None of the folks running the chic restaurant in Wilmington’s Embassy Suites hotel is named James Watt (who perfected the steam engine). Their names are Alan Nelson, Nicole Boudrieau and Tyler Powell. But eventually, they could collectively take on the name Hero, the Greek who actually invented the device in the first century.
Because the restaurant they helped to open, and which is operating on the second floor of the Embassy Suites, is named Steam. According to Director of Food and Beverage Director Nelson,”That name was selected because the train tracks of Wilmington ended pretty close to our site. The historical context of steam engines with both the river boats and the trains led us to that choice.”
What’s more, Steam’s sister restaurant, appropriately named Cloud 9, is operating on the ninth floor, sporting some fantastic views, beers and bar food.
And the three “engines” of Steam are responsible for both spots, which, although under the same roof, appeal to very different client bases.
The indoor restaurant on the second floor, Steam is described by veteran Food and Beverage Manager Alan Nelson as “relaxed” fine dining. The décor is clean, crisp and refined, but not to the point where a customer would be afraid to sit while wearing anything less than a tuxedo or a gown—though both would fit right in, especially with the magnificent views of the Cape Rear river that the site overlooks.
“We take all comers,” Nelson joked. And those “comers” arrive in considerable numbers, especially on the weekends, apparently not solely for the views. But the two-year-old restaurant had its share of obstacles to overcome to get to this point.
Like two hurricanes, one of which sent a ninth floor railing section plummeting to the ground below, and closed the place for two months.
Another hurdle was management’s approach to beers on tap. Nelson, a craft beer guy for decades, had to convince them that craft beers were magnets to the type of clientele the business wanted to attract. Fortunately, he succeeded, and Steam’s craft beers on tap, all selected by Nelson himself, are quite varied and rotated often based upon what is selling best.
For some time now, that distinction has gone to Wilmington Brewing’s Tropical Lightning. “ It’s the best-selling beer in Wilmington,” said Nelson. “I always have it, and the more I have, the more I sell.” Right now, there are twelve beers on Steam’s taps, all offered in five-, 8- and 14-oz. pours.
Another issue is the stigma of a “hotel restaurant.”
“Lots of folks think ‘Hotel restaurant—how good could it be?’ “ allowed Nelson. “And when they come, they find out just how good it is.”
Food-wise, Executive Chef Tyler Powell’s varied menu changes four times a year, and when it does, the entire staff has a say in what gets put on it. Staff tastings have generally approved what Powell puts forth, but “There was that one dish that got a chilly reception,” Powell admits. “In fact, the staff rejected it outright,” laughed Powell.
So “Steamy Noods,” a pasta dish, was removed, reworked and tweaked to the point where the staff gave its current seal of approval.
Powell also clearly understands the power of presentation, and the dishes that come out of the kitchen are most often visual works of art. So are the “bar food’ dishes that emerge from Steam’s sister restaurant seven floors up, Cloud 9. And having enjoyed one of them called “Low Country Shrimp Spread with Grilled Baguettes,” yours truly can attest that it tasted as good as it looked. Accompanied by a malty, spicy Champion Shower Pilsner, the dish was perfect for a light lunch.
And speaking of perfect, the views from that rooftop bar were nothing short of stunning in the afternoon, showing the USS North Carolina and Wilmington’s iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to the south. The Marina view to the north is just as captivating.
Also to the north, one can see the area where an 8,000-seat amphitheater will rise, as well as more construction. Alan Nelson quips that while Steam and Cloud 9 are in the north of Wilmington now, with the boom that’s occurring, they will soon occupy the middle. The restaurant and rooftop bar already take advantage of their proximity to the Wilson Centre by featuring specials which appeal to theatergoers, both before and after the show.
More like a tapas bar, the space with its appealing fire pits and those spectacular Wilmington sunsets, Cloud 9 is most conducive to small or large gatherings. There have even been yoga classes offered to those who wished to “elevate their consciousness” in more ways than one.
Cloud 9 is also where you might actually spot a celebrity enjoying a cocktail, wine or one of the twenty-four beers the place has on tap, because “Cloud 9 is the place where people come to see and be seen,” according to Assistant Director of Food and Beverage Nicole Boudrieax, the third of Steam’s “engines.” Old Man Winter usually closes the rooftop bar from December until March, however.
Nelson, Boudrieau and Powell were the original power trio that got the two-year old Steam up and running in its early days.
And the “engines” are apparently still working at peak efficiency.
Matt McGraw Photography