August 21, 2007


There are two perfectly good reasons why I tend to heavily research a restaurant before I eat there. One, I don’t care to eat food that doesn’t taste good. Two, I don’t like paying for food that doesn’t taste very good, particularly if I have to pay a lot to do it.

On our recent family vacation to the Outer Banks, we mostly prepared our meals at the beach house. But one night was set aside for each of the respective families staying in the house to go their own way for dinner.

So I spent a few hours after a long morning beach stint digging around on food blogs and message boards and finding what reviews I could for kid-friendly OBX restaurants with reportedly good food (lofty expectations, I know).

Notice that I didn’t use terms like “great food,” “exquisite dining,” or “transcendent culinary delights.” Just a mostly satisfying meal, preferably one that has, as some component, fresh seafood.

And so it was that I found a January 2007 post on Chowhound – which I consider to be a reputable source of restaurant reviews from knowledgeable eaters (it served me very well on a business trip earlier this year to L.A.) – that offered some fairly hearty praise of a “family-friendly” restaurant in the Kill Devil Hills area of the Outer Banks. Another Chowhound post on OBX dining also spoke well of this same restaurant.

I found the original post to be particularly convincing because the writer described the food she had eaten and prepared during a recent week’s vacation in OBX, and came off as somebody who understood food (which, I realize, sounds way snobby, but I’m not trying to fool anybody here: I’m a food snob).

So I decided to accept this anonymous advice, and my wife agreed to play along.

Now, a bit of important background before I tread any further. First, when last in the OBX two years ago, we had an absolutely dreadful experience for our dining-out meal, one that came with a hefty price tag and two plates on which the entrees were, well, left fairly intact. That particular excursion was carried out with no previous research, although I recall that I selected the restaurant. I actually forget how I chose it, but believe it was listed in the phone book or an OBX “entertainment” guide in the house we stayed in that year. No matter. It was wretched.

This most recent dining experience started off well. The restaurant atmosphere was funky and laid back. The dining room ceiling, for example, consisted of grayish-blue waves with the bottoms of surf boards and jelly fish and other sea creatures jutting out. There was a kiddy drink menu with goofy names involving frogs and sharks. My son’s lemon-lime soda came with a little Great White shark filled with some sugary raspberry mixture to pour into it.

We got the kids the typical kiddy menu fare (something I hope to start moving away from soon), and ordered some fruity adult drinks and an appetizer sampler for ourselves: shrimp, crab, and scallops in various fried preparations, all of which had good flavor and were mostly well executed. Our entrees, both from the specials menu, both sounded interesting and potentially “good.”

Then they arrived, and what had been an enjoyable experience to that point came to an abrupt halt. I had my suspicions about my dish when ordering it – a five-spice coated tuna on top of noodles in a peanut-sauce – but figured it was one of the specials, which in my experience are typically among the best a restaurant has to offer. My wife got a mixed grill, which included some bacon-wrapped scallops and a pork chop.

I suppose I should have paid more strict attention to the menu’s description of my entrée or asked the waiter about it, because the tuna – something I was really looking forward to after a week of heavy dinners -- was not a thick piece of Ahi seared and sliced, but instead was two thin pieces, cooked almost all of the way through. It was dry and useless. The noodles topped with peanut sauce were serviceable, but could not compensate for the desecrated fish resting upon them.

The highlight of my wife’s dish was the side of creamy mashed potatoes. The bacon around the scallops was some of the most bland bacon I’ve ever had, and the pork chop, while moist, appeared to have little to no seasoning.

So, for the second straight time, we had a lousy, somewhat expensive meal out on our vacation. And, as important, I was still craving tuna.

So, on our way out of town, I stopped at a highly-regarded seafood market, picked up an excellent looking/smelling piece of tuna (and some beautiful sea scallops) and threw it in a cooler with some ice for the ride home.

On Saturday night – exhausted and mentally unfit for most tasks after the 9-hour plus trek back the day/night before – I looked through different recipes for seared tuna.

We settled on…

...coating the tuna in olive oil, the smoked salt that I’ve been hooked on, lots of freshly ground pepper, and the zest of one lime.

I seared it, sliced it into 9-10 long pieces with a big, rosy, raw center, and laid them on some greens (organic baby romaine that I got at our local big grocery chain that were probably the best greens I’ve had from a supermarket) topped with teardrop yellow tomatoes from our garden and diced avocado.

The dressing included grated fresh ginger, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, cilantro, as well as some garlic, honey, lime juice, ground mustard, into which I whisked a healthy dose of canola oil.

The camera was still in a suitcase somewhere, so you’ll have to trust me that it looked incredible and tasted even better. It definitely was the meal I had been craving a few days earlier. The exception being that it was far more than just “good.”

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