Say all you want about chain restaurants, but you can have a pretty damned good meal at Legal Sea Foods (aka, Legal Seafood, LS).
Let’s face it, the term “chain” is really meaningless. Of course there are the McDonald’s and Wendy’s of the world, and those are certainly “chains,” but there also chains like Smith & Wollensky’s, Palm Steakhouse, and Legal Sea foods. And, considering that menus at Legal Sea Foods’ various outposts vary, just as the menus at Per Se and The French Laundry can be similar, but different, perhaps it’s reasonable to say that there are chains from Thomas Keller or even Ducasse?
OK, so I might be stretching the definition of “chain.” But, it’s a pointless pejorative that people use when they probably really want to say “fast food.” Actually, what they really want to say is “restaurants I don’t like (and that i've never tried).” And quite frankly, most people don’t have very good taste so I don’t listen to what they say anyway.
Back to Legal Sea foods for a moment though.
The menu is a bit overwhelming. Lots of choices. Lots of combos. But if you cut through the chaff you can, and should, find yourself with a decent meal that consists of something like this:
A mojito. They have a Mojito on the menu at the Paramus, NJ location that totally rocks. It’s not syrupy sweet. It’s well-balanced and tastes like summer. In fact, given that I just “discovered” mojitos last fall, I will make it the official drink of the summer of ’06. Last year’s was the Dark & Stormy. They get a little much after a while (“a while” being defined here as “10 per weekend every weekend all summer long.”)
Start off with whatever oysters they have that night. LS usually has at least three types of oysters. They are deftly handled, served at just the right temperature and with all that gorgeous “liquor” sitting in the shell. Contrast this to the world famous Oyster Bar at Grand Central in NYC, where more than often you’ll find shucked oysters being flung around to the point where the liquor ends up in the ice, on the floor, or anywhere else other than on your tongue. Not good.
LS serves oysters with a ramekin of cocktail sauce, with a big dollop of horseradish on top. Please, don’t put cocktail sauce on your oyster. You're just going to make it taste like cocktail sauce. I love cocktail sauce as much as the next guy, which is why I use the rolls they serve to act as a spoon for that cocktail sauce, but it has no place on your oyster. Cocktail sauce is better on bread than it is on oysters. Of this you are assured.
They also give you a ramekin of peppery mignonette. You are allowed to use this. In fact, it’s encouraged. But, I should think that it’s best to just use the fork to apply the mignonette sauce. The fork allows you to get a little piece of shallot, just enough vinegar, and some great black peppery flavor onto the oyster. That’s all you want. After all, you want to taste the oyster and the liquor, and if all goes right, it’s like tasting the sea.
Get yerself a glass of Sancerre. The wine list at Legal is quite decent and well-chosen given the food they’re serving. Much more so than at about 95% of the mom-and-pop restaurants in New Jersey. Of this you are assured. The list even goes as far as to suggest pairings for the different types food (fried, oysters, etc). A great wine list, quite frankly, with at least 15 or 20 wines by the glass.
Now, move right into some fried seafood.
Legal does fried seafood very very well. It’s never greasy and always seems very fresh. You really can’t go wrong with the fried seafood. I think they even have prosecco on the wine list, so you can pair your fried with some bubbles. Just perfect. They have a fried calamari dish with hot peppers that should not be missed. The hot and vinegary peppers cut right through the fried of the calamari. Just like your proscecco or Sancerre will.
I’m told the little neck clams are quite good as well. I don’t go for that stuff. You should, though.
The lobster roll just can’t compare to the Elysian Café’s (Hoboken). My one lobster roll at Legal was a bit over-dressed, and I didn’t care much for the scallion. In a pinch I’m sure it’s fine, but relative to the Elysian Café, is just isn’t worth it. Legal has a couple of decent enough beers on tap that will go well with your lobster roll. I chose Harpoon IPA. MMMMmmm. Very IPA-ey.
You can eat that the bar at the Legal Sea Foods in Paramus, and I’m sure that goes at most if not all of their other outposts. Our bartender was very nice, very helpful (when I had a special request, the response was “no problem, we’re not here to be mean,” rather than what you might find elsewhere in the way of “uh, let me check.”), and she made a mean mojito.
It ain’t cheap. But good seafood generally isn’t. And, “Sea Foods” is actually two words. I always thought it was just one.
Legal Sea Foods - Garden State Plaza - Paramus - NJ (and other locations in a mall near you) - 201.843.8483