Couple combine fresh local seafood with Lebanese spice at Oak Island's Pelican Seafood.
By Liz Biro
Published: Friday, June 12, 2009 at 10:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 at 10:20 a.m.
Jumbo sauteed shrimp, 16 counts, with their heads and hot pink on a platter. The dish served at Pelican Seafood in Oak Island is pure Carolina coast - except for the heady, golden spice.
"Curry, cumin and coriander," Jeanne-Darc Wehbe reveals.
"And other spices," her husband Tony adds with a wink.
Pelican is the sort of quirky, old-fashioned fish house/seafood restaurant of which happy beach memories are made. Kids in salty bathing suits marvel at the market's rainbow fresh fish on ice while their parents ponder how much shrimp to bring back home to Charlotte, Ohio, Tennessee. Cornmeal-dusted flounder filets and fat hushpuppies sizzle in the fryer and old-fashioned coleslaw waits in a cooler.
But Pelican has a delicious back story, as told by the spicy, so-called "CCC Shrimp." The Wehbes are Lebanese, and they are fusing the delectable Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors of their homeland with North Carolina's seafood heritage.
"I tell people, you're in trouble coming in this place," head chef Tony says. "Once you eat here, you will know."
He is referring to the couple's dedication to not just fresh North Carolina seafood, local as often as it is available, but also authentic Lebanese recipes.
The restaurant's menu offers Southern favorites like fried seafood platters, oyster po'boys and crab cakes - "fresh, homemade, North Carolina lump crab meat, no fillers" alongside kafta, falafel, kebabs, grilled rack of lamb and baklava.
The Long Beach Road market supplies the stunning seafood; the Wehbes make everything else from scratch. They soak fava beans for falafel and chop mounds of flat-leaf parsley for tabbouleh. Jeanne-Darc handcrafts baklava, and Tony painstakingly minces and somehow mellows garlic - the technique is his secret - for a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern sauce that flavors everything from grilled tuna to oysters.
"He is so picky. He drives me crazy," Jeanne-Darc says of her husband's strict cooking rules. He mandates large shrimp butterflied just so. Platters must be at the ready to take food the minute it comes off the heat so that dishes are served steaming hot. If a customer says he or she doesn't like a particular fish or shellfish, Tony begins his polite interrogation.
Was the seafood fresh?
How was it cooked?
"Why don't you let me cook it for you? I promise you will like it."
Jeanne-Darc smiles and rolls her eyes, but truly both she and Tony are meticulous chefs thanks to culinary histories that started in their native Beirut.
Tony, 50, began grilling as a boy, when he and his father regularly fished the Mediterranean.
During Lebanon's Civil War in the mid-1970s, young Tony operated a vegetable cart. Each day, he sold enough to make a profit and then took the rest home for his family to eat.
"In the war it was tough times," he recalls. "You had to do whatever it took to make a living."
When Tony reached 18, old enough to join fighting forces, his parents, fearing for their son's life, put him on a plane to America. In 1978, he landed as an engineering major at Louisiana State University. He also spent time in Los Angles managing a Lebanese restaurant. Later, Tony moved to New Orleans, where he opened a bar, studied refrigeration and air conditioning, and waited tables and watched chefs at a string of upmarket restaurants including the iconic Creole shop Arnaud's.
When friends suggested better-paying opportunities in Boston, Tony headed north to tackle nursing. He continued to work fine-dining restaurants, recreating their recipes at home, while obtaining his nursing degree.
Back in Beirut, Jeanne-Darc enjoyed her mother's traditional Lebanese cooking. Jeanne-Darc was a dentist with a clinic in Beirut, a place she never intended to leave.
"I always had a dream that I would be married and I'd have my kids next to my mom, my dad, and we'd go to church together, and we'd shop together.
"I never thought I'd be here, away from everybody."
Jeanne-Darc changed her mind after meeting Tony. Christians, the couple found each other at church, during a family wedding that Tony had returned home to attend. The pair felt an instant connection, and three months later in 1996, they were married and living together in Boston.
Jeanne-Darc, 43, abandoned her dental practice - years of American schooling were required to continue - but she was busy enough. The Wehbes started a family. Soon, a nursing job interview brought Tony to Fayetteville; the state's mild climate convinced him to stay.
While in Fayetteville, the entrepreneurial-minded twosome ran a seafood market and grocery, and purchased investment properties to renovate. Jeanne-Darc, a real estate agent, handled sales. Tony continued his nursing career.
Meantime, the busy couple, with four children, vacationed in Oak Island. They so enjoyed their time on the coast that Tony took a job at Brunswick Community Hospital, but the work was not as exciting as the surgical nursing to which he was accustomed. Looking for a challenge, the Wehbes launched Pelican Seafood market three years ago in an old home they refurbished.
The attached restaurant opened earlier this year, and, ever since, foodies, locally and on Internet boards, have been buzzing about the fare served in a sparse dining room, bare walls and no tablecloths.
"This is a small place, nothing fancy," Tony says, "but I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say, 'This is the best seafood I've ever have had in my life,' and that to me, that's very rewarding."
Customers are equally impressed by polite, attentive service offered by the Wehbes and their children.
After school and homework, Nicole, 10, works the restaurant cash register; George, 12, the seafood market. Tony Jr., 11, and Christopher, 8, fill in wherever they are needed, but everyone shares responsibilities - and tips.
Asked what they plan to do with their earnings, the children in unison say "save it."
Despite their successes, the Wehbes miss their homeland and worry about family in unstable Lebanon, but they focus on their happy team. Mom, Dad and the kids gently rib each other in the kitchen, banter cheerily with customers and share seafood tips. Besides selling fresh seafood, restaurant meals and some groceries - Mediterranean and Middle Eastern items included - Pelican steams seafood to-go and supplies ready-to-cook items such as crab-stuffed fish filets.
With so much to do, the market gets hectic but the Wehbes' service doesn't falter.
"Don't worry," an ever-smiling Jeanne-Darc tells a man, among the market crowd, who is concerned he'll ruin the stuffed filets. "I will write down the cooking instructions for you"
"You'll write it for me?" the surprised man exclaims.
"Yes, of course," she replies.
About the time the market clears, patrons are waiting in the dining room. Tony rushes to the kitchen in between the two shops and loads the grill with big, juicy oysters on their half shells. He spoons his secret garlic sauce on top each one, adds a light parmesan cheese sprinkle and then more garlic sauce for another dish blending American, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors.
"We're proud of our heritage, and we want to share some of that with the rest of the world," Tony says.
"But now this," he says of America, "this is home."
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