Legal Sea Foods Review: Sea Change

We’re a city that loves seafood, with a proud tradition of no-frills oyster bars, neighborhood crab joints and white-tablecloth lobster houses. (We’re also the birthplace of Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks.)

We’re a city that loves seafood, with a proud tradition of no-frills oyster bars, neighborhood crab joints and white-tablecloth lobster houses. (We’re also the birthplace of Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks.) More recently, we’ve become infatuated with short-season swimmers and exotics from far away. And we’re willing to spend plenty on them — as much as $50 for a serving of much-hyped wild king salmon from Alaska’s Copper River.

Chain restaurants like Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, Minneapolis-based Oceanaire and Maryland-based Phillips Seafood are stoking our craving for something new by making Australian barramundi, Costa Rican corvina and Hawaiian butterfish available nearly every night of the week. And to think we used to be contented with spaghetti and hard-shell crabs at the corner taproom.

I never thought I’d go to the mall for swordfish. But here I am at Legal Sea Foods in King of Prussia, marveling at the moistness of a meaty 10-ounce cut of swordfish spread with red onion jam. It’s one of the best pieces of fish I have ever eaten.

A week later, over lunch, a seductive aroma rises from the lobster roll’s toasted brioche bun, which can barely contain the bounty of sweet, chunky tail and claw meat tossed with celery mayonnaise. This sandwich, the equal of any served in Maine, is worth every penny of its $22 market price.

Legal has made itself at home in the old Houlihan’s space on the mall’s upper level, next to Macy’s. Natural materials like stone, wood and marble in the contemporary dining room create the aura of an upscale free-standing restaurant, rather than one that’s across the corridor from a Victoria’s Secret boutique. Reservations are accepted, which makes dining at Legal more civilized than at the inexplicably popular Cheesecake Factory. For shoppers who need to hurry home, Legal has a takeout counter that sells nearly everything available to sit-down diners.

This restaurant is the best of our new seafood chains, but it isn’t finely tuned yet. Tasty but ­tepid soups, weak coffee, some less-than-stellar side dishes and a so-so Caesar salad were among the flaws during my meals. Servers need to learn more about the wines, and about key menu details, such as what type of wild salmon is available.

Those shortcomings were counterbalanced by pristine Windy Bay oysters and a pair of luxurious oven-baked jumbo lump crabcakes drizzled with mustard sauce. Grilling over hickory enhanced a sockeye salmon fillet as well as a deliciously beefy filet mignon, both seasoned with nothing more than salt, pepper and oil. The slice of pecorino romano cheese on the seafood antipasto tastes out of place in the company of grilled shrimp, calamari and marinated shellfish. Side dishes accompany all Legal entrées, making it a better value than its competitors, with the french fries, coleslaw and jalapeño-­cheddar polenta worthy of a recommendation.

Legal also bests its rivals at dessert. Share the bananas Foster, which comes with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. It won’t singe your eyebrows — the warm rum caramel sauce isn’t flamed at tableside. My personal favorite is the Belgian chocolate mousse, three delectable buttons of creamy, sugar-free mousse.

The only downside to dining at Legal is passing Victoria’s Secret on the way out. That red thong in the window was just too cruel.

The Oceanaire is a looker, taking its Art Deco design cues from swank supper clubs and ocean liners built for trans-­Atlantic crossings. The soaring ceiling gives the potted palms plenty of headroom; the dining room’s horseshoe-shaped booths place expense-accounters on tufted thrones. A shiny stainless steel oyster bar adjoins the liquor bar, convenient for anyone who believes that a dozen Cape May Salts are equivalent to one Viagra. The restaurant’s stylish white-tablecloth demeanor and fine daily fish specials could make you forget that Oceanaire is part of a chain, but the relentless Victrola-era background music will keep reminding you that it is.

The best meal starts with New England clam chowder, packed with clams the size of a penny, or oysters on the half shell, with poetic names like Little Machipongo from Virginia, Hama Hama from Washington, and Royal Miyagi from British Columbia. Proceed to one of the day’s featured fish — perhaps a firm, mild, thick cut of corvina, a fish similar to grouper, glorious when grilled simply with sea salt and olive oil — or a pair of jumbo lump crabcakes made with so little filler that they collapse on the plate. Entrées are served steakhouse-style, a coy way of saying that side dishes cost extra and are oversize. The parent company mandates a few forgettable throwback items, such as the monochromatic fried mixed seafood platter with skinny french fries, and the wasteful raw vegetable/­pickled herring trays — such an unappealing freebie that most go untouched. Desserts are Titanic in scale; the only one I actively disliked was a rhubarb-berry cobbler with the consistency of pureed baby food.

At dinner our server disappeared for long stretches, while a lunch waiter grated on our nerves by asking, “How’re we doing, kids?” throughout the meal. Service should be brisker and more sophisticated in a room so grand.

I went to Phillips Seafood Philadelphia hoping to taste the salt air of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but I did not. Ocean City’s longtime purveyor of crabcakes and fried favorites doesn’t even come close to imparting a beachy feel to its location inside Center City’s Sheraton Hotel, where it replaces Shula’s Steakhouse. Nostalgic black-and-white prints of working fishermen and wooden chairs with cheerful carved-fish detailing can’t hide the fact that this is an urban hotel setting. White tablecloths and entrées in the mid-$20s say upscale, but on a Saturday night, nearly every customer was wearing jeans, shorts and/or flip-flops. Dining alone one evening, I was seated between two large parties, both of which had screaming children. That scene did remind me of the Shore.

The old-school menu doesn’t stray far from the beaten path. An assortment of seven hot appetizers is pleasant enough, sized for four people to share, laden with coconut-crusted fried shrimp, fried calamari, a broiled crabcake, roasted oysters topped with seasoned bread crumbs, steamed king crab legs, clams casino, and — best of all — steamed mussels in Thai-style coconut ­curry broth. There’s not much crabmeat in the cream of crab soup. Pan-fried crabcakes that combine lump crabmeat and backfin aren’t bad. But the grilled shrimp with “scampi butter” have an oppressively salty, processed-garlic taste. Green bean/mushroom casserole, ordered as an à la carte side dish, faithfully mimics the classic three-can recipe. Creamed spinach, a dense rather than soupy version, is better. Fat stalks of steamed fresh asparagus are served without sauce, butter or seasoning. The grilled mahimahi was dry and overcooked; the seared tuna speckled with black and white sesame seeds had cooled to room temperature before it got to us.

Mediocrity is easier to shrug off at a moderate price point. It’s hard to swallow at Phillips, where a $100 dinner for two isn’t a good deal, even with free parking in the hotel garage. Phillips may be the biggest fish in Ocean City, but in this city, you can do better.

Legal Sea Foods
The Court at King of Prussia, 610-265-5566

Food: B+
Service: B-
Atmosphere: B
Average price per plate: $24
Wine list: Wide-ranging, with well-priced premium wines by the glass.
GO FOR: Lobster roll, swordfish with red onion jam, crabcakes.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room
700 Walnut Street, 215-625-8862

Food: B-
Service: C
Atmosphere: B
Average price per plate: $30
Wine list: International and pricey. More non-chardonnay whites would be welcome.
GO FOR: Oysters, grilled fresh fish, crabcakes.

Phillips Seafood Philadelphia
Sheraton Philadelphia City Center, 17th and Race streets

Food: C
Service: C
Atmosphere: C
Average price per plate: $25
Wine list: Heavy on name-brand chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. German riesling or Duvel Belgian beer are better.
GO FOR: Hot seafood plateau appetizer, crabcakes.