As I ordered saltimbocca at Cape Fear Seafood Co., our server informed me that it’s the restaurant’s most popular dish. We were a party of four, another couple joining my wife and me for dinner. They’re longtime friends, familiar with the review dinner drill that we all share bites of whatever we order.
If you’re wondering how saltimbocca could be a bestseller at a seafood restaurant, let me hasten to point out that this is not the saltimbocca that immediately comes to mind. Cape Fear’s version is a seafood twist on the Italian classic, featuring the chef’s choice white fish wrapped in translucent-thin slices of prosciutto. Cooked just until the translucent-thin prosciutto flirts with crispness while stopping short of overcooking the fish (red snapper that night), the dish is an impressive culinary high-wire act balancing delicate surf and earthy, umami-rich turf.
The saltimbocca is well deserving of its popularity, but it wasn’t the only keeper we netted that night. Grilled cobia, one of a handful of fresh catch features on offer, was a close second. Shrimp and grits were solid, too, with bacon, mushroom and tomato in a Low Country cream sauce over stone-ground cheese grits. A broiled seafood platter of cod, scallops and mussels was marred only by the accompanying sautéed spinach, which needed salt.
But the only item we all agreed we’d throw back was a starter: heavily breaded fried calamari served with what’s described as “house-made marinara” that one of our friends accurately described as more like tomato paste. But we devoured the other appetizer we shared, an oven-blistered crab dip tinged with horseradish and served with toasted pita points.
Portions aren’t massive at Cape Fear Seafood Co. (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a minute), but they’re generous enough that we decided to share one dessert. The house-made key lime pie got a unanimous thumbs up.
No review of a Southern seafood restaurant would be complete without checking out the fried seafood platter, so I knew what I had to do when I returned a few weeks later for a follow-up visit with my wife. I say “had to” because, based on the disappointing calamari, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about the prospect of more fried seafood.
Still, duty called, and I went all in on the Whole Boat combo: fried shrimp, flounder, clams, scallops and oysters, served with fries, hush puppies and creamy coleslaw. My reward — delightful surprise would be an understatement — was a reminder of why at least two visits to a restaurant are essential for a good evaluation of a restaurant.
I could describe in detail each item that was piled on so generously that a couple of clams were teetering precariously on the rim of the plate. Or I could just cut to the chase and tell you that this is the best fried seafood platter I’ve had in recent memory.
Meanwhile, my wife wasn’t feeling sorry for herself as she tucked into her blackened fish tacos, loaded with nuggets of expertly cooked cod and a fresh mango salsa. Even so, I caught her casting longing glances at my fried seafood platter. Naturally, I shared. And when she started poignantly reminiscing about childhood memories of family meals at Howard Johnson’s, where clam strips were her favorite, I even let her have most of the clams.
I would have been hard-pressed to eat all that fried seafood anyway, after a meal that started off with the restaurant’s signature roasted red pepper and crab bisque — so good I’d wished I had ordered a bowl instead of a cup, though in hindsight it’s probably good I didn’t.
Then came a large Caesar salad (which our server obligingly split for us unsolicited), and a crab cake that we’d ordered as an add-on to the salad. Pan-seared and loaded with crabmeat, the crab cake is one of nearly a dozen ways to transform your salad into an entree (others cover the seafood spectrum from fried oysters to lobster tail, plus a landlubber option of grilled or blackened chicken).
The Raleigh restaurant is the first location of Cape Fear Seafood Co. to venture inland; the other three are in the Wilmington area. It opened in June in the former Kamado Grille building. The owners have divided the sprawling space into smaller rooms with a casual contemporary feel and an eclectic maritime decor: rustic plank tabletops, chandeliers fashioned from oyster shells, seascapes and marine life sculptures on wainscoted walls the color of the ocean on an overcast day.
It’s a most suitable setting for a menu that charts a course from Southern fried seafood to New Bedford scallops to Cabo fish tacos.
Cape Fear Seafood Company
832 Spring Forest Road, Raleigh
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary with a maritime motif
Noise level: moderate
Service: eager to please, generally attentive (can lag on busy weekends)
Recommended: roasted red pepper and crab bisque, saltimbocca, fresh catch, fried seafood platters, fish tacos
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; wheelchair accessible; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.