One Fish Two Fish – Shucking Pearls in Virginia Beach (Grade: A)

One of the most elusive mysteries of Hampton Roads is is it really that much to ask for a worthwhile grocery store why is it so hard to find decent seafood?  I mean, I live a block and a half from the water.  I have to drive over water to get to work.  When I go running, I run alongside water – a lot of it, in fact.  At least once a week, I drive under water.  And I would assume that somewhere in all that water, there are things with fins and claws and shells that one could catch and make a nice meal out of.  Such a wild theory would seem to be bolstered by the fact that my main running route takes me right by a fish processor and more than a few folks dangling fishing lines off bridges (usually right under “no fishing from bridge” signs).

But if you go to a local seafood “market,” what you’ll find is a lot of croaker.  Much of which I’m sure is caught off the aforementioned bridges and stowed in Styrofoam coolers.  [disclaimer:  I’ve never had croaker, probably because it basically never shows up local menus.  But that really just highlights a whole ‘nother dysfunction of the local scene that I’m not going to get into right now.  That, or croaker isn’t very tasty.  One of those two things.]  Go to the local grocer, and you’ll see a bunch of shrimp and orange roughy from China and Indonesia (I saw shrimp from Bangladesh yesterday.  Seriously.).  There’s the crab from Thailand, mahi mahi from Taiwan, tuna from Malaysia, whiting from Argentina, catfish from Vietnam, and the ubiquitous (and lifeless) farmed Atlantic salmon.  I don’t want to even know where the crawfish are from.  A couple of the better markets sell North Carolina shrimp and shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico (well, they did before BP decided to trash the place).

And maybe that’s why the restaurant scene fares so badly when it comes to seafood.  I mean, the typical seafood you get around here is either steamed or fried.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, it just that it isn’t that … well … interesting.  I like dunking shrimp in clarified butter as much as anyone, but there’s only so much of that you can do before you feel like you’re on a feeding frenzy at an office Christmas party.  As for the fried stuff, I like that, too, but it’s largely a cheap way of masking substandard seafood.  Seriously – where do you think those chewy fried scallops came from?

I’ve spent far too much money on unenlightened seafood in Hampton Roads, so it was quite the pleasant surprise when I stumbled across One Fish Two Fish and was served the best-cooked piece of fish I’ve had to date in southeastern Virginia at any restaurant.

“Pleasant surprise,” mind you, is a wild understatement … it was really something more along the lines of slack-jawed awe.

That night, I had a spot-on seasoned “wreckfish” (a kind of grouper I’d never heard of) sporting a deeply rich golden sear so beautifully perfect that it looked straight out of The French Laundry cookbook (but a lot larger).  The sear gave the fish a substantial fried-chicken-skin-like crunch, while the rest of the filet was incredibly moist and flaky yet still being cooked through.  You can steam and deep-fry all you want, but this piece of fish took serious skill to produce.

Impressively, One Fish Two Fish’s treatment of the wreckfish didn’t stop there.  It was served with a savory bright-red pepper sauce that had light goat cheese undertones, elevating the flavor of the fish just so without overpowering it.  The dish was obviously meticulously thought through, and galaxies apart from the typical seafood fare I’ve found in Hampton Roads.

Repeated visits to One Fish Two Fish have yet to yield even a vague disappointment.  Alaskan halibut served on sun-dried tomato polenta with a roasted red-pepper cream sauce tasted even better than it sounds (not to mention it came with a peppery arugula salad topped with a good eight crabs’ worth of lump meat).  Ahi tuna crusted with white and black sesame seed was beautifully seared, the crispy crust giving way to a deep red center.  Rockfish splayed across ham-studded grits sitting in a blue-cheese cream sauce was far lighter and brighter than I expected – none of which went back to the kitchen, mind you.  And now that I think about it, how is it that One Fish Two Fish is so casually violating the whole rule against pairing cheese with fish … and doing it so deliciously?

Should you dine at One Fish Two Fish, don’t gloss over the appetizers.  They may seem a bit pricy, clocking in around the $10 mark, but so far every one I’ve tried has been worth every penny.  Take, for example, the Prince Edward Island mussels in the hopelessly misnamed “spicy bloody mary broth.”  The mussels are (of course) perfectly cooked to a moist doneness.

But the broth.  Oh, the broth.

Richly infused with herbs and garlic, this is the sort of thing you’ll ask for extra bread for, just to sop it up.  I think I was furiously spooning the remnants into my mouth when the waitress came by to coyly ask if I was finished.  On previous visits, I had steered clear of the dish because when I think “bloody mary,” I think huge hangover-slaying hits of horseradish and black pepper.  One Fish Two Fish’s broth is far more subtle, and mates more perfectly with an early evening glide into fuzzy inebriation than the next morning’s brain-spearing aftermath.

Not to be outdone, the restaurant’s tuna tataki pretty much obliterates the soy-soaked version served at area Asian restaurants, due – in no small part – to the fact it comes topped with a crab gratin.

Yes, wow.

Even the grape salad is something impressive with loads of quinoa, a bit too much fresh mozzarella and an improbable truffle dressing that somehow works wonderfully.

One Fish Two Fish’s depth charge nemesis lurks under its bar, where the cocktails are infuriatingly inconsistent.  I say “infuriatingly,” because when they’re good, they’re really, really good.  Take, for example, their berry mojito.  When made right, it’s a minty and slightly sweet strawberry-infused 10 Cane rum cooler that looks as great as it tastes.  When in the wrong hands, however, it comes out a cloyingly sweet simple-syrup rum?-what-rum? bomb.  The grapefruit cosmo is a light and refreshing (and very pink) concoction, but their cucumber gimlet had so much lime juice in it that it wiped out all traces of the drink’s muddled cucumber, not too mention the light cucumber notes in the Hendricks gin itself.  The “uptown crush” was much nicer, highlighting the fresh orange juice the barkeep used.  So, when the bar is on, it’s on.  When it’s off … well, I’d recommend sticking to wine.

One Fish Two Fish sits on a narrow bit of water among nice houses and pricy boats.  It’s a fairly large and polished affair, which gives it kind of a corporate/chain feel, but its huge windows make it a great place to be in the early evenings as the sun lazily streaks in.  A Kindle in hand and a fat glass of chardonnay within easy reach as the boats slither by – it’s the kind of place you get captivated by the bits of dust floating in the sunbeams stretching across the dining room.  Just thinking about it piles on the miles between me and my day job.  When the sun does finally set at One Fish Two Fish, the scenery fades into the night, and the restaurant takes on a more formal, candle-lit vibe.

The restaurant’s waitstaff is worth a nod or two.  Not only is it pretty obvious they’ve tried most (if not all) of the dishes, they can consistently talk in depth about the menu.  I mean, on my first visit the bartender was able to talk to me about what kind of fish a wreckfish was, what it tasted like, and where it had been caught.  He even ticked off what the “summer vegetables” side included from memory without missing a beat.

Hello.  The bartender.

One Fish Two Fish?  I’m thinking they should’ve named the place One Thousand Fish Two Thousand Fish.

Not too surprisingly, the place fills up on the weekends.  Fortunately, they’re civilized and accept on-line reservations on OpenTable. You should make yourself some and go.

Should you need a second opinion, the Urbanspoon foodies are happy to oblige:
One Fish Two Fish on Urbanspoon

Grade:  A
Address:  Long Bay Pointe Marina, 2109 W. Great Neck Road, Virginia Beach
Phone:  (757) 496-4350

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