It took an epoch, but it’s finally summertime in Tidewater, and along with the tourists, the region’s most delicious residents have arrived.
Over near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, anglers are reeling in migratory Spanish mackerel and cobia. Fishermen near Portsmouth are landing speckled trout, rockfish and my favorite local fish, puppy drum.
But at Legal Sea Foods, Virginia Beach Town Center’s newest eatery, that’s not on the placemat-sized menu. Rather, trucks arrive from New England filled with Yankee favorites such as Cape Cod quahogs, Prince Edward Island mussels, and sea scallops from the Gulf of Maine.
Scan the QR code on the menu to learn that other items hail from more exotic ports. Organic salmon from Isle of Skye, Scotland. Yellowfin tuna from the Maldives. Cod from Iceland. And colossal shrimp all the way from the Asian Bay of Bengal.
It’s surely, and oddly, not local, but what every pescatarian menu item has in common is the vetting. In Legal Sea Foods’ vernacular, “legal” means seafood that has passed muster with the company’s state-of-the-art food safety lab. Fresh. Safe. Largely organic.
Nice to know, but how does it taste?
The Town Center location, the second in Virginia for this Boston-based chain (the first is at Reagan National Airport in Arlington), debuted in May at a raucous party where servers passed lobster rolls and crab cakes while bartenders swirled up signature cocktails such as the Spicy Cucumber Margarita ($15).
We returned on a quieter night and started with a tangle of Crispy Calamari—Rhode Island style ($17) doused with hot peppers and garlic, which delivered lip-stinging heat that didn’t overwhelm the delicate taste of the squid. For $1 more it comes Thai style with pineapple and peanuts.
Surrendering to a “when in Rome” sensibility, we then placed an order for Stuffies ($16) and were glad that we did. The main ingredient and the serving vessel itself is the large quahog clam, a favorite of the New England set. The meat is chopped fine and mixed with ritz crackers, smoky chorizo sausage, and ample butter then mounded into a pair of clam shells and warmed and toasted on top—a satisfying, filling starter.
Then it was onward to the dish that will keep us coming back: A generous pile of fresh Organic PEI Mussels ($18). Upwards of two dozen came drenched in a light, bright white wine-and-garlic butter sauce with nary a blank. Each onyx shell contained a fat, golden morsel and the grilled bread sopped up the broth, although we would have liked more than two triangles.
Since a tad of cool still lingered in the night air, we turned to soup. Unable to decide between a bowl of New England Clam Chowder ($10.50) and She-Crab Bisque ($12.50), we ordered both! As the bartender placed a steaming bowl of bisque before us, he noted that the chef swirls two ounces of crab into the soup and scatters two more on top. We didn’t doubt him. The thick, creamy soup was bumpy with crab and the flavors, at once briny and savory, delivered pure comfort.
As a child, my family visited Maine most summers and I fell in love with my Aunt Dorothy’s haddock chowder. Legal Sea Foods’ clam chowder harkened back to that dish. Each spoonful delivered chewy chunks of clam and diced potato in a creamy, silky, savory base.
There are nearly 50 items on Legal Sea Foods’ regular menu, and at this point we hadn’t even exited the “Starters” section. Bypassing the raw bar and sushi offerings, the fried baskets of clams, fish, and shrimp, the extensive fishes, the Cioppino ($44), and the signature New England Baked Haddock—Anna’s Way ($28), we settled on one of the chain’s signature offerings, the Half-Pound Maine Lobster Roll ($43).
Mayonnaise haters will appreciate that the roll is offered “traditional” style with lemon mayo or with the meat simply poached in warm butter. We opted for the latter which came in a glistening split roll overflowing with lobster chunks. There were rave reviews from the lobster roll aficionados and passing marks from those who, like me, prefer to eat lobster with a mallet in hand.
Children have a place at Legal with a full kid’s menu, complete with crayons and a busy bee placemat, as do gluten-free eaters. All of the seafood breading here is gluten free, as are many of the menu items.
There’s so much more to sample at Legal Sea Foods. The service, freshness, and the up-north flavors will doubtless keep patrons coming back.