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Squid Row: The Calamari Review

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Squid Row: The Calamari Review

Rainbow Tiny

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June 24th, 2007

For those of you who have never visited Cape May, it is a small beach town on the southern tip of the Jersey shore. The majority of the houses have been draped in Victorian decor, many displaying round turrets and gingerbread trim. The design grants an air of class to this older getaway. It tends to be a quieter vacation spot, unless you are fortunate enough to share your room with one of the many resident ghosts. But between hauntings, several fine restaurants of all price levels are serving delicious shore fare. Robert and I opted for the calamari at two of them:

The Ugly Mug, Washington Street Mall

This is the town brewpub with a friendly, welcoming ambiance. You have a choice of indoor or outdoor seating. The main charm is the ceiling full of mugs from Ugly Mug Club patrons, past and present. We ordered our calamari (and beer) at the bar and were served a large plate of rings, served alongside marinara sauce. The sauce was nothing to write home about, but it was acceptable for the task. The breading gave the biggest impression to this dish. It was similar to that of mainstream (read: frozen) onion rings and was much too crunchy overall. Strangely, it also made the fish seem less tender than it actually was. Had the calamari been breaded more gently, it would have revealed a fairly tasty product. The ultimate call? Decent bar food and made a good post-dinner snack, but not the place I would go if calamari is my main objective. Alternate recommendation--the Ocean Burger, a hamburger topped with Shrimp Imperial and sharp cheddar.

Moonfish Grill, Broadway Street

I would rate Moonfish as a four-star (out of five) restaurant. The decor is light and simple with some apparent Japanese influence. The couple's yin and yang bread plates were quite charming. The menu contains mostly an assortment of upscale seafood dishes as well as sushi (though we've yet to try it). And in terms of atmosphere, our meal was greatly enhanced by our seating next to the live jazz band. The "Salt and Pepper" calamari came as rings, although many were shaped more as ellipses. The golden breading was akin to the flakiness of top-tier onion rings. The rings were "pre-sauced", if you will, in a sweet chili glaze. The fish was tender and perfect. Robert instantly rated it in our "Top 5". We nearly didn't want to order the salad or entree and may have been content to stop there. For you local NoVA residents, Coastal Flats has calamari that is quite similar in recipe and is very close in deliciousness.

Only word of warning: Everything I ate that night had a sweet theme, though I didn't know it upon ordering. Ask the waiter to help you contrast flavors so that you'll actually look forward to dessert.

January 14th, 2007

The perfection of Northern Virginia sums up my feelings on The Olive Garden's offering. Flash fried, crispy, and hot--all within the traditional realm. The fish itself was tender and flavorful. While the breading did not consist of the ideal flaky crust, this is an undertaking that few can achieve; thus, I offer no criticism. The tiny rings were presented with a choice of an apparently homemade, gently spiced marinara alongside a cup of light dill sauce. This is what Red Lobster wanted to work and failed. Those who prefer a white sauce with their calamari will be pleased. The dill sauce added an unusual flavor that did not mask the natural goodness of the squid.

Beautiful on its own with a choice of imaginative and complementary dippings. Thus far for the best hometown calamari, I will ask for a table at the Olive Garden.

December 19th, 2006

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One would think that a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Chinatown that billed itself as a seafood restaurant would be able to serve a decent plate of fried decapod. So before heading over to the MCI Center to catch the Caps' victory over the Flyers, we decided to chow down. Having been to Tony Cheng's a number of times before, I know it's usually a pretty good place.

The order came quickly, and I noticed that it was all rings, golden batter dipped. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that the waiter had brought me an order of onion rings from Five Guys down the street. The fish was nothing to crow about. It had spent way to long in the fryer, and had the texture of fried rubber bands. The natural taste of the fish was way subdued, though fortunately the battering and the oil were light enough that they didn't overwhelm.

The sauce . . . ha ha, yes, the sauce. The sauce was what you would expect to come with an order of sweet-and-sour pork at your local hole-in-the-wall Chinese delivery restaurant. Syrupy, sweet, cloying, overwhelming, obnoxious, offensive . . . choose any adjective you want here. It was unfortunate, and I expected better from a restaurant that has pleased me with their offerings so many times in the past.

