Chef Dan Lewis: giving us the where, the why, and the how of it all

tuna poke in a bowl garnished with tapioca squid ink crackers

Any encounter with Dan Lewis, chef, sommelier, and owner of Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar and Wine Cafe, leaves you feeling enticed and curious, wondering what was left unsaid or unseen. You get a sense there’s more he can tell you, more he can feed you, more he can teach you. It’s not that he’s holding back, it’s that the depths of Dan’s knowledge, experience, and skill open pockets of perspective and flavor that keep you wanting… more.

Everything is interesting and layered – the food and where it came from, the wine and what it goes with, us and our collective impact on our town, our waters, our planet. When Dan and business partner Scott Foster opened Coastal Provisions in 2006, it began as a gourmet market and evolved over time to a full-service restaurant and oyster bar. Dan’s understanding of oysters runs deep- not just how to prepare them (there’s a raw oyster topped with spicy ginger shaved ice and salty pearls of soy sauce that’s still floating around in my head from a dinner I had here two years ago), but Dan also understands and preaches the oyster’s massive role in cleaning our waters and supporting our ecosystem. More than just a chef, somm, and owner of this Café, Dan is also now a partner in a local oyster farming operation, helping to further educate and share the sustainability of these tasty bivalves with us.

Despite Dan’s oyster prowess and the well-rounded menu at Coastal Provisions, offering perhaps the best crab cakes anywhere and a selection of all grass-fed steaks from Joyce Farms in North Carolina, my mom and I had to succumb to the specials board for our dinner date this evening. It’s as if, in this sweltering heat of July, we asked to be reminded again what’s so wonderful about summer and Dan answered with this specials menu.

An Heirloom Tomato Salad that flooded our mouths with juice and the thick perfume of micro basil, dressed with olive oil, sweet balsamic, and a smattering of salt and pepper: exactly all these tomatoes needed. Where did this rainbow of tomatoes on the plate come from? Dan’s weekly trip to the state farmer’s market in Raleigh where he hand-picks from 30 different varieties of any vegetable you could want. And the micro basil he grew himself right here at the restaurant. Alongside our tomatoes, we enjoyed a plate of Gorgonzola Stuffed Figs with Prosciutto. You’d think the name tells you all you need to know but there’s always more to it with Dan. These plump little figs, their bellies full of creamy cheese and wrapped snugly in their prosciutto sweaters were picked off the fig trees Dan planted years ago right outside the restaurant. I enjoy figs for their round, sugary-smooth flavor, but eating these, with the candy-like sweetness contrasting against salty meat and cheesy funk made me question whether I’d really ever tasted a fig before. Maybe this is what they actually taste like- heaven.

four gorgonzola stuffed figs wrapped in proscuitto on a plate, drizzled with balsamic vinegar

Dan and I had waded through the bushy fig tree leaves the day before, plucking purpley-brown fruit while we chatted about the beach and I asked him my standard question of, “What do you think the Outer Banks needs more of now?”. He spoke on our lack of affordable housing and its effect on restaurants’ ability to secure enough staff with a true understanding of the issue, both sides of the argument on the short-term rental market, and the challenges it presents. Dan is the president of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association and he’s on the board of Government Affairs Committee for the state Restaurant Association. Almost everyone I interview cites this issue in their answer; it seems to be on the top of everyone’s mind right now. Dan, like with everything else he does, talks the talk and really walks the walk, actively working towards solutions in our community.

We also chatted about food and the seemingly endless abundance of ideas Dan has in mind for future dishes. Always more, more, more. He described for me what turned out to be our next course: Tuna Poke with the most fascinating crackers – one made from dried squid ink and tapioca and one from nori, sesame, and bonito flake. They snapped and popped deliciously when we bit into them, the perfect crunchy accompaniment to silky, crimson-colored tuna tossed in a bold mix of soy sauce and Thai red curry. Avocado and sweet currents were folded in with the tuna and sauce for a combination of textures and salty-sweet heat that was like confetti in our mouths. This, followed by a wash of Macanita Rose, was sublime. Don’t mistake our wine pairing for just a lazy seasonal choice – Dan knows how to put together a wine list and my mom knows how to order them. This Rose from Portugal was big and assertive and a legitimate part of the meal, not one of those nondescript Roses that goes limp on your palette but still passes for good just because it’s hot outside.

tuna poke in a bowl garnished with tapioca squid ink crackers

Our next plate was a watermelon brûlée- a welcome sweet and juicy treat of fat watermelon cubes topped with torched, tangy goat cheese, flecks of something excitingly peppery, and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar. We sat back in our bar stools in the corner, next to Dan’s inspiring cookbook library, feeling content and grateful to be enjoying these fresh ingredients in their prime when Dan appeared with one last dish and a secret smile. An off-the-menu pasta made from seaweed, tossed with briny sea beans Dan harvested himself from Oregon Inlet, all coated in a rich, creamy miso butter. This was more than just a fantastic plate of food. It represents Dan’s commitment to sustainability at Coastal Provisions and his interest in a concept called 3D ocean farming. It helps to mitigate climate change, overfishing, and nitrogen pollution by growing restorative species like kelp and shellfish. A scientific effort that, in Dan’s hands, becomes an umami-rich, vegetal delight for the rest of us to revel in.

Dan Lewis is feeding us food and pouring us wine but he’s giving us more- the where, the why, and the how of it all. Our evening of unforgettable and eye-opening eating and drinking came to a close in utter satisfaction. But, truth be told, not before we ordered one more dish. After all, there’s no better place to indulge your want for more than here, with Dan at Coastal Provisions.

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