Skip to content

Posts from the ‘New Jersey’ Category

Denny’s: Crimes Against Nature

Denny's maple bacon sundae top

Denny’s—where I spent many a high school evening drinking coffee, eating Super Birds and smoking in the back room because there was nothing better to do at night—are scarce around NYC. The nearest location, 20 miles away, just happens to be in my favorite part of New Jersey; the region that’s also home to Bud’s Hut and the Linfield Inn. I took this as a sign.

Avenel new jersey denny's

But before heading out to Avenel to finally experience Baconalia (I don’t only wait for hotspots to have a month-long cool-down period) I was warned about restaurants defaulting to imitation bacon. No way, not at Denny’s.

denny's maple bacon sundae

The Maple Bacon Sundae was not a purist affair, however. The bacon crumbles, more fatty than crisp, as I like them, were real all right, but the scourge of diners everywhere: maple-flavored syrup, a.k.a. corn syrup followed by high fructose corn syrup on the ingredient list, was the amber imposter drizzled atop and pooled at the base of the vanilla ice cream tower.

Despite the unnatural sweetener, this was not a bad sundae. The spoonfuls of melting ice cream striped with syrup and smoky nubs of pork were welcome sweet-salty blasts; the only thing that could’ve upped the ante would have been a sprinkling of chopped hickory-smoked almonds.

I still had to admire Denny’s moxie. Sure, bacon desserts are old hat to food trend followers (though it’s a faster trickle-down than craft beers now appearing at T.G.I. Friday’s) but that doesn’t mean the average customer is necessarily ready for the meeting of sweet and salty in soda fountain classics.

What we did with bacon

The disgust and outrage overheard at a nearby table might’ve been initially mistaken for the matrimonial union between two men.

30-something dad: “I love bacon…but on a sundae? This has got to be a joke, right?!”

Son: “Gross!”

After grandma hobbled back to the table, dad proceeded to fill her in on the maple-bacon atrocity. “Can you believe it?”

I did not hear her response. Perhaps, she’ll now finally be able to say that she’s seen it all. I hope she’s already watched Nannerpuss.

Texas Roadhouse

I’m never ever a jerk to service staff, but when “Have you dined with us before?” hits my ears (which isn’t the sole province of chain restaurants) I feel this childish urge to backtalk in some manner. Really, how much explaining should a dining experience require? I always lie and say “yes” to save the spiel. But as a first-timer at Texas Roadhouse, who only knew about the business because it came in fourth place in a survey of favorite casual dining restaurants, I did kind of want to hear what they were about.

Texas roadhouse

“Hand-cut steaks,” sides made from scratch and freshly baked rolls that are whisked from the front counter and brought with you to the table as you’re being seated, it turns out. The staff wearing I Heart My Job t-shirts and periodically breaking into country line dances and why the chicken fingers are called “critters,” were not explained.

While waiting for a table at the bar, we sized up the restaurant with its chilled giant mugs of beer, bloomin’ onions, woody motif and emphasis on steaks, to be an OSI brand. But not so. That fried, battered onion turned out be called a Cactus Blossom, and apparently has nothing to do with Outback Steakhouse, whatsoever.

What the restaurant really reminded me of, particularly the country music and encouragement to throw peanut shells on the floor, was a restaurant in Tigard called BJ’s Roadhouse that I can find no online evidence of (there’s a BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, but that’s not it). I’ll never forget it because it’s where my dad and his wife took me for my birthday right after I turned 21 and I forgot my driver’s license and couldn’t drink away the trauma (no, I did not appreciate chains and suburban trappings in college). The waiter wouldn’t even let me have an O’Doul’s. The evening ended with a watermelon (the only food in the world I hate) and a diabetic cherry pie.

Texas roadhouse rolls

A decade-and-a-half can make all the difference. Now, I’m soothed by honey-cinnamon butter and warm, fluffy rolls and the ability to drink forty ounces of Sam Adams Cherry Wheat beer without being carded. I practically ate the whole basket while scrutinizing the menu. The bread reminded me of the “scones” at a restaurant I ate at once in grade school called Pa’s Kettle (wow, I can’t believe that it still existed in its 1980s form until 2008). They were warm yeasty triangles served with honey-butter that had me in for a surprise when I first tasted a real dense, baking soda-heavy scone (probably at Starbucks, sadly).

Texas roadhouse rattlesnake bites

Rattlesnake Bites are a take on jalapeño poppers with the chiles and cheese mashed up and formed into a fritter and served with a Cajun horseradish dip. “Hand-battered,” don’t forget. I felt health draining from me with each bite–maybe that's the rattlesnake angle?–but who doesn't appreciate a newfangled popper?