There were a couple of different kinds of calamari on the menu. What we reviewed here was the appetizer portion, but they also had entree portions of curried calamari and a couple of other items featuring squid. Maybe those will be better. And maybe I'll try them sometime. But that will be a while, since I continue to be sated by Tony Cheng's glorious Peking duck.

October 17th, 2006

Now endowed with the responsibility to review, we couldn't dare begin our Endless Shrimp Feast without attempting the Golden Calamari & Veggies.

The dish was as golden as advertised--deep-fried with a healthy breading, though the fish itself was just a touch more chewy than desirable. Our dipping options included marinara sauce (likely from a jar, though not repulsive) and ranch dressing. The latter was an unusual choice and we could see why it's so uncommon; although tasty, it entirely overwhelms the subtleties of the squid. Any fish could have been residing within the dressing-doused "gold" and you wouldn't know the difference.

The most unusual part of the dish, however, is the "& Veggies" addendum. Normally when vegetables play a role in calamari, they are gracefully sprinkled atop for color and a bit of spice. Here rather, the rings were thrown together with large broccoli florets and strips of red pepper, all fried themselves virtually tempura-style. The whole lot is wrapped in wax paper and placed in front of you like an over-sized burrito. Unfortunately, the vegetables don't complement the squid, but interrupt the experience. There is no advantage for color, as the great fried pile looks somewhat grotesque. And if you don't want to deal with the veggies and just get straight to the point, you have to hunt around them for the remaining rings. I prefer not to play "Where's Waldo?" with my food.

If you're at Red Lobster and you must have squid, I give this dish a go, but don't count on wanting to order much else. The taste was good, though much too heavy for its appetizer classification.

October 3rd, 2006

The night after our voyage to Dogfish Head, we went a little further down the coast to pay a visit to Blue Coast. Don't let the gravel parking lot fool you, nor the appearance that the restaurant was constructed out of a pair of double-wides. This is a great seafood house, a bit on the upscale side, but easily worth it for a special occasion.

As bad as the calamari was the night before, it was great this time around. The calamari was served as a moderately-sized portion, mostly of rings, with a few tentacles thrown in for good measure. Whoever made this fish knew what they were doing. The texture was crisp, without a hint of rubberiness that signifies unduly prolonged intimacy with the fryer. The meat was delicious, particularly the rings, which were slightly sweet and reminded me of lobster. The oil was hot and light and was notable for not having a greasy mouthfeel (more than I can say for the previous night). Breading was light, particularly on the tentacles, the purple color of which showed through. It was kinda crunchy though, like fried chicken -- I personally prefer a flakier breading, or even none at all.

The sauce was homemade and obviously not out of a can, but for all that, it wasn't memorable because the calamari was good enough as it was -- it needed no embellishment. I do remember that it neither overwhelmed the taste of the fish, but neither did it contribute anything to it -- it was simply unnecessary. The calamari cooled off quickly -- which is a sign of freshness. Freshly fried calamari has a high specific heat, meaning that it will cool off relatively quickly once it's out of the fryer. Calamari that stays hot for a long time is a sign of being fried, frozen, and then rethawed or parboiled. Final word: this was an excellent and memorable order of calamari, a worthy opener for my meal of rare Hawaiian encrusted tuna steaks. It would be hard to find a peer.
I am sad to report that the first critique on our new site is doomed to be negative.

Now before I get into the grit, I want to preface this with the fact that Dogfish Head is an excellent company. Even I found beer to like in their eclectic collection (Punkin Ale, limited time only!). And each bite of my chicory-stouted steak was better than the last.

But despite such a positive foundation, their calamari was unfortunately not an equal partner in deliciousness. The breading was far too crunchy to the point that it was hard. I can't speak well for the texture of the squid itself because the actual amount was nowhere near worth the $8 price tag. The banana peppers were a nice touch. But the cocktail sauce was nothing more than ketchup and the sesame soy sauce was salty enough to have been pulled right from the ocean down the block. After a mere two pieces, I felt dread about finishing the remainder of the plate. It never happened. Alas, it was the first time Robert and I have been less than diligent in our dish-draining duties.

The silver lining of all this is that it seems we've found the bottom rung on our calamari ladder. This bar set the low bar and one would have to try to dive any deeper.
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