Though you can't get a blue marlin steak at the Blue Marlin restaurant on West Broad, you can get plenty of other seafood. The menu at the Richmond location of this regional seafood chain offers an extensive collection of seafood dishes that are either deep-fried or served with a half-hearted Cajun or Low Country twist. It's a selection that might have sparked some interest in 1990, but seems pretty mundane today.
Appetizers include unexceptional offerings like onion rings ($5.95), familiar dishes like shrimp cocktail ($7.95) and mildly creative innovations like a salad of grilled marinated salmon with applewood-smoked bacon drizzled with barbecue sauce ($8.95). The entrees, which also don't exactly push the envelope on creativity, feature selections like blackened catfish ($12.95), deep-fried seafood items like a shrimp-and-oyster platter ($13.50), a shrimp scampi pasta ($11.95), a few sandwiches, and the mandatory chicken and steak offerings to accommodate the inevitable seafood hater.
It isn't that the food is bad, though a few items could have been a lot better, it's just that none of the dishes with the possible exception of some desserts rise above adequate. We've all been to a few places like this that are saved by some other attribute like, for example, being in a waterfront or having some appealing nautical feel. Not the Blue Marlin. The plain interior is decorated with a little neon and a few prints. It feels like a hotel breakfast room with its beige vinyl booth benches that sink so low you want to ask the waiter for the Yellow Pages.
We tried the a deep-fried calamari appetizer ($6.95) "dusted" with pecans and Parmesan and served with a "tangy marinara." Along with our squid came a goodly amount of deep-fried loose breading material that had been carelessly dumped from the fry basket onto our platter an annoyance or a bonus depending on your personal affinity for fryer cuisine. Although the marina help cut the fryer oil, it drowned out any pecan flavor. Still, pecans or not, fried squid is pretty good eating and we more or less enjoyed these.
In the soup department, a she-crab soup ($5.25) was so thick it could have been served on a plate, and though there was no dearth of crab in the soup, I don't think it was the crab that was giving this stuff the surface tension of wet plaster. Instead, I'd guess somebody in the kitchen either overdid it a little with the roux or put this stuff back on the steam table for a second night. The gumbo ($4.95) was better. It didn't have the fiery vigor or the richness of a great gumbo, but it boasted a reasonably well-darkened roux, a mix of seafood, some chunks of andouille and some nice slippery okra.
Things don't brighten up much with the entrées either. Carolina crab cakes ($14.75) were breaded and purported to be "skillet grilled." I'm not sure I know what "skillet grilled" means, but I wouldn't get too excited about it; these things seemed pretty much like regular fried crab cakes to me. They tasted OK but everything that accompanied them made them less appealing, not more. A sweet mustard-mayonnaise sauce dubbed sweet onion rémoulade was cloying. A mound of unseasoned zucchini and squash added nothing positive, and a gigantic pile of overworked and undersalted whipped potatoes was almost frightening to behold.
Shrimp and grits ($11.95), a real novelty 10 years ago, was also pretty unappealing. The shrimp were remarkably small for the "jumbo" label the menu gave them; in addition, there were so few of them that they were grossly overwhelmed by a huge pile of under-seasoned grits. A tasso-and-andouille gravy made the grits palatable, although not exactly gratifying. A ricotta-and-lobster ravioli ($14.95) arrived in a thick orange cream sauce that tasted a little like processed lobster base and overwhelmed what little lobster flavor could be discerned in the ravioli. The unexpected highlight of the dish was a tasty pile of well-seasoned spinach riddled with garlic.
Still holding out hope, we tried a couple of Blue Marlin's side dishes. Smoked tomato rice ($1.95) tasted like unseasoned rice tossed in a very sweet canned tomato puree. I couldn't detect a hint of "smokiness." And a "Loaded Idaho Baked Potato" arrived with all the expected toppings, but was carelessly assembled by someone with no respect for the venerable baked potato.
The Blue Marlin's dessert menu reads a lot like a hundred other dessert menus in Richmond, which means Key lime pie, apple pie and cheesecake. But here the kitchen rises above the rest of its menu. A chocolate bread pudding ($4.50) involved two warm, almost brownie like squares of dense bread pudding that were napped with crŠme Anglaise and topped with vanilla ice cream resulting in a much better than average dessert. The Key lime pie ($4.95) was only average but the "Rustic Apple Pie" ($5.25) was a showstopper. This is a huge round of flaky pastry dough curled at its edges to contain a pile of sliced apples topped with ice cream. It's a nice take on the old classic.
In the final analysis, neither the food nor the atmosphere at the Blue Marlin interests me much. Who knows maybe some folks crave deep-fried seafood platters and beige vinyl booths, or maybe not everyone got their fill of blackened catfish back in 1990. Maybe but count me out.
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