Monday, January 20, 2014

Fun Playing With Food Near Virginia Beach

This winter, we tried something new. A week sharing a beach house in Virginia Beach with about a dozen friends. We headed out a day early to allow for possible bad driving weather, and spent our first night in Newport News, VA. When I realized that Newport News was en route to our destination, my Bugs Bunny memory of "Transylvania 6-5000" kicked in, and I just had to stay there. (A link to the whole cartoon is here.) From a culinary point of view, we needed to remember that the middle-East Coast of the US in winter is not Florida, and that many fish and seafood items would be out of season.

Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods America on The Travel Channel had just featured a place near Newport News for it's creative use of the local Cownose Ray. I'd happened to catch the episode when channel surfing the week before and hoped to try it. It was a bit late on Friday night when we ambled into Conch and Bucket Restaurant in Hampton VA. There was no Cownose Ray on the menu. Moreover, there was nothing remotely local about any of the fish and seafood being offered, either. Though our server was nice, she had to ask the kitchen about every item (the shrimp were from India, the tuna also from far away). The place just felt like it lacked soul. Our dinners were ok, but nothing I'd rush back for:

Conch Chowder
Bob's Penne Carbonara with Pancetta and Peas
My Housemade Ravioli in Sherry Cream Sauce Topped with Crab Meat
My theory in ordering this dish was that even if the crab meat wasn't pristine (and it wasn't), the house-made pasta and veg would be enough to satisfy, and the raviolis were fresh, light on the palate, and delicious. But seriously, how can a restaurant featuring this much pasta not have a black pepper mill in the house? Oh well.

Saturday brought us to The Barking Dog, also in Hampton, which showed great promise through its Facebook photo gallery, which depicted a beer and fish shack located over a harbor. The Barking Dog has only been open about a year. The morning chill did not dampen our enthusiasm, as sunshine streamed into the enclosed porch-dining room. Some of Barking Dog's food may have been a victim of the season. 

We began by sharing a container of the Hatteras Clam Chowder. Clear soup, clams, potatoes, bacon, celery, onion. We enjoyed it, though the clams did not scream "fresh".

The signature items are the Hot Dogs and other tube meats, so we had to try one. 

Snap Dog 
This dog, served simply with deli mustard, had a great casing, but it was not 100% beef. I've had better tasting dogs, but we enjoyed this.

Bob and I each had the blackened tuna plate. His with fries, mine with cole slaw.

The tuna's texture belied the "fresh and local" claim, but even though it was most certainly frozen, it was prepared very well. The biggest disappointment was the cole slaw, which was not the home-made goodness depicted in those FB photos, but straight out of a food service container. I would love to re-visit The Barking Dog in season; it seems like a fun, reasonably priced place to play with food, and perhaps with more demand and better weather, the housemade cole slaw and local fish return.

The culinarily inclined among our group cooked for the first five nights. This was a challenge because of the many food sensitivities and preferences that we needed to accommodate. I made the second such dinner, an "assemble it yourself" "faux stir fry" for 12. A small bowl in the middle has minced jalapeno and more scallion.

Stir Fry Sauce and Rice Noodles
Assorted Meats

Assorted Vegetables
Nary a drop was left over!

The next night, my friend (and professional chef) Tom taught me how to deep fry seafood. We had scored some surprisingly beautiful rockfish and flounder, together with Carolina never-frozen shrimp, at Whole Foods in Virginia Beach. The tater tots came from a food service bag, and the crab cakes (not shown) were made at WF from Venezuelan crab (but they say they get the local Chesapeake product in season) but the rest of our buffet was made-from-scratch local delicious!

Jean made this tossed salad

Margaret hand chopped and mixed the cole slaw
Fried Shrimp Goodness

Flounder, Rockfish, Cole Slaw, Tots
Others cooked the next three nights, but Bob and I got out for two local lunches, each of which was outstanding. First, Korean Fried Chicken at Chic N Fish, back towards the Hampton VA area. Be prepared to wait at least 20 minutes for an order of that special chicken (American-style chicken is apparently prepared more quickly.)

Despite it's Chinese-take-out vibe, everything about Chic N Fish was special. First, the green tea, poured over a rosemary sprig:

 Next, we shared a bowl of their made-from-scratch chicken vegetable soup, which had just enough spice:

Due to the New Year holiday, they didn't have any legs, so we made due with a medium size order of the wings, half spicy, half soy-garlic (sweeter). The plate is served with choice of cole slaw, or pickled radish; the radish was so good, we got another small container to take with our leftover wings.

Our second noteworthy lunch was at a Thai-Laotion place that just happened to share a strip mall with Chef Tom's grocery store of choice. Som Bao Thai Laotian Cafe is a family owned and operated restaurant serving some lovely, spicy food. We ordered the spice level at "3" (we might have been able to take "4", but it had significant zing at "3"), then happily accepted a "do it yourself" add-on option:

We loved this Thom Khem (Traditional Lao Dish). Pork, caramelized onions, garlic, seasoned in a blend of lemongrass, Kaffir Lime, galanga, carrots, and baby corn, and served with two hard cooked eggs and Thai Steamed Rice.

