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By: Jayden Thomas

Cape Fear VineyardNestled between a triad of longleaf pines, cascading grape vines and picturesque New England style cottages residents of Bladen County and Southeastern, North Carolina alike now have a rare gem to visit, dine and host dazzling celebrations. Dining in The Cork Room, hosting an event in the grand gallery ballroom or simply spending a carefree weekend away from the hurry of daily life Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery offers a laid­ back, carefree atmosphere that even the most high-­strung of individuals could not resist.

Turning off the paved road into the main entrance of the venue it’s apparent every aspect from the wandering peacocks to the fleet of frogs doing various chores and hobbies has been thought out. Don’t worry, you’ve not entered into some sort of Willy Wonka kind of world, the frogs are only a glimpse of the art ubiquitous of the property. Before the car is parked you are very aware of not just the frogs and peacocks, but also llamas, miniature horses and one majestic steed, Vincent. The grounds are impeccably manicured yet not so that one feels underdressed in the classic southern style of polo and khaki shorts.

Your first stop will be The Cork Room, the vineyard’s casual dining restaurant. This room may be billed as the casual dining area for the property, but believe me, casual is not the defining word. Stepping through the double glass doors you are warmly welcomed by staff, but it’s not the staff that will WOW you. A survey of the room reveals pop culture memorabilia, priceless Dr Seuss original sketches and yes, even original work by Picasso himself. The vibrant hand-painted mural behind the cypress wood bar is the anchor that brings all these different eras of art together. The dining room isn’t too large, holding 15 tables and there are no strangers in the room. Diners interact with each other as they gravitate from bar to table and often times stopping off by other tables to exchange pleasantries with old friends and welcome new ones. You often find the owner, Alex Munroe seated at the bar or one of the tables speaking with guest and offering up a wealth of information about the past and future of the property. Alex’s approachable and personal demeanor brings a sense of warmth and liveliness to the already pleasant atmosphere.

From the sounds of delight and those ever famous “mmmm”‘s, you are very aware that Chef Steven is on his game serving up dishes that will not soon be forgotten and most importantly have you returning again real soon. Some true southerners may be bold enough to call Steven Wack a yankee, but after one bite it doesn’t matter where he came from as long as he doesn’t leave. Chef Steven is a five-­time winning championship grill master, but it’s not just burgers and dogs being served up at The Cork Room. His delicious take on every dish he creates is truly an experience. For those of you that like to shy away from eating anything that walks or swims there are options for you too other than rabbit food. Chef Steven offers Baked Manicotti using house­-made pasta.

All this talk about livestock, art and food I’m not forgetting that you are actually visiting a winery. The bar is just as impressive as the menu. There are over 22 bottles of wine available and a majority of them can be purchased by the glass. The Cork Room does offer an option that you can’t get anywhere else in a close proximity, wine on tap. I admit, I have never had wine on tap and needed a little education. Erik Mura, The Cork Room’s wine and front end manager is a wealth of information on all things wine and was eager to give me a lesson.

I was invited to a special opening of The Cork Room a few weeks ago and was excited to attend. That particular night I was alone and was prepared to give a strict review of dinner service, start to finish. I carefully studied the menu and when ready I laid out my game plan to the waitress. I would begin with Zucchini Styx, breaded zucchini spears lightly fried and served with a spicy ranch. The zucchini was fried perfectly crisp without any being too done or having sit too long to get that unpleasant soggy texture. Although the zucchini was superb the spicy ranch could have stood with a little more heat. I’m not too sure if there was any spice to it at all.

Each entree comes with a starter salad after hearing the blue cheese dressing is made in house I was all in for it. I could not have made a better choice. When the entree came, I had Pan­Seared Pork Chop with Spinach, pork chop stuffed with fresh spinach and fire roasted red pepper, topped with provolone cheese. I told you the menu was a far cry from burgers and dogs.

Don’t let Chef Steven’s Champion of the Grill title fool you. The dish was plated beautifully. The colour of the red peppers and spinach against the provolone cheese was stunning. The presentation did not fool, cutting into the pork chop the juices seeped from the meat assuring me that once I take a bite it will be one of perfection. The chop was paired with jasmine rice and zucchini and onion saute both of which were perfectly cooked, seasoned and meant to be served with the entree. Finally, I rounded out my meal with peach cobbler with candied walnuts served with vanilla ice cream. The cobbler’s flavour was a beautiful marriage of the walnut and peach. If I had to find a disappointment with desert it would be the cobbler not being kept hot so to slightly melt the ice cream when dipped on top. Overall my meal was absolutely fantastic! I true dining experience that I plan to recreate over and over again.

After dinner, I requested something special from the bar and what I got was special indeed, blueberry infused sparkling wine. A delicious, light, refreshing beverage perfect for a warm summer evening while wandering the grounds of the vineyard and enjoying conversation with locals. Careful though that quick stroll through the pines, camellias, cottages and down by the lake may turn into a three­-hour affair, but you’ll never know where the time has gone. The Cork Room is not the only place to see beautiful priceless art. If there isn’t an event going on in the Gallery Ballroom ask someone to lead you to it. The stacked stone and cypress walls make for the perfect backdrop for pieces of art unheard of outside of traditional gallery walls. The surroundings take you to another place on earth and make you forget all the worries for a few moments, perfect relaxation!

The Cork Room is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 2pm and Sunday 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner hours are Tuesday through Thursday 5pm to 9pm, Friday and Saturday 5pm to 10pm. Located at 195 Vineyard Drive, Elizabethtown near the industrial park. Owner, Alex, Chef Steven and Manager Erik have formed a team that without a doubt have struck gold. The Cork Room receives fives stars and is a must­ visit for anyone’s list this summer.