Salacia – 4 Diamonds

     Just a few yards from where King Neptune reigns over the Oceanfront sits the Virginia Beach Hilton, home of the restaurant named for his wife, Salacia. As myth tells it, when Neptune proposed to her, Salacia feared for her virtue in front of such an intimidating suitor. She pulled the oldest trick in the book: She hid, in the depths of the Atlantic, until Neptune sent a dolphin to search for her and persuade her to come reign with him.

     As with the goddess Salacia, one must go searching for this charming restaurant. But once diners reach it, they will find tranquillity and balance in its cool blues and greens and its soothing whites. The dining room is small, seating 40, which provides a romantic atmosphere. Large windows face out onto the ocean; opposite them is a fireplace flanked in iridescent blue tiles, creating the effect of the ocean on each end of the restaurant. Salacia also offers outdoor seating on a private veranda that looks out over the Boardwalk and the water. Bold artwork decorates the breezeway walls, and each booth on the veranda is private, separated from the next by stone pillars, which makes for a picturesque outdoor dining experience perfect for enjoying ocean breezes and people-watching.

Salacia, however, is more than just a pretty dining room. This year, it won for the second time AAA’s Four-Diamond Award, a fine-dining distinction based on a three-stage evaluation. Only one other South Hampton Roads restaurant, Terrapin, won that honor this year. Statewide, only The Inn at Little Washington’s dining room won the Five-Diamond rating. And Salacia is the only Four-Diamond steakhouse in Virginia.

    The award is based on three broad categories in a 27-page set of standards: food, service and décor/ambiance. Within these categories, AAA inspectors evaluate restaurants for more nuanced details:  the use of fresh flowers, the number of times the phone rings before an attendant answers it, the color palette, and the use of fresh, local ingredients and garnishments. While it might seem excessive to rank a restaurant based on the size of an entree, the delivery of the check and the fabric of the tablecloth, it is precisely these aspects – evidence of attention to detail – that help make for a fine dining experience. It is no wonder that Salacia possesses two of these awards. The restaurant is beautiful, to be sure, and boasts exceptional service and food.

   Tough standards, and the AAA test, were nothing new to Salacia’s executive chef, Brad Kelly. He previously worked in the kitchen at The Inn at Little Washington and studied at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

   He joined the team at the Virginia Beach Hilton in 2010, where he incorporates small touches of gastronomy into the menu, taking an inventive approach to dishes that can become old hat. For instance, he serves salmon partially smoked and under a glass dome. When it is delivered to the table, the server removes the dome, releasing the fragrant smoke, full of the aroma of the wood-fire grill. The fish itself is perfectly cooked, tender and flaky, and served over wilted lemongrass and a wheat berry salad, mixing a smoky, savory fish with a fresh, grain-heavy salad.

Salacia’s kitchen staff puts a lot of energy into developing seafood dishes that are not only delicious but also appealing to the eye. Starting with the raw bar, diners might order the shrimp cocktail, which comes in shot glasses, each filled with a zesty homemade cocktail sauce and a positively huge shrimp. For Chef Kelly, a proponent of substantial shrimp, the key is not the number of shrimp one receives but rather “the size of the shrimp itself.” The shrimp are tender and the cocktail sauce is like a familiar room that has undergone renovations: The kick transforms boring cocktail sauce to something more complex.

Another raw bar option is the Jumbo Lump Crab Tini. This salad features large lumps of fresh crab meat mixed with avocado and served with fried plantain. The salad also comes with a steakhouse remoulade that has a bit of a chipotle flavor, which lends a robust, bold hint to a very fresh, clean dish. The plantain slice gives a satisfying crunch to finish things off.
And what would a seafood restaurant in Virginia Beach be without a crab cake on its menu? Salacia offers one that is outstanding. The Jumbo Lump Crab Cake is served over plum tomato jam and Pommery mustard butter. The crab cake itself is what connoisseurs expect: broiled, full of tender, substantial lumps of crab meat and very little filler, and not too much spice to get in the way of the flavor. It’s tender, salty, and has a hint of fresh herbs. The mustard butter is lightly zesty, balancing nicely with the jam, which is sweet but not too bold.

   While Salacia’s seafood offerings are outstanding, the restaurant asserts itself as a steakhouse, and a fine one at that. Diners perusing the menu will be greeted by their server, who will take drink orders, and then return with a large plate of different cuts of meat to choose from.

     The filet mignon is an excellent choice. It has a subtle, salty seasoning, and the outer char is crispy and smoky, a great reminder of the wood-fire grill on which it is cooked.

     For a non-beef option, the bone-in pork chop is another good choice. It’s a White Marble Farms double-cut chop with brandy-roasted apples. This pork chop is massive, the flavor is smoky, and the meat is incredibly juicy. The chef recommends it cooked to medium, which is perfect for such a large piece of meat, allowing it to maintain its juiciness. The apples and brandy sauce create a flavor balance that is warmly sweet and almost familiar. It offered a throwback to the traditional pork-chops-and-applesauce dish on which I was raised.

    AAA Four-Diamond Awards are based on a minimum of three courses per meal, which means dessert is essential to getting the full Four-Diamond experience at Salacia. Chef Kelly has developed a selection of desserts that create a perfect finishing touch to the menu. With flavors ranging from tart to nutty to simply sweet, the dessert options cover all the bases.

   For diners who seek the heavy decadence of chocolate, Salacia offers a Cherry and Chocolate Ganache that is outstanding. Served with red-wine-braised cherries and pistachio ice cream, the ganache is soft and sweet. The first bite is like covering up in a warm chocolate blanket on a chocolate couch in front of a chocolate fireplace. The heavy flavors are dark and rich, and the ice cream and cherries provide lightness for this otherwise intense dish.

     In addition to a trip to chocolate paradise, Salacia offers a Crème Brûlée Taster, featuring a vanilla and a chocolate. The chocolate is a revelation, with the familiarity of a Fudgsicle and the glamour of the caramelized sugar topping.

    Chef Kelly is constantly developing his menu, and he has been working on a new direction with the crème brûlée: butterscotch. This version features a glucose fondant disc over top, which is torched to create the crystallization we expect. It is served with a graham cracker bottom (rather than just sitting on a dish) and white-chocolate-covered popcorn on top. The popcorn adds a bit of sweet and salty whimsy. The flavor is good, very sweet, with a pleasing crunch. While the presentation is innovative, it is firmer than traditional brûlée, and the top is not as toasty as it is in the traditional chocolate and vanilla, details that may detract from the well-executed re-imagining of this dish.

    For an option that isn’t quite so heavy, the Sorbet Flight is an excellent choice. With flavors like lemon, mango, blood orange and raspberry, the sorbet is tangy and fresh.

While Chef Kelly wows guests from his kitchen, Nikolay Dimitrov, the manager and on-site sommelier, said he works to ensure that guests are happy in his dining room by adding personal touches to each experience. He seeks to “read the guests,” he said, by finding out why they’ve come to Salacia, what they’re celebrating, and how he can enhance their visit.
He maintains the wine cellar, which houses wine for the entire Hilton and is visible to Salacia’s guests through a wall of blue glass. His approach, he said, is to source the cellar from local and smaller wineries, offering patrons a unique variety. Wine pairings are offered, but guests’ desires can always trump them.

    With summer on its way, tourists and locals alike will seek out that perfect meal to end a day spent at the Oceanfront. As pleased as Neptune was the day a dolphin united him with his queen, so I believe diners will be in encountering Salacia. From the calm, cool décor to the flavorful, creative dishes and superb service, Salacia is worth seeking out.


3001 Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach. 757.213.3473.
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