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We emerged from the house Sunday morning to confront the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. A leaning nectarine tree was the worst we suffered. We were going a little stir crazy and decided to grab a movie down at the Promenade. Their website had listings so we assumed the theater was operating. Bad assumption. In fact, the entire Promenade was shut down. Car after car was entering the parking lot looking for dinner or a movie so at least we didn’t feel alone in our disappointment. We guessed that Promenade management had planned for a Sunday afternoon with something worse than cloudy skies and a steady breeze. They lost out on a lot of business though.

My first thought was to stop by the casino for a burger at Emeril’s. There was no way the casino would shut down for anything! One problem – my wife hadn’t brought her purse and ID. But surely we could get a burger, right? There are kids in the casino and restaurants so there can’t be an absolute age cutoff. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated. Even with my wife’s very youthful appearance, she’s clearly not a kid so she absolutely had to be ID’d before entering. But there’s a solution! We could get a security escort to and from the restaurant. OK. That’s awkward. But we’re hungry. Let’s do it. Enter buzzkill escort guard to explain that she can only take us to the Irish pub or Emeril’s Chop House. Huh?! There are ostensibly no differences between those places and Emeril’s burger joint – each serves alcohol and opens to the casino floor. Whatever.

Onto Plan C – a swing through Bethlehem to find food. We climbed Main St. looking for an open restaurant and noticed an Italian place on the right and the Brew Works on the left. Good enough. We circled the block and found a spot off Main St. As we walked up Main toward the Brew Works, we passed the Italian place we’d spotted but I dismissed it partly based on the name, Mama Nina’s Foccacheria. The focaccia emphasis gave me the impression they offered mostly sandwiches. Plus the place looked packed to the gills. A guy standing by the door in casual clothes told us we had to try this place. “It’s awesome!,” he exclaimed and gestured to some seats all the way at the back of the restaurant. Wow, what an enthusiastic endorsement from a guy who clearly eats here a lot. OK, let’s try it. Then the guy grabs two menus and leads us to the table! So we got snookered. This had better be “awesome” or this whole afternoon would be a bust.

Well, we loved it. We were immediately served a big dish of fresh baked rolls smothered in olive oil and fresh garlic, plus 2 complimentary glasses of wine. My wife chose one of the specials – Maryland blue crab ravioli. And I went for the “Tour of Mama Nina”– chicken parm, a meatball, sausage, and eggplant rollatini on spaghetti – to try a variety of menu items. We hadn’t brought the camera as we weren’t planning on dining out, but everything looked great. Home style piled-high portions and great flavor. The atmosphere was energetic and comfortable even though the place was pretty tightly packed. (I’m not sure if this is typical or due to the few number of operating restaurants thanks to Irene.) The prices are good – though some of the specials were pricey esp. if they included seafood.

We finished up and, hauling substantial leftovers, emerged onto beautifully sunlit Main St. Bethlehem. Thank you, Mama Nina, for a great end to a cloudy weekend.

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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.

My mom’s birthday falls within a week of Mothers Day so I usually use that as an excuse to only give her one gift. Parents are impossible to shop for, so we tend to just go out for a nice “meal of food.” I’ve been raving about Bolete since last fall and finally had the perfect occasion to take her there. Bolete is in a great building with a strange location, at the intersection of Seidersville Rd and Emmaus Ave in the Fountain Hill section of Bethlehem. Frankly, the historic farmhouse looks like it was just plopped into its suburban neighborhood. That uniqueness is reflected in the food – an innovative (though short) menu utilizing as many locally sourced, seasonal ingredients as possible. Note: Take the menu on their website as an indication of Bolete’s typical range – not what they will be serving on a particular evening.

Saturday’s menu had a number of compelling choices. Tough to decide. For the first course, my wife went with the mixed green salad with goat cheese and blueberries, my mom chose the calamari (not local obviously, but it’s amazing), and i had to choose between the steak tartare and the roasted quail. Since I was leaning toward beef for my entrée, I went with the quail. Plus, I’d never had quail and I was curious to see what the dish would look like.

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We convinced my wife to go for the softshell crab with fingerling potatoes for her entrée. My mom chose the house-smoked pork chop with polenta cakes and I had the braised beef shank with grit croquettes and oyster mushrooms. I ended up eating the body of the crab. The guts freaked my wife out a little. Totally understandable. There’s no way I would eat that junk out of a steamed crab, but somehow i trusted that Bolete’s chefs wouldn’t feed me anything that would taste bad. Their smoked pork chop is great. You really gotta brine and smoke pork to keep it moist – farmers are breeding them way too lean nowadays. Bolete seems to offer the chop year-round. They just change the prep and the side dishes seasonally. My beef shank was tender and tasty. And i loved the grit croquettes – crispy and creamy and perfect for soaking up sauce.

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We were stuffed but i made a strong case that we absolutely needed dessert. Seeing the dessert menu sealed the deal. Some sharing was considered but quickly abandoned. Fresh doughnuts filled with lemon custard, coated with lemon sugar with a scoop of blueberry sorbet. Lime custard in a macadamia nut pastry shell with spearmint sorbet. Chocolate hazelnut ice cream with white chocolate cream and grapefruit. We appreciated the plating for about half a second before we attacked. Too good.

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Oh, and i forgot to mention the drinks. Bolete has an excellent wine list and some nice beer choices but we went with the mixed drink specials. My wife had the strawberry sangria and i went for the berry margarita with cucumber juice. My mom loves Corona but it wasn’t on the menu – at least not as a stand-alone drink. The Lehigh Valley Lemonade blended Corona, fresh squeezed lemonade and Ketel One vodka. It might be my mom’s new favorite drink.

Needless to say, we had a great time and my mom was really impressed with the food. Can’t wait to go back. Fathers Day is comin’ up right?

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