Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Return visits to favorite seafood restaurants

I made return visits to restaurants I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I go for seconds at a few old favorite seafood places.

Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.

42nd St. Oyster Bar

508 W. Jones St., Raleigh; 919-831-2811

42ndstoysterbar.com

Last review: 2001 ( 1/2 out of 4)

New rating:

On the surface, nothing appears to have changed in the 14 years since my last review of 42nd St. Oyster Bar. The restaurant’s trademark neon sign and art deco entry doors still stand as reminders that, except for a couple of brief lapses, the place has been in operation since 1931. Those doors open to reveal the same sprawling dining room, where linoleum tile floors, white tablecloths, vintage jazz, mounted trophy fish and a collection of license plates donated by generations of politicians keep the nostalgia trip alive.

It’s all pretty much as I remember, and as I expect. The place is a local institution, after all. Change is not really part of the formula.

The menu – an extensive selection of fish and shellfish prepared just about every way you can imagine, plus the obligatory handful of non-seafood alternatives – looks much the same, too. Even the nightly changing list of specials can generally be counted on to include the fresh catch trio of mahi, salmon and grouper, grilled or blackened.

Closer inspection reveals a few minor tweaks. Cioppino, a frequent special back in 2001, has since earned its way onto the core menu. Mozzarella-topped baked oysters have given way to a trendier version with pimento cheese.

Execution is generally solid, as it has always been in my experience. Pan-seared crab cakes, riddled with jumbo lumps, are first-rate. Swordfish, which the menu informs me was caught off the South Carolina coast, is irreproachably fresh and expertly grilled. A frequent nightly special featuring pan-seared Chilean sea bass over wilted spinach and cherry tomatoes in shallot beurre blanc, topped with crispy potato straws, is another keeper.

Misfires occur just often enough to be frustrating, especially given the obvious quality and freshness of the seafood. Oysters on the half shell are marred by careless shucking that leaves too many shell bits and virtually none of the liquor. Oysters Rockefeller are buried under so much spinach that you need sonar to find the oysters. The problem of lukewarm hushpuppies, which I noted 14 years ago, remains unsolved.

Pluses outweigh the minuses, though – by a wide enough margin that 42nd St. Oyster Bar is a good bet to retain its status as a cherished local institution for many years to come.

Blu Seafood and Bar

2002 Hillsborough Road, Durham; 919-286-9777

bluseafoodandbar.com

Last review: 2007 ( out of 4)

New rating:

It’s always with a bit of trepidation that I return to a restaurant that I’ve praised highly in the past, and haven’t returned to in a while. I can’t help but wonder if it will it live up to my memory.

In fact, I’ve dined at Blu a couple of times since my 2007 review, so I have reason to believe that owner/chef Tim Lyons won’t let me down. Still, there’s a chance that Primal Food & Spirits, the gluten-free restaurant that Lyons opened last year, might have diluted the chef’s efforts.

I needn’t have worried. On a weeknight in early August, my meal starts with flawless Bodie Island oysters on the half shell. A couple of picks from the appetizer list are also first-rate: fried oysters scattered across a bed of house-made tartar sauce and liberally sprinkled with fried parley; and a shellfish hot pot loaded with plump N.C. clams and PEI mussels in a coconut milk broth sparked with lemongrass and chiles.

The next course lives up to that auspicious beginning. Seared diver scallops and shrimp are exemplary on a bed of cheese-enriched arborio rice, with a salad of arugula, grapefruit and prosciutto adding bright counterpoint. A roasted whole loup de mer (aka bronzini or Mediterranean sea bass) is impeccably fresh and moist beneath its delicately crisp skin and a carpet of Italian salsa verde.

Desserts keep the winning streak alive. Key lime pie is as true to form as you’d expect from a chef who cut his culinary teeth in the Florida Keys. But it’s upstaged by a coconut cookie sandwich with a thick filling of blueberry compote and a blend of cream cheese, mild goat cheese and lemon zest.

Service is friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere – breezy dining room and bar done in crisp, cool shades of marine blue and white, and a delightful semi-enclosed patio – sets a suitably tropical vacation mood, wherever you choose to sit. In short, I’m happy to say that, whenever I’m asked to name my favorite seafood restaurants in the area, Blu Seafood and Bar is still the first place that comes to mind.

Squid’s

1201 Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill; 919-942-8757

squidsrestaurant.com

Last review: 1998 ( out of 4)

New rating: 1/2

Well, this is embarrassing. Looking back over my files, I see it’s been 17 years since I last reviewed Squid’s.

In my defense, restaurants have opened at such an unrelenting clip over that period that I’ve had a full plate just keeping up with the new ones. Many well-established restaurants have languished for years on the back burner of my review schedule. The seventeen-year wait in the case of Squid’s, made it a prime candidate for a return visit.

And, as it turns out, it’s high time. Previous experience (including a handful of meals over the years that I didn’t write about) has repeatedly confirmed my assessment of Squid’s as a generally solid if somewhat inconsistent purveyor of a wide variety of seafood in a casual setting. To my mind, the oyster bar was the way to go.

The oyster bar (where half shells are half price every night from 4 to 6 p.m.) is still a winning option, as I confirm when I visit on a busy Saturday night recently. That night, I’m also pleasantly surprised to discover that the kitchen has apparently upped its game. Everything, from the complimentary basket of hushpuppies at the beginning of the meal to the homemade peach ice cream at the end, meets or surpasses my expectations.

Well, almost everything. The only exception is the dry, pedestrian mozzarella in an otherwise fine appetizer special showcasing local heirloom tomatoes in a caprese salad. But the crab cakes are loaded with crabmeat, classically seasoned and beautifully seared. Fried oysters and salt and pepper N.C. organic catfish are both excellent on a create-your-own fried seafood combo plate. Wood-grilled seafood kebabs – one skewer loaded with scallops and shrimp, the other with fresh fish (tonight it’s swordfish and salmon) – are another hit.

By all means, then, feel free to belly up to the oyster bar. But don’t overlook the rest of the menu, where you’ll find a good catch pretty much anywhere you cast your net. Either way, I’d recommend getting on the call-ahead seating list. Judging by the crowds, it’s clear that a lot of people didn’t need me to tell them that Squid’s is a keeper.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

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