It's always a pleasant surprise when a restaurant is better than you expected it to be.
I was certainly surprised when my family dined at L&N Seafood in Towson. Opened this spring on York Road as part of Towson Commons, L&N is a chain restaurant that doesn't act like one.
What sets L&N apart most is its exemplary service. That is not to slight the food, which was plentiful, fresh and flavorful.
It's just that our waitress was so knowledgeable, friendly and helpful that we were amazed. She was particularly attentive to the needs and wants of our daughters -- suggesting Shirley Temples to begin, bringing straws with their water and asking if she should have their entrees cooked before ours.
And her attention did not seem unusual. L&N appeared to have a large wait staff of servers trained to help each other.
L&N is a casual restaurant with a varied clientele and a handsome decor. The mix of dark green and wood is reminiscent of other casually trendy eateries.
L&N specializes in fresh seafood grilled over mesquite. The menu, however, says that any fish can be broiled, sauteed, baked, fried or steamed. The selection changes daily, but usually includes salmon, grouper, catfish, trout and swordfish. There is also a variety of shellfish plus two chicken and two beef entrees.
We sat by the windows along York Road, peering at the passers-by as they snooped at our food. And there was certainly plenty to snoop at. We started with New England clam chowder ($2.50 a cup), oysters on the half shell ($4.95) and hot seafood cheese dip ($3.95).
Our youngsters liked the chunky clam chowder, which packed a peppery punch. Be advised, take small bites. And have the water handy.
The seven oysters, served on an ice-covered beer tray, were small but filled with flavor.
The seafood dip was outstanding, similar to a Newburg with shrimp and scallops beneath a three-cheese sauce. It was served with wonton chips that, at first, seemed stale. But the more I ate, the better they tasted.
So I was still noshing when the salad arrived. We couldn't dig too deeply into the "bottomless bowl of house salad," served with all entrees. But we sampled enough to know it was fresh and dressed with a flavorful buttermilk-ranch mixture. Our daughters liked it -- a high compliment for either of them to pay to a salad.
For entrees, we chose the barbecued shrimp skewer ($14.95), grilled coho salmon ($15.95) and, from the children's menu, linguini with marinara sauce ($2.25) and chicken fingers ($2.95).
The 16 medium-sized shrimp, served on wooden skewers, were heavy with mesquite -- a little too heavy for me, but not for my husband. The rice pilaf was excellent.
The baby coho salmon was delicious, beautifully tender with an almost sweet flavor. The mesquite gave it a little fire. With fresh broccoli and red-skin potatoes, this was a pretty entree. On the side was a rich dill sauce, which went equally well with the salmon and the shrimp. Broccoli and potatoes were also well prepared though not extraordinary.
There was nothing junior about the children's meals, except the price. The chicken was high-quality, cut into good-size strips with a crispy coating -- and it was real chicken. It came with lots of good, pepper-touched french fries.
The spaghetti didn't get such good reviews from our younger daughter. But I think that the clam chowder, salad and biscuits had already filled her -- except for the room she was saving for dessert. Wise move.
L&N serves warm biscuits throughout the meal. They were quite good, similar to shortcake with a bit of sweetness.
Desserts were equal to the rest of our dinner. We chose a chocolate volcano ($4.25), a butterscotch pecan pie ($3.50) and a lime mousse ($2.25). All were homemade, except the volcano, and all were delicious.
The mousse was especially luscious with whipped cream and the lightly -- that's not lite -- lime chiffon froth layered in a snifter with a few graham cracker crumbs.
With two coffees, two cocktails, two glasses of wine and two Shirley Temples, our bill was $83. We had eaten well, indeed, and had several leftovers -- including half the shrimp and rice.
We left impressed -- with the food, the atmosphere, the service and, perhaps most of all, the employees' attitude toward children. The hostess, who had earlier played peek-a-boo with our 3-year-old, even pulled a live lobster from the tank to show our children. They liked the place a lot -- and they're pretty experienced restaurant diners -- and so did we.
*** 1/2 L&N Seafood
401 York Road, Towson
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. High chairs and booster seats available; diaper-changing facilities in women's rest room.
Reservations: Preferred seating list, but no reservations accepted.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.