"It is an impressive view," my husband admitted as he eyed the wall of windows that faces the Georgia Aquarium. Behind the aquarium's angular façade, downtown Atlanta rose into the night, punctuated by a full moon hovering above the SunTrust Plaza building. From this perspective, you can see why the Luckie-Marietta district is so tourist-friendly. It presents Atlanta from a particularly flattering angle.
Legal Sea Foods, located in the new Hilton Garden Inn, is just one of the most recent restaurants to pop up in this area catering heavily to tourists and business folk. The company isn't the first to decide, somewhat morbidly, that proximity to the aquarium makes for a great seafood restaurant location. But it is the first to bring us this style of seafood, a style that has made the restaurant legendary in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., and led to more than 30 restaurants nationwide.
The style is simple New England seafood with an emphasis on freshness. For the uninitiated, that means a few unfamiliar dishes – huge, sweet steamer clams that need to be swished in water to remove the sand before being dipped in butter and gobbled up. The fried clams, the lobster roll. But we'll get to that later.
There's no denying that freshness is gospel here. You can taste it in every meal, the high, sweet song of the ocean in each bite. For a few dishes, such as the steamers, freshness makes the whole experience worthwhile. But some dishes can't survive on freshness alone.
The problems at Legal Sea Foods are mainly problems of scale. The huge operation has two giant dining rooms flanked by walls of wine and those dramatic windows. There's also a bar, an oyster bar, and another separate downstairs bar/oyster bar that has even more seating. Servers rush back and forth, and managers with headsets walk around looking like the Secret Service. Every time I've been there, at lunch and dinner, early in the week and later in the week, the place has been no-table-without-a-reservation packed.
If the rooms are unmanageably large, so is the menu. From a purely logistical standpoint, quality control must be a nightmare. I can only imagine the training that goes into making sure recipes are followed and standards upheld. But serving thousands of customers daily (from a menu with well over 50 items) makes perfection a practical impossibility. And while it's obvious that an effort has been made, too much is falling through the cracks, from service to scallops.
Baked Boston scrod was under-seasoned and bland. On a combination plate, tuna and swordfish were both overcooked, squandering their high-quality attributes. Is sand in clam chowder a sign of freshness? Absolutely. Is it pleasant? Not at all.
Servers were often overwhelmed, with sections that were too large to handle or too spread out over the giant restaurant.
Nods to the Southern location, such as shrimp and grits (a dish that was developed specifically for the Atlanta market and doesn't appear on Northern menus), seem overwrought and forced. The bacon-wrapped shrimp (undercooked bacon, slightly overcooked shrimp) lie over grits that are a smidge too rich, alongside greens that need acid.
The seafood platter for two showcased flawless fresh oysters, shrimp, and half a lobster, as well as fat mussels that hadn't had their beards removed, making for an unpleasant surprise. Apart from that easily avoided misstep, the best experience I had at Legal Sea Foods was sitting at the upstairs oyster bar, eating cold shellfish and drinking wine.
Which brings me to the few real reasons to visit the restaurant. The oysters are one. The wine is another. The selection is broad and decently interesting, but the prices, which hover right around what you'd pay in a retail store, are astounding. Try Damien Laureau's Savennieres Les Genets to wash down those oysters, a real treat at just over $30 (I've seen the same bottle elsewhere for well over $50).
The last compelling reason to visit Legal Sea Foods is the lobster roll. At $22.95, it's a financial commitment of a sandwich, but in some ways it's a bargain. Whole, tender lobster claws are lightly dressed with mayo and piled on a sweet brioche bun. A crisp lettuce leaf separates the meat from the bun, making sogginess impossible.
Leave the entrees and crab dips for the tourists and expense-account lunchers. Go for the steamers, the wine, the oysters and the lobster roll. If eating a good lobster roll is one of your ambitions in life, you no longer have to leave the Atlanta area to fulfill your destiny. That alone is worth celebrating.