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Testing the Waters
Seafood lovers get schooled at Legal Sea Foods.

THE SCENE: Depending on when you go, your first glimpse of this Boston-based seafood house might well be the backs of anxious customers lined up for a taste of New England. Even with reservations, you’re likely to be handed a beeper. The sleek, upscale décor features a striking blend of mahogany, slate, stone, stainless steel and granite, complemented by soothing sea-foam green and sea-blue hues. A large bar area along the mall side of the restaurant has snug booths, comfortable stools and a pair of flat-screen televisions. Separating the bar from would-be diners and the bustling hostess station is a mod-ish water wall—eye-catching for its under-the-sea flair. A 10-seat oyster bar serves as the focal point for the rear dining room, which has a mix of close-knit booths and tables.

At lunch and dinner, the crowd is a mix of business types, friends, families and shop-till-you-drop diners. If you’re looking for an intimate, romantic spot, this isn’t it.

THE FOOD: Legal Sea Foods executives cringe when they hear the word “chain,” as each of their restaurants is tailored to regional tastes. In New England, lobster takes center-stage. Here, it’s crab. Market research revealed a local preference for an interactive raw bar and eating at the bar (a space typically reserved for diners-in-waiting and overflow at other Legal outposts).

The menu echoes the flavors of New England/Maine with such classic offerings as full-bellied clams, baked scrod, chowder, fried clam and lobster rolls and lobster with cracker stuffing. More contemporary combinations include almond-encrusted salmon with lemon caper butter sauce, mushroom ravioli and spinach; red onion jam swordfish; grilled halibut with arugula, red pepper and olive salad, and Yukon gold potatoes; and tuna grilled with “everything” spice mix.

It’s worth noting that King of Prussia is the only Legal location with a wok. Asian-inspired dishes include wok-seared mussels and Kung Pao shrimp wok.

The steak-cut halibut was our favorite, served with a perky red pepper sauce, baby arugula and buttery roasted Yukon gold potatoes. The swordfish, which got its kick from the tangy-sweet red onion jam, was a little overdone, leading to a few spongy bites. The “everything” tuna was gorgeous but hefty. Served on the pinker side of medium rare, this is a dish in which less should be more—it’s a lot of raw to consume in one sitting.

The jumbo lump crab cakes were a letdown. Loosely bound with a barely perceptible amount of saltine crackers, they arrived in a dehydrated state on a puddle of mustard sauce. The pairing was unnecessary, as the cakes themselves were already loaded with a distinct mustard flavor that overpowered the sweet lump meat. The menu lists an accompanying salad of greens, apples and walnuts; we got the lettuce with no accoutrements.

Legal’s oyster selection is bare-bones, with just four types—Kumamoto, East Coast, West Coast and Prince Edward Island, which were all quite pleasing in flavor and texture. But the lack of variety isn’t going to keep aficionados coming back when other places serve six or more varieties of equal quality. (Still, we loved the wooden cocktail forks specifying the different oysters—something new to all of us.)

The steamers were sweet and juicy, if a little gritty. Other appetizers—namely the hot lump crab dip with seafood chips and the coconut shrimp—failed to impress. The chips had an unfortunate likeness to Styrofoam, and the weakly seasoned shrimp had a dense, dry coating.

A chilled, well-dressed combination of finely sliced lettuce, olives, feta and cucumber, the chopped Greek salad was a refreshing explosion of salty, creamy, tangy and cold notes.

Dessert also was a pleasant surprise. We opted for the bonbons, sumptuous milk chocolate spheres filled with ice cream, and the Belgian chocolate mousse, three miniature timbales of semisweet chocolate with a silky texture and well-balanced flavor. Both were outstanding complements to our last few sips of 2005 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel, coffee and cappuccinos.

Legal’s premium selection of wines and spirits has earned accolades from Wine Spectator. The vast list includes 20 varieties by the glass—available as 2-ounce tastes—and a user-friendly arrangement of whites and reds broken down into “light, fresh and dry,” “pure and silky,” “smooth and supple,” “big and bold” and other catchy groupings. There is representation from all over the world—New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Italy, Chile and France—as well as California, Washington and Oregon, with many excellent and reasonably priced choices.

THE EXPERIENCE: For a Tuesday night, Legal Sea Foods was bustling. Fortunately, there also was plenty of attention from the staff to go around. Only once did we overhear someone grumbling about a long wait. Our server’s knowledge and attentiveness was impressive, and we welcomed his unabashed insights and suggestions. Turnaround time at lunch, however, needs to be tweaked. The day I visited, I was the only person sitting at the raw bar, yet it took more than an hour to order, consume and pay for the fish and chips and two cups of coffee. During my meal, I overheard a woman bemoaning the long wait for her check. Less than two minutes later, a supervisor was meeting with the waiter about it.

Apparently, offering impeccable service is as important to Legal’s staff as delivering the freshest, safest seafood available. And despite occasional glitches, it shows.

THE SKINNY: Legal Sea Foods debuted in 1950 as a modest fish market adjacent to the founding family’s grocery store. The first restaurant was added in 1968—a simple place with picnic tables and family-style service. Fast-forward to 2007, and the 103-year-old company now encompasses 31 restaurants, a mail-order business and a grocery products division. The youngest member of the family hatched in March, aptly located in King of Prussia, the area’s unrivaled mecca of mass consumption.

Operating under the motto, “If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t legal,” the company buys exclusively from day boats or from the “top of the catch” (fish caught shortly before the fishing boat comes back into harbor). There is no middleman.

Legal employees hit Boston’s fish auction at about 4 a.m. each morning, shopping for all 31 restaurants. (Wild and farm-raised fish is also purchased from global sources.) Everything goes to a central quality-control center and is either trucked or flown to its final destination within 24 hours. It’s an expensive and fanatical process, but judging by the crowds at the King of Prussia location, it’s a worthwhile one.

Trendy, upscale restaurants aren’t unusual in our neck of the woods, and their novelty has yet to wear off. But like everyone else, this popular newcomer will have its ups and downs—not because of poor-quality food but because waits and crowds can get out of control.

The price points and ordering options at Legal Sea Foods are varied enough that finding a niche solely among a more upscale clientele isn’t really possible. So this truly is a place for everyone—except, of course, landlubbers.

Location: The Court at King of Prussia, 690 W. Dekalb Pike, (610) 265-5566, legalseafoods.com
Cuisine: All seafood all the time, with an occasional nod to carnivores.
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$23.50, entrées $13.95-$39.95
Hours: Lunch and dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Attire: Business-smart to suburban chic, with a little mall casual thrown in.
Extras: Private dining room seats up to 50, with wireless and wired Internet connectivity and drop-down screen over the fireplace; catering; takeout.



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