu to sate the appetites of diehard fans. In 2010, the restaurant moved to the Ocean Club to better serve catering clients holding events at the site and by early 2016, Hogan was looking for a new path.
The owners of Transportation Impact, Keith Byrd and Travis Burt, were looking for something to put a feather in the cap of their new three-story building and word was spreading, as it so often does in a small community. Hogan heard a mention of the idea at a local bank. It was exactly what he was looking for.
As noted on Caribsea's website, Hogan spent time in high-volume steak houses during the late 1990s, firing upwards of 1,000 cuts of meat a night. When asked how he got his start in the kitchen, he is fond of saying "baptism by fire," and it seems he means that quite literally. The experience left a lot to be desired, but it also left a huge impression on the budding chef. He went on to work with Legal Sea Foods, which owns a chain of restaurants and offers an educational culinary program. He dove him, working his way through the ranks and later joining the launch team which helped opened restaurants in cities up and down the east.
One of the things that stuck with Hogan, he said, was that the company's numerous restaurants all had their own individual identity instead of the whitewashed homogenous looks of many chains around the country. Through his career he has examined the restaurant industry from the inside out, giving him a clear idea of exactly what he wanted to achieve with Caribsea – and he knew from the onset that he couldn't do it alone, he needed a strong team.
While the décor and view are obvious to every diner who visits the restaurant, what is less obvious is the collaborative professional environment and the wealth of talent that is preparing their meal. Restaurants are a tricky business. From hot headed chefs prone to temper tantrums to waitstaff that have trouble handling the heat on busy, stressful summer nights, it is rare that a restaurant can find its groove so soon after opening. But just a little over a year from its opening day and Caribsea is humming like a well-oiled machine. And that can only be possible because of the team Hogan has assembled.
We find a friendly recognizable face in the kitchen in Thomas Hosley, former director of the culinary program at Carteret Community College, who is filling the role of production chef. A 1988 grad of Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, his career has been a tour of some of the region's best known restaurants, including time in Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington before coming home to Carteret County to lead the college program.
It doesn't take a quick study to note that Hogan and Hosley have long been acquainted. There is a casual ease in their conversations despite their serious, somewhat dry personas. These are men who don't smile for the sake of it – but when they do, you know they mean it. Standing side by side, arms folded in the exact same posture, the similarity between the two is striking. And you trust it. Could these men prepare you a great meal? Absolutely.
But in walks Ryan Jankowski, chef de cuisine, and you get a sense that this is going to be fun. In contrast to clean shaven Hogan and Hosley, Jankowski sports a righteous beard and tattoos show from under the curled up cuffs of his chef's jacket. There is a little bit of a renegade in there. You get a slight sense that he is just itching to throw these guys a curve ball and that brings an extra hint of excitement.
Jankowski was in New York when he got a call about the fledgling restaurant, having attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
"We had a conversation and I instantly felt connected," he said. "Modern cooking techniques and new equipment, I felt sure that we were on the same page."
Seated together in the restaurant, the three of them are immediately more animated when the conversation moves to food. This is what makes them tick, from cutting edge preparation methods to their dedication to sustainable seafood.
Caribsea serves only 100 percent local, sustainable seafood. That means you may see something on the menu that you're not used to seeing, like amberjack, cobia or mackerel. It also means that you will never find overfished fisheries on the menu, like grouper.
"We serve fish that people aren't used to seeing on a menu, it's different and unique," said Hogan. "And people are always surprised by how good it is."
To keep folks coming back for more, the chefs change 80 to 90 percent of the main menu on a quarterly basis. Sure this gives visitors something new to choose every time they visit, but it also gives this talented group of chefs the opportunity to keep their creativity alive. Stagnation isn't an option.
Despite playing the lead role in the restaurant, Hogan is quick to express the collaborative nature of the restaurant.
"There are a lot of people on the line and we all feed off each other. Everyone is passionate about food and whether we're cooking my food or cooking their food, it's still cooking," he said. "Everyone gets a chance to bring something to the table."
When something new is proposed they taste, they discuss and they put their creative minds together until the recipe and preparation is perfected. The same goes for the other line and prep cooks who are busily preparing for the night's dinner service.
"I always wanted to have this teaching element and that's what Caribsea has been since the beginning," said Hogan. "A hodgepodge of incredibly focused food-centered staff members."
The team philosophy centers on support and encouragement. In the year that the restaurant has been open it has already seen staff members leave for other ventures. And while there are two ways of interpreting a departure, this group takes it as a compliment. If someone is ready for a bigger restaurant, they've done something right.
Although everyone is hoping Katarine, the bar manager, isn't going anywhere anytime soon. With an ever expanding menu of craft cocktails, Katarine is as excited about fresh, organic libations as the chefs are about the restaurant's food offerings.
"She is, hands down, the best bartender in the world," Hogan says through a stray smile.
Fresh herbs, freshly-squeezed juices and house made syrups combine to create one-of-a-kind cocktails. The manager spends four hours each day prepping for dinner service, about the same amount of time that the kitchen spends preparing food.
"I love it," she said, while slicing lemons. "I enjoy so much making new drinks and coming up with new ideas."
Like the rest of the staff, her passion for what she does emanates through.
Her inside spot isn't the only bar at Caribsea. Those looking to expand upon the amazing views can't visit without a trip up to the Torpedo Lounge, the rooftop bar which offers a secondary option for diners. Serving the full restaurant menu and boasting some of the best views in Emerald Isle, many bypass the dining room altogether and simply enjoy their meal al fresco. Whether you're looking for a great spot for an after-work wine down or a romantic date night, this is an experience everyone should try.
Caribsea is open for lunch and dinner year-round.