After years of tips naming the Viking Lobster Company as a seafood wonderland, I pulled to the curb and cursed. It looked closed, maybe for months, by the rough shape of the building. When my guests arrived we teetered up the slanted entrance ramp. The door opened. Three hours later, as I wobbled out, stuffed to the gills, I realized the patina was protective coloration, like those butterflies that look like their poisonous cousins. If you’re not Viking Lobster Company’s type of customer, it would be better for everyone if you went to Red Lobster instead. ¶ Here’s the deal: Reservations are required, maybe weeks in advance for weekends. If you’re stubborn and show up anyway, there’s no comfy waiting area. Cash only. No alcohol, unless you bring your own. Not fast; a full meal could take three hours.
One last caveat: It can get loud when crowded, because once having made it past the mental and physical barriers to enter, families and old friends make themselves at home.
How on earth could such a place not only survive, but draw a dedicated cadre of regulars? The food. Specifically, seafood like haddock filets and fat, dry diver scallops and especially lobster. Owner Jeff Benjamin, who reopened the place in 2003, buys his lobsters wholesale and keeps them in four 1,000-gallon holding tanks until they’re ordered.
My meal was better than most Western New York seafood, and not because of fancy French sauces or Portuguese haute cuisine or dollops of caviar. It was better quality materials, fresher and cooked with respect. You pay for it, too – this is not a budget night out.
The menu is a laminated card listing entrees from a fish fry ($14.95) to Ultimate Viking Feast ($99.99), a howitzer of protein that includes a haddock filet, a pair of 1¼-pound lobsters, four ounces each of colossal scallops and shrimp, snow crab legs, spare ribs and chicken. It also comes in smaller calibers. Besides seafood, there’s filet mignon ($39.95) and New York strip steaks ($29.95).
Our server, Carmen Young, isn’t just a server, she’s a partner, and it showed. She got us an ice bucket and glasses, opened our wine, and delivered a list of verbal specials.
We asked for five-cheese-stuffed peppers ($8.95), a stuffed portobello mushroom ($6.95), and a half dozen clams casino ($9.95), which she said were made from freshly shucked littleneck clams.
Cat ordered the Viking Feast ($49.95) of crab legs, haddock filet, lobster, colossal scallops and shrimp, after being assured she would have plenty of help. Mary ordered the fish fry ($14.95), which like other fried options comes with fries and coleslaw. (Other dinners include soup, salad and garlic bread.) Rick ordered paella ($29.95), and I loosened my belt and ordered lobster Alfredo ($39.95).
The peppers were two yellow Hungarians, as usual, roasted until soft and browned at the tips and filled with a robust cheese mixture that held up against the spicy chiles. They rested on a bed of well-balanced tomato sauce, with griddled fresh bread for sopping.
Our stuffed mushroom had a topcoat of well-seasoned sausage of beef and pork, covered with cheese and sprinkled with bacon, which made it look like a cheeseburger missing its top bun. It arrived on more tomato sauce, simple but tasty, with the tender mushroom giving it earthiness.
These were the freshest clams casino I’ve had, the bivalves topped with bell pepper, bacon and a touch of spicy chile, with no breadcrumbs. I started with a fork and ended up slurping them from the shell.
When soup arrived, the Portuguese chowder was a pleasant sweet-and-spicy surprise, with potatoes in a creamy broth that had us guessing at the spices (nutmeg and clove, among others). The beef gumbo had chunks of tender beef, celery and rice, decent soup even if the broth was too pale to fit my notion of gumbo.
The seafood was, simply put, exemplars of the form. The lobster meat was sweet and tender, with one of the tails slightly stringy. Scallops were lightly seared but still soft enough to eat with a spoon. Seared shell-in shrimp were plump and moist, except for one chewy character. The haddock, with a simple sprinkle of spice, was flaky, moist and better tasting than usual. We dunked hunks in melted butter and tried to figure out why.
My Alfredo was served with moderately sauced linguine and a split lobster with scallops and shrimp with more creamy sauce. It wasn’t a classic Alfredo, but a béchamel seasoned with lots of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, so I wasn’t complaining.
The crumb-crusted fish fry was crunchy outside, well seasoned, and flaky inside. The coarsely chopped cabbage slaw was more interesting than usual, too. The paella – with hunks of sausage, chicken, shrimp, bell peppers, celery and onion in a light tomato sauce over rice – was a decent sauté but not really paella, and could have used more assertive chorizo. A side of smashed potato was loaded with cheese and smoky flavor.
Desserts included pumpkin cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake and Key lime pie ($5.95). The chocolate cake was like dark fudgy butter; it would melt but never crumble, and could have been spread like Nutella. The pie was zingy and rich, with a balanced acid profile that didn’t remind me of licking a battery, as many do. The pumpkin cheesecake was grainy, but it tasted emphatically of pumpkin. “It’s weird but delicious,” said Cat. You could say that about a lot here.
After my meal, I understood Viking’s reputation as not only a premier Western New York seafood restaurant, but as something more – a place that hits the spot, the one you acquired that summer in Maine, when you fell in love with lobster, only to go home and discover that your long-distance relationship was unsustainable. If that sounds familiar, Viking Lobster will ease the pain of the one that got away.
Viking Lobster Company - 8
Battered building in Black Rock hides some of the area’s best seafood.
WHERE: 366 Tonawanda St. (873-1079, www.vikinglobster.biz)
HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. Reservations required.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $8-$16; dinners, $14.95-$99.95.
PARKING: Street, lot across street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.