I truly don’t enjoy writing negative reviews. Most restaurants try their best to put a good product forward. Others just phone it in and rely on consumers’ low expectations to keep the money flowing in. The rest go out of business. We make an effort to visit locally-owned restaurants and avoid the corporate chains unless absolutely necessary. It’s just assumed we’ll get more personal attention and fresher ingredients, and it feels better to keep our dollars local. We’ve generally had good results with this strategy.

So it’s with much disappointment that I give a “thumbs down” to the Marblehead Chowder House. We’d heard all this talk about their “Best of the Valley” and “Readers’ Choice” awards and figured it might be a great gift card option for Christmas. I get the impression that Marblehead is something of a cherished institution and i’ll probably be accused of snobbery by at least a couple readers. Listen, if you’re in the mood for buttery, uninspired seafood preparations, then Marblehead is for you. Please choose it over Red Lobster. And the service was quite good – happy, polite and enthusiastic.

We ordered the baked appetizer platter to get a broad sampling. The crab dip was good (though i’ve rarely had a bad one), the dipping toasts were drenched in oil, the clams casino were greasy, and the bacon-wrapped scallops looked like they’d just been dropped in the deep fryer. I had a tuna steak grilled “Key West” style with pineapple salsa. Sounded great. Looked great. Not so great. They cooked the fish rare as I requested but it was dry and flavorless, and the salsa, while very fresh, didn’t add much. My wife’s average-tasting lobster ravioli were just plopped on a plate with too much sauce.

All that being said, if you still plan to try Marblehead, we recommend sitting in the bar area – much cozier and not as brightly lit as the main dining room. Also, we have a good feeling that the chowders and seafood pies will be super creamy and decadent. If we visit again, it’ll be only to try the soup.

So… if you want a remarkable all-seafood restaurant in the Lehigh Valley, then you’re out of luck for the time being. (The new seafood spot in downtown Easton will get a chance when it opens in 2010.) The best strategy to get great seafood in the Valley is simply to go to a great restaurant. You won’t have as many fish options but you can be sure that what you order won’t disappoint. For example, Bolete normally has a poached white fish, salmon, tuna tartar, calamari and raw oysters – all excellent. Sette Luna has great mussels and the best shrimp we’ve ever had. And Valenca‘s codfish gratin is coma-inducing. And for the raw stuff, you can’t beat Sogo.

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