A renovated Flanders Fish Market remains a good catch
It was nearly 33 years ago when, driving past a home on Chesterfield Road in East Lyme, Paul and Donna Formica had a prophetic thought: "That could be a fresh fish market." Not long after, Flanders Fish Market, according to the restaurant's website, was born.
Earlier this year, after decades in operation, the popular haunt underwent a major new renovation, a turning point that seemed like good reason to revisit the seafood spot.
Walking up the front steps from the parking lot, and its ample supply of spaces, you'll see little hint of the transformation inside. The exterior still has its familiar patio with picnic tables for outdoor dining. Immediately inside, there are still cases displaying fresh catches of haddock, catfish, swordfish, lobsters, mussels, oysters and quahogs, to name a few options, as well as stuffed mushrooms and quahogs, mussel and squid salads, and lobster pot pies.
The dining area is where you'll see the biggest changes. Gone is the old seating plan, carpeted floors and papered walls. The new look is more modern and sleek. The ambiance is nautical: blue walls with gray chair rail, Gyotaku Japanese, black ink fish prints, maritime photos, and a bar with a wood frame overhang that's reminiscent of a seaside watering hole (it also boasts several TVs for sports viewing).
The menu is a mix of New England seafood favorites as well as less common dishes. If you're the type who likes variety, you can have calamari three ways — traditional with marinara sauce ($10), Parmesan style with banana peppers ($11.5) and Sicilian with spicy sausage, hot peppers, marinara and Parmesan ($12.50). Clams come in stuffies (two for $4.50), over linguine ($20), and fried into fritters (three for $6; six for $12, one dozen for $20), and shrimp is prepared in more ways than Bubba from Forrest Gump could name (well, maybe not that many).
To start, I tried the lobster bisque ($4 for a cup; $7 for a bowl), the clam fritters and stuffies. The bisque was very thick, which, depending on your preference, could be good or bad. I enjoyed it and found the buttery, creamy flavor accentuated the tender chunks of lobster. The fritters were among some of the best I've tried: generous amounts of clam, a crispy exterior and a moist interior, served piping hot with tasty tartar sauce.
The stuffies were filled with finely ground bread crumb stuffing and came garnished with parsley. The balance of seasonings was commendable, but the stuffing seemed overly smooth to me and lacking in the texture stuffies get from a more coarse stuffing and chunks of quahog, chorizo or bacon.
For dinner, I bounced around the sections of the menu, starting with a lobster roll, sold at the market price of $20. A traditionally executed cold roll (they do come hot as well), the bun was buttered and well toasted, the salad consisted of a generous amount of lobster chunks, celery, parsley, lemon, and mayo. This sandwich went delightfully with a side of medium cut, seasoned fries that stayed firm and crispy throughout the meal.
Moving next to the "anchors" section, where you'll find lime cilantro tilapia with avocado and pico de gallo ($18), a fish and crustacean bouillabaisse ($22), and cedar plank, blackened, maple glazed salmon ($21), I tried the coconut battered shrimp with apricot dipping sauce ($21). At times, coconut shrimp can be a strictly textural experience, but the Flanders version was notable for the tropical, coconut undertones I sensed with each bite. The richness of the batter also went nicely with the sweetness of the preserve-like apricot sauce.
With entrees, you have your option of one item from a smorgasbord of sides (all priced at $4 as add-ons) that includes baked sweet potato, house or Caesar salad, asparagus, grilled mixed veggies, and herb roasted potatoes. With my shrimp, I tried the seafood rice, a moist white basmati rice served with baby shrimp and imitation crab meat.
The strictly "fish" section offers some interesting options. There's one list of $17 priced dishes, including cod, bay scallops, haddock, catfish and flounder, and $21 options that include salmon, sea scallops, tuna and trout. You can have any of those item fried, blackened, broiled or grilled and served with either teriyaki, barbeque, or lemon butter sauce.
In an age when 700 television channels and a long list of streaming options have left me perpetually paralyzed by indecision, I did as the menu suggested and asked my server for a recommendation, which led me to the swordfish grilled and served with garlic lemon butter. The swordfish steak had eye-catching caramelized grill marks and a juicy, moist consistency. The sauce paired particularly well with my side of garlic mashed potatoes, which were distinctively less smooth and milky than your average mashed spuds but equally good.
The service at Flanders is quick, upbeat and friendly — and, judging by the way my server graciously accommodated the Darwin Award nominee who came to Flanders despite his numerous seafood allergies, quite patient.
The attention to detail, quality and service led me to believe that, after more than 30 years, Flanders is still a place where the people take exceptional pride in what they do, and where the patrons will keep coming back.
If you go
Flanders Fish Market
22 Chesterfield Road, East Lyme
(860) 739-8866, flandersfish.com
Service: Friendly, quick, enthusiastic
Hours: Restaurant: Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Bar: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Market: Sunday-Thursday 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Handicapped access: Yes