Although Coastal Virginia is a relatively new term to describe Virginia’s low country, it isn’t a new region.
This area is ancient; waters of the Atlantic Ocean have lapped against the shoreline well before written record. The Chesapeake Bay is old too, forming some 10,000 years ago as rising sea levels flooded the area around a meteor impact crater.
In this region salt water and brackish water are home to an amazing array of sea life, and soil is sandy and loamy and perfect for growing many edible treasures.
Those dynamics come together to craft a unique Coastal Cuisine – some of it old, some of it new. It’s centered around seafood, but isn’t exclusive to that. Sometimes it’s the use of signature produce, like sweet potatoes. Sometimes it’s a preparation method, like dredging in cornmeal and cooking in a cast-iron skillet. It’s a richly historic, multi-faceted way of cooking.
But one thing remains the same, regardless of time or place: the main hallmarks are fresh, seasonal, simply prepared ingredients which create a sense of place and a sense of palate.
A day exploring along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, relaxing at Virginia Beach, or traversing the Northern Neck give a good idea of what life is like here and what foods flavor the region.
Memorial Day has come and gone, and summer is knocking at the door; now is the time to explore some of the seasonal dishes in the region.
Here are eight of our favorite dishes (and where to get them) that say Virginia Coastal Cuisine to us:
At Terrapin Restaurant, Virginia Beach
From chef/owner Rodney Einhorn’s tony upscale eatery comes this rich, thick stew with plentiful amounts of local fish and Eastern Shore clams, along with shrimp and mussels. The seafood swims in a complex, savory broth flavored with Spanish saffron, tomatoes, pickled peppers, leeks and fennel. It’s served with housemade toasted bread and garnished with a thick, delicious classic rouille sauce.
BRONZED TUNA TACO
At Captain Groovy’s Grill & Raw Bar, Norfolk
Inside this fun and festive crab shack fresh seafood abounds, prepared by chef/owner David Watts. A nod to the surfing culture in the region, the Bronzed Tuna Taco takes a local fish, cooks each side at sizzling temperatures in a fire-hot skillet until golden, and serves in flour tortilla with such cooling ingredients as queso fresco, lettuce, salsa and sour cream. Baja beans and rice comes on the side.
FRIED FLOUNDER SANDWICH
At Island House Restaurant, Wachapreague
Located about midway up Virginia’s Eastern Shore is the hamlet of Wachapreague. This village stands on the marshy waterways that meander out into the Atlantic Ocean and is called Flounder Capital of the World. As such, we crave the fried flounder sandwich at Island House, a replica of a turn-of-the-last-century lifesaving station. Presented is a delicate fillet fried golden brown and delicious and served on a kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato and onion. We like the cole slaw as our side.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
At The Landing, Virginia Beach
Open and expansive, The Landing focuses on local fare and fresh seafood. One of the appetizers we love is a southern classic – with a twist. Available at brunch and dinner, green tomatoes from nearby farms in Pungo are sliced to a perfect thickness and lightly coated and fried crispy and golden brown. Served with a drizzle of remoulade studded with blue crab, more blue crab is sprinkled on top, along with microgreens and applewood bacon.
OYSTERS, RAW AND ROASTED
At Merroir, Topping
Forget farm to fork, this is fork to farm. This quaint Middle Peninsula eatery is located on the banks of the Rappahannock River, overlooking where the oysters you are about to eat are grown. Heck, you can even watch the oyster boats being unloaded at the adjacent docks. Since you’ve come to the source, get the oysters. On the half-shell are Rappahannocks (sweet), Stingrays (mild) and Olde Salts (briny.) Slurp each one with gusto, for they are truly delicious. Try some roasted too, served with roasted garlic butter.
SIGNATURE LUMP CRAB CAKES
At Blue Seafood & Spirits, Virginia Beach
This tiny, tidy seafood-centric restaurant from chef/owner Charles Thain – who spent much of his career on Virginia’s Eastern Shore – is soothing in cobalt blue and summer white. The crab cake is soothing too: packed with jumbo lump meat picked by Miss Libby Anne (a longtime picker in Deep Creek, near Onancock, on the Shore) from blues freshly plucked from Virginia waters. The cake is simply seasoned and broiled, it’s gorgeous bronzed crust concealing the sweet, tender crab inside.
SWEET POTATO ENCRUSTED ROCKFISH
At Smithfield Station, Smithfield
On the marshy Pagan River, the nautically-inspired Smithfield Station offers expansive water views and a menu focusing on seafood. Four of Coastal Virginia’s culinary calling cards – sweet potatoes, rockfish, country ham and blue crab – is offered in the delicious Sweet Potato Encrusted Rockfish. Here the striped bass fillet is marinated in honey, stuffed with Smithfield ham and jumbo lump crabmeat, rolled in sweet potato and then pan-seared. It is topped with pearl onions, honey cream sauce and crispy sweet potato straws.
At Harper’s Table, Suffolk
In charming downtown Suffolk, just up from the wandering Nansemond River that feeds into the James, and then the Bay, is Harper’s Table, an upscale-but-approachable fine dining restaurant focusing on Southern cuisine. Start with one (or two, or three) of chef/owner Harper Bradshaw’s Pork Belly Biscuits and then enjoy Tommy’s Clams, a delightful offering of bivalves from Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Perfectly steamed in a broth of chardonnay, garlic and shallots, they are served with crispy grilled bread for sopping up the remains.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.