Also delicious was the Neau Savanh (Lao Beef Jerky). Dried beef was marinated in garlic, onions, and lemon grass, then served with roasted onion, garlic, tomatoes, spicy sauce, papaya salad, cucumbers, and Lao sticky rice.

You can see the marinated spices on the meat that have become one with it.

The Lao sticky rice is intended to be eaten with the fingers, and we did. It was a marvelous meal and I hope to return. The only downside to Som Bao was their admission that the seafood was all frozen foodservice. But honesty is the best policy, and this allowed us to order dishes that pleased in every way.

Our group went out to Margie and Ray's Seafood House for dinner. This place has the look and feel of a mom-and-pop business with good, cheap eats. Online, it gets incredibly mixed reviews - people either love it or hate it. The servers were uniformly terrific, if not well-informed about the food, and the food and alcohol are easy on the wallet. If only the original proprietors' son Thomas (who's owned it since 1997 according to their website) had kept true to the rustic seafood shack roots, this place would be great! Unfortunately, virtually everything served here, and I do mean everything, comes out of a food service package. Even worse, none of the fried items seemed like they were actually fried in a deep fryer - is the cost of oil so high?? Or was it all fried hours in advance and left under heat lamps?

Bland food service hush puppies with no crispiness

Bob's pulled pork BBQ plate lacked profundity.

Didi gave me her cole slaw. The menu says it is homemade - but there is no way this didn't come out of a food service package. It was good, but not homemade as represented.

Megan did an "all you can eat" deal that started with these ribs, which she enjoyed.

The menu says: "Margie and Ray’s pride themselves in serving fresh fish. Because of this, there is always the possibility of some bones present in the dishes." Um, not here. I knew the above piece of flounder was frozen (because I asked) but based on the menu descriptions of home cooking, I expected a frozen filet to be thawed, breaded and deep fried in house. This was a food-service-pack-already-breaded fish filet that was not heated in oil (no heat or crispiness); hell, I don't even think it was flounder. The only "cooked" item on the plate was the broccoli, an actual stalk cooked just past el dente and served with a cup of packaged Hollandaise. The food was edible, but not something I'd ever seek out or return for. Shame on you, Thomas, for turning your parents' quaint little seafood shack into a low rent tourist trap. At least turn the freaking fryers on! My biggest complaint concerns the misrepresentations the menu and website make about the food. While the low price points suggest that Margie and Ray's can't possibly deliver on what's described, if nothing is fresh or house-made, then don't claim that it is.

Our last dinner out together was the polar opposite of Margie and Ray's. Recommended by a local, Croc’s 19th Street Bistro calls itself an "Eco Bistro" and has a green certification from the State of Virginia. It did not disappoint.

Fried Shrimp Appetizer
We took a flyer on the shrimp, since the server didn't know a lot about the fish and seafood, and the kitchen recommended the tuna for fresh/local. It was superb! Crispy and pleasantly shrimpy, with no chemical tastes or smells, this is the kind of food I seek out coasts for! The remoulade sauce and crispy salad enhanced the shrimp, but I could have just kept eating those shrimp all night!

Bread was served after the appetizers, and was a standard food service bake-to-order loaf. Served with real butter (not that fake "butter spread" crap as at Margie and Ray's), it was more than adequate.

Bob went with a blackboard dinner special: "Carne Asada Steak" served in a 2 tortilla bowls with lettuce, cheese, housemade salsa, avocado sour cream. He enjoyed it, but I did better.

This was also a dinner special, and a steal at $17: Zaa'tar Grilled Tuna over Veggie Cous Cous with Asparagus. Never mind that there is no place in the USA where asparagus is in season, and that the kitchen overcooked the tuna to medium-well. This was a perfectly balanced plate that featured soft, fresh, well seasoned fish.

I also got to taste a scallop from this dish, ordered by Maria, the local who recommended Croc's:

Pan seared sea scallops scallops . sun-dried tomato . basil cream sauce . linguine . pine nuts
Seared nicely and juicy with scallop flavor, I would happily order this plate should I visit Croc's again.

Our last meal before hitting the road for Cleveland was breakfast at Margie and Ray's. It was nearby and what others wanted, and we knew to avoid anything that should be deep fried or from the sea. It was ok, but the shortcuts abounded - fake butter, fake syrup, fake egg product for the omelet, cheap English muffin, cold  unseasoned grits with shredded cheese tossed in. The only good bite I had was from Bruce's country ham, an item they sell in burlap sacks at the front of the store; a quality item that was prepared well. Bob's over easy eggs were real (I should have gotten them like that), and the sausage was ok, so I'm sorry I didn't get a photo of it. But even the ice tea tasted like a food service product.

Flaws notwithstanding, breakfast was served with a smile (I cannot say enough good things about the service; if only the food was at a similar level!) and filled us with fuel for the long journey ahead. Over all, a lot of fun playing with food and friends at the beach in winter!

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