Living as we do in the age of beef, when steakhouses are more abundant and more extravagant than ever, a really good seafood restaurant is a rarity. Maybe it's a strictly local phenomenon, the result of the waning popularity of Southern-style fried seafood. Maybe sushi has taken up the slack. Whatever the reason, the arrival of Blu Seafood & Bar in Durham is as refreshing as a sunset breeze in the Florida Keys.
In fact, you might even say that owner/chef Tim Lyons, a newcomer to the Triangle, brought that sea breeze with him. Lyons honed his culinary skills in Southern California, where he worked under James Beard Award-winning chef Gustaf Anders, and more recently in Key West, where he was chef de cuisine for five years at Louie's Backyard.
Lyons' experience shows in a seasonally changing menu and nightly fresh fish specials that spare us the overwrought and the clichéd. Instead, it treats us to exquisitely balanced pairing of citrus-marinated salmon and avocado, to crab cakes whose rich flavor gets a correspondingly assertive counterpoint in the form of Tabasco aioli, to a sparkling, mint-accented seviche of queen conch, and to mussels steamed in a white-wine broth that's punctuated with just enough lime, chiles, garlic and ginger to add vibrant contrast.
In chef Lyons' hands, even calamari is a refreshing change of pace - fried in a light cornmeal crust and served with homemade lemon mayonnaise when I sampled them; in a spice crust with cilantro dip on a more recent menu. The selection of oysters on the half shell, too, goes beyond the generic Gulf Coast specimens typically found in oyster bars hereabouts. And, judging by the Massachusetts bluepoints and smaller, brinier Beausoleil oysters from Canada I happily slurped on a recent visit, they're reliably fresh and expertly shucked. Lyons serves them with lemon wedges and a small dish of mignonette - no Tabasco, unless you ask for it, for the simple reason that they don't need it.
When it comes to entrees, it pays to listen to your waiter as he recites the catch of the day and whole roasted fish offerings. Chances are, the recitation will include one or two worthy species seldom seen in these parts. Pompano, perhaps, or wahoo, or mutton snapper. Or the opa (aka moonfish, a fish whose white flesh is mild in flavor and buttery-meaty texture) that I recently enjoyed, pan-seared to a moist, crisp-skinned turn and garnished with a confetti of crunchy bacon and diced heirloom tomatoes. Or the impeccable whole roasted sea bass whose bones I picked clean on another visit.
The nightly specials represent Lyons at his best, but the menu lists several other tempting options, including shrimp and grits, pan-roasted trout with mango-pecan brown butter, and landlubber fare such as panciutto-wrapped chicken breast and New York strip steak with port wine-blue cheese butter. There's also a surf and turf pairing of braised beef short rib and lump crabmeat sautéed in butter that's as expertly rendered as it is boldly offbeat.
The seafood paella isn't strictly authentic, but I can't imagine anyone quibbling about Lyons' use of Arborio rice or his jazzing it up with a smidge of poblano and jalapeño. I'm certainly not about to fault the dish after laying waste to its bounty of shellfish, chorizo and saffron-fragrant rice.
If there's a chink in Lyons' culinary armor, it's desserts. Orange cheesecake with an oddly gelatinous texture (which has since been removed from the menu), a blueberry "cobbler" with no topping, and a rather pedestrian chocolate brownie -- none of the desserts I've sampled measure up to the standard set by earlier courses.
The small kitchen can get overwhelmed at times, but an attentive and well-trained wait staff ensures that any longer-than-usual wait for a course is a pleasant one, keeping you well-supplied with the bread and wine necessities. Blu's atmosphere has a soothing effect, too. The bar glows with aqua backlighting, seashells are strung against a deep ocean blue wall and sun dapples the patio. Whether you sit indoors or out, before long you can almost feel the sea breeze.
Greg Cox can be reached at email@example.com