Crab Louie's offers fresh fish and a friendly, elegant tavern atmosphere. 

Deep Sea, Not Deep Freeze

It's unusual for a restaurant to have a wide selection of seafood on its menu. Unless, of course, it's a seafood restaurant. But, even then, as many Richmond diners have learned, that's not always a guarantee that the selections are from the deep sea and not the deep freeze. Fortunately, Crab Louie's Seafood Tavern in Midlothian (at Midlothian, really) is the real, if underrecognized, thing.

The fresh fish at Crab Louie's are pulled from the cold, briny deep of George's Bank at the edge of the continental shelf more than 150 miles off the Massachusetts coast. That's where Steve Connolly's trawlers drop their nets and run their lines to haul in the Atlantic salmon, sole, sweet-lipped grouper, ahi tuna and other delights that make up the fresh-fish page of Crab Louie's menu. They catch it there and fly it here twice a week. Flip through the other four pages of the menu and you'll find equally fresh shellfish - clams, oysters, shrimp - and lobster and crab, too. Nothing is overlooked.

The range of seafood preparations covers the waterfront from traditional baked, broiled and pan-seared items ($13-$17) and seafood pastas ($13-$16), to more decorated, dressed-up items like seafood au gratin ($7), hazelnut crusted grouper ($16), and several combination platters ($18-$22). The raw bar is highly limited but stunningly fresh. For landlubbers, turf items are buried in the menu's tail section.

We enjoyed their spin on clam chowder ($5) with the addition of green pepper and smoked bacon, a very hearty dish for winter, as well as the she-crab soup ($6), robustly flavored with sherry. We opted out of the simple fish preparations, though, and reeled in the filet of sole stuffed with crab imperial ($19) — light, tender and not dried-out — and bouillabaisse ($22), a boil of salmon, ahi tuna, shrimp, clams and king crab in a tomato-saffron broth. The bouillabaisse was still excellent even though the fish was slightly overdone and the house-made roux intended for the clams too powerful.

What keeps people coming back to Crab Louie's, though — and its following is quite large — has as much to do with place as with food. The service is friendly and welcoming, and the setting — a 250-year-old "Midlothian" estate — is plain-spoken but elegant. And there are the humble, carefully crafted details of the meal, like the trio of relishes — kidney-bean onion, sauerkraut pepper, cranberry apple — that cleanse your palate before you dine, and the sweet breads, homemade, that oddly don't complement the food but are delicious on their own. Or the homemade mustard mayonnaise and the Pol Roger champagne at something resembling a wholesale price (it was the wine special of the night). It's only wine after all. And, sure, it's only a meal, but don't you always want the best for your guests?

Crab Louie's Seafood Tavern
Sycamore Square Shopping Center
Lunch: Sunday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 4 p.m.-10 p.m.;
Sunday 4 p.m.-9

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