Bring on the oysters go light on the talk

Restaurant: At Legal Sea Foods the fare is delightful, but the din can dim the pleasure.

November 15, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

In the review of Legal Sea Foods in today's Home & Family section, the service should have received two stars, for fair or uneven.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The world is in a sorry state when this is the first thing on a restaurant's menu: "Our pristine shellfish comes from cold New England waters and is inspected for purity by state certified Registered Sanitarians in our own microbiology laboratory."

OK, it's sad. But a few of Legal Sea Foods' fat, icy-cold, briny-sweet oysters slithering down your throat will cheer you right up. Follow them with several plump littleneck and cherrystone clams, accompanied by Legal's lime and chili salsa, and you won't be able to keep from smiling.


Baltimore's first Legal Sea Foods, part of the highly respected Boston-based chain, delivers extraordinarily fresh seafood, exactly as promised. It has a kitchen that knows what to do with fresh seafood once it gets it, and a well-balanced menu with an East Coast feel.

While the choices aren't overwhelming, you can get everything from fried fish with a cream sauce to a Zone diet dinner (bluefish pate; grilled shrimp, scallops or salmon with minted snap peas; and fresh fruit for dessert).

What Legal doesn't have is classic seafood-house atmosphere - which may or may not please you. No cozy booths or sawdust on the floor here. The contemporary dining room, once a Friendly's and after that Sfuzzi, is now minimalist chic. All curves and metal and muted colors, the room would be wonderful except that the tables are placed so close together. And with no fabrics in the room to muffle sound, the noise is deafening when it's filled. I was hoarse after two hours of shouting to be heard.

Except for a couple of exceptions, I loved the food. But I won't be rushing back because I can't stand the noise. Still, if you want to be where the action is, it's definitely here.

As for the food - to start with the worst first - the fish chowder looked like a bowl of library paste and tasted like creamed tuna, only thicker.

We had to go to the end of our meal for something almost as bad, an individual pumpkin tart. It had a soft, rubbery crust with a large spoonful of uninteresting pumpkin pie filling slopped into it.

As long as I'm complaining, let me mention the waiter, who brought us a bottle of wine totally different from the one we ordered. Maybe it was too noisy for him to hear. We also asked him if the swordfish on the menu was endangered. OK, we didn't really expect him to say yes, but he said, "No. It's farm-raised." Wow. That must be a really big farm.

Enough carping. The rest of our meal was very fine. Lobster lovers will be ecstatic with Legal's big beauties, which are juicy and flavorful. They come decorated with plump, grit-free mussels (and a choice of potato, which I never got but almost didn't miss).

The wood-grilled seafood is equally good. There's an assortment that includes shrimp, scallops and three different kinds of fish - this evening, char, tuna and farm-raised swordfish. You can have it with a lemon-chive butter sauce or Cajun spices.

The kitchen handles more elaborate creations just as successfully. A sole fillet topped with lump crab meat had a delicate, creamy sauce that whispered of coconut and curry. Finely diced tomato gave it a pretty bit of color. Golden fried TTC catfish fillets had an even richer spicy-creamy sauce. Diced andouille sausage and shrimp added jazzy flavor.

Legal Sea Foods has a super jumbo lump crab cake, but only for a first course. You could also start with various fried shellfish or Legal's signature appetizer, a mildly smoked bluefish "pate" rolled in a walnut and herb crust. Pleasant enough, but I'll take the crab cake or those oysters any day.

Naturally there's Boston cream pie for dessert, but it's not the Boston cream pie your mom used to make (sponge cake, thick custard and chocolate glaze). This is Boston cream pie for the '90s: sophisticated, ethereally light but just as deliciously rich as the old-fashioned version. If that isn't intense enough for you, have Legal's version of death by chocolate.

A last couple of notes: Legal Sea Foods' curious name comes from owner George Berkowitz's father's grocery store, where "Legal Cash" trading stamps were given out. As for the swordfish, a call to Legal's headquarters revealed that the chain uses mature swordfish instead of the "pups," which haven't had a chance to reproduce.

Legal Sea Foods

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: Inner Harbor, 100 E. Pratt St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$13, main courses: $12-$47; major credit cards

Call: 410-332-7360

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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