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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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The plan was to hit Valenca the other Friday night, but we pushed it to Saturday. Then the weather was so nice that we chose to hang in the yard and throw a couple burgers on the grill. Sunday would be it. But we sorta remembered Valenca being closed on Sundays? Sogo would be our fallback just in case.

Parked on 3rd near our old apartment and found Valenca to be open as we entered the square. The patio tables were tempting, but the sun was setting and the temp was already borderline too cold. We grabbed an indoor table by the window and stared at the menus for a while before our server showed up. The service has definitely been my biggest problem with Valenca. It’s easily the weakest of any of the better downtown restaurants. We’ve been there about 5 times, and obviously haven’t encountered every server, but there always seems to be something lacking. And it’s not like any of our visits have been during peak hours, so that excuse doesn’t apply.

Sunday was no different. Maybe 10-20% full. Our server took our drink order – had to get the red sangria– and then strangely asked us if we wanted any “entrées.” I figured he meant “appetizers” so I ordered the flambéed Portugese sausage. He paused and awaited more input. Umm…ok let’s just order our entrées too i guess. I got the salmon and my wife combined a salad with the steamed clams appetizer, asking to have them together as her entrée.

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The sangria took a while to arrive, but it was goooood. We noticed the table next to us ordered the sausage as well. Turned out it was mine and it went to the wrong table. It came our way after the brief confusion, joined by my wife’s salad – the one she wanted as her entrée. When all of the grappa burned off, the sausage was moved to a dish and sliced before coming my way. It was fantastic. Make sure you have some bread to soak up the juices. My wife didn’t mind having the salad early… but it was another one of those little things.

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The roasted salmon was served with crisp green beans and flavorful mashed potatoes – nothin fancy, but really good. The littlenecks’ white wine broth had “a lot of butter” – not sure if that was good or bad.

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I had half of my meal wrapped so i could save room for dessert. I’d wanted ice cream earlier that day but the coffee/gelato shop on College Hill was sand gelato for another week-and-a-half. WTF? It’s always killed me that people don’t think anyone eats ice cream between October and April… but i’ll save that rant for another day.

I ordered the dark chocolate cake with canoli filling, and i convinced my wife to get the chocolate hazelnut ice cream. Cake and ice cream is a perfect combo. We dug in so fast we forgot to take a pic. Oops.

We had 2 full glasses of sangria remaining even after dessert. I’d guess you get about 6 glasses in a $21 pitcher. Good deal. Definitely one of Valenca’s good points – in addition to the decor, the large patio area, free valet parking, and many unique menu options. They just need to take a few lessons from Ocean and Sette Luna on how to run a tighter ship.

Cameras don’t work if their batteries aren’t charged (unless you have a disposable or your trusty camera obscura to capture your precious memories).

We just had a great meal at Sette Luna, and i was hoping it would be the first time i took pics for the blog. I was thrilled that i remembered the Canon on our way out the door, though it crossed my mind that the battery may not be charged. Not that we had time to charge it as we had called ahead for a table. I really have to do a post about “call ahead seating” at some point. I’d love to hear any opinions on it cuz we think it blowz.

When our appetizer came (Mozzarello al Forno – fantastic btw) i whipped out the camera, turned it on and went for the button that turns off the flash…CHANGE BATTERY PACK stared back at me with a slight smirk.

So no visual documentation. Sorry. Tomorrow night it’s Ocean and I swear i’ll have my shit together by then. Our entrées looked great, though you’ll have to take my word for it. I had the bianca pizza with goat cheese and beets topped with fresh arugula. My wife went with the linguini with clams – a little linguini and lots of clams. She said it was the perfect proportion. I went with one of several Belgian beers they have on draft. Smooth and citrusy with warm spice. My wife had a quartino of Nero d’Avola.

Another great experience at Sette Luna. My overall review will be up next week.

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