May is a big month for my family: yesterday, the 7th, was my dad’s birthday. Today, the 8th, is my niece L’s (she’s 5). Throw in Mother’s Day and my and S’s upcoming 1st wedding anniversary, and we’ve got a lot to celebrate. Since my niece’s party was yesterday afternoon out on Long Island, we agreed that it would be easiest for everyone to have a big family dinner last night in honor of, well, everyone. The choice of restaurant was simple: We went to Legal Seafoods in Huntington Station.
Legal Seafoods is a bit of a family tradition for us. My mom’s originally from Newton, Mass, a suburb of Boston, where the family-owned chain began. Whenever we’d go up to visit my grandparents, the trip always included a meal at the branch in the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center. No matter what time of day we went, the story was always the same: a long line, usually out the door, and a wait of 45 minutes to an hour (no reservations). There was a Crate and Barrel in the shopping center, though, and in the 70s the chain hadn’t yet made it to the New York area, so we’d kill time browsing there. Not the best place to take four rambunctious kids, perhaps, but what else were my parents going to do? We certainly didn’t have the patience to just stand around in the bar area with the rest of the hungry hordes.
When we’d finally get a table, the wait would always be worth it—their onion strings are worth traveling great distances for. Greaseless, brittle-crunchy, sweetly oniony, we’d devour them by the fistful. The rest of the meal, though, excited me less. As a child I wasn’t terribly fond of fish, so Legal’s oversized blackboard menus, crammed with what seemed like hundreds of variations on the day’s catch, didn’t exactly set my tastebuds to buzzing. Mostly it fascinated me, to see how many different kinds of fish they offered—in our home there were three: tuna (canned), salmon (also canned) and sole (frozen, and stinky). We were kosher, so shellfish was never a consideration, but Legal did offer a mean fish & chips. Then, as now: Fried. Food. Makes. Me. Happy.
Fast-forward thirty years and Legal Seafoods has blossomed into a chain with 31 locations from Massachusetts to Florida, including four in southern New York state. The one near my brother’s home, in Huntington Station, is large and loud and sleek, with none of the rough-hewn touches of my childhood—the menus are printed rather than blackboard, and the tables are no longer topped with butcher’s paper, as I remembered. They now take reservations for larger parties, so since there were eleven of us we didn’t have to wait. And the menu itself has changed, too. I was looking forward to a large array of freshly-caught fish, prepared simply—that’s not such a novelty these days, in fact it’s quite the norm for a seafood restaurant. But their menu appeared to be set—wood grilled halibut, swordfish, tuna, salmon, char, rainbow trout. I was a little disappointed, to be honest, but my halibut was sweet and mild, perfectly cooked, served with a little pot of luscious red onion jam and lightly steamed broccoli, string beans, and carrots alongside. S isn’t much of a seafood eater so he had the chicken Caesar. I didn’t expect much from that choice, but he was pleasantly surprised—it was fresh and flavorful, and the chicken was prepared with more care than I anticipated. Other selections at our table included blackened arctic char, bacon-wrapped scallops (my non-kosher sister-in-law), grilled “everything” tuna–sort of like an everything bagel, with a multicolored spice coating, and for the kids, fish-shaped cheese ravioli and fish sticks made from real pieces of fish (as opposed to that minced stuff in the frozen kind). Plates were wiped clean, and I left there satisfied, if slightly wistful.
I didn’t order any onion strings. Weight Watchers, you know. Bummer.