Texas roadhouse ribs & chicken

I tested out my favorite Dallas BBQ combo: ribs and chicken. Well, the ribs, despite being a little dried-out and not likely smoked, still tasted more like real barbecue than BBQ’s. Nothing wrong with them. The chicken, though? Ugh, grilled, boneless chicken breast, my enemy. I was picturing a crispy, skin-on leg in my head. This sad poultry part has a place in my weeknight dinner canon, but I never ever want to eat it in a restaurant and I will never understand Americans’ obsession with flavorless white meat. (Apparently, Chinese don’t like chicken breast—or kung pao, but that’s another story.) To be fair, the grilled chicken was moist and not tasteless—the more peppery than sweet sauce helped—it’s just not what I wanted. Baked beans and steamed broccoli, carrots and cauliflower (my attempt at health) were my choices of sides.

Texas roadhouse steaks

They really do hype-up the beef—the cuts are displayed in a butcher-style case in the waiting area—so, James went all big-spender (relatively speaking; the steak and rib combo was $18.99) and ordered a steak and rib combo. I’m still trying to parse our enthusiastic server’s question “Have you had ribeye before?” Did he mean ever in our lives or at Texas Roadhouse? Am I naïve/privileged to think that the average adult in this country has eaten a ribeye at some point? Must tamp urge to sass waitstaff.

No matter. Texas Roadhouse is worth having in my chain restaurant repertoire. I would go again, if only to be able to answer “yes” when asked the inevitable “Have you dined with us before?” question.

Texas Roadhouse * 1000 US Highway 9, Parlin, NJ


Picnic Garden

H Mart—at least the brand new one in Edison, New Jersey that anchors a sprouted-up strip mall—is the grocery store of my dreams. I would swap it for Fairway without a second thought. We have one of these Korean supermarkets in Flushing, but as with so much of New York City, businesses become larger, cleaner, brighter, better stocked and more amenable the farther you get from the city’s center, like a pond ripple showing suburbia’s finest at the outer rings.

I’ve never seen a supermarket with so many free samples (and we’d just come from Costco—I don’t know where they’ve gotten the reputation for being sample-centric—in my experience if you see one lady handing out apple pieces, it’s a good day), an entire entourage of tables along the perimeter of the produce section offered tastes of miso soup, roasted sweet potatoes and more.

Upon entering, to your left you’ll see a food court with a vendor, Kono, not Kyedong, selling fried chicken, pork belly and blood sausage, and at the edge is a small platform featuring a lone microphone that apparently can be commandeered by anyone shopping or eating to sing pop songs and ballads. On the right is a tray-and-tongs bakery, Tous Les Jours, that was fairly decimated around 6pm. What most caught my eye when walking in the door was the sign reading no photography (as well as the two teens with Jesus signs strumming guitars and singing on the sidewalk). It only implied what I was feeling, that this was no mere grocery store but an attraction that had already drawn enough snap-happy to the annoy of the management.

So, no photos of the take-out by the pound tables including marinated meats destined for the grill, refrigerated walls of kimchi, pickles and preserves, the pristine fish section with everything clearly marked and ordering instructions. And now I know where to buy a variety of fish heads, a problem I encountered when trying to reproduce Singaporean fish head curry. Most shocking, considering the store is primarily Korean with a few nods the rest of Asia, was seeing fresh galangal. I’ve always relied on a mushy knob I keep in the freezer and slice off as needed for Thai curry pastes.

Picnic grill exterior

H Mart is flanked by two restaurants, a tofu house and Picnic Garden, an all-you-can-grill Korean bbq joint that also has a branch in Flushing. The interior is larger than it appears from the outside with three separate seating areas—each table with an individual grill, of course—and a central buffet that houses rice, a few side dishes and a selection of marinated meats to be taken back to your seat.

Picnic garden first round

I was initially confused by the process—it’s not leisurely or solitary. If you come back to your table with a small plate of food intended to feed just yourself, to cook on your own, you would be wrong. As soon as a head-setted staffer sees meat at your table, they come by, toss it on the grill and begin snipping it into bite-sized pieces. They might come back in a few minutes and turn everything over.

Picnic garden plate of meat

Third round

I finally got into the groove. You’re supposed to bring back a big plate teaming with meat for the entire table (in my case, just two of us) it all cooks up at once and then you dip in chile paste, wrap with lettuce and eat. Another round means a swapped out grill and you start the process again (I would hate to be the grill-scrubber at the end of the night—on the way to the bathroom I saw an enormous wheeled plastic tub filled with the dirty once-used metal grates).

Picnic garden grill
The selection is more than sufficient but not huge. For non-grillable items there were kimbap, octopus legs, noodles, tempura vegetables, fried chicken, ribs, whole grilled fish, romaine chunks with chile-flecked dressing and a few more things that I’m forgetting. For meats they had shrimp, pork belly, pork ribs, kalbi, bulgogi beef, chicken, sausages—no organ meats or soondae. Dessert is a plate of oranges.

Picnic grill buffet

Picnic grill interior

It’s fun, you do get your $27 worth (the dinner price on weekends–$15 during the week sounds like a bargain). I only wish they had beer instead of barley tea. Maybe alcohol would just induce lingering?

Picnic Garden * 1763 Route 27, Edison, NJ

On The Border

Jose Tejas, the incongruously named Border Café that give the illusion of not being a chain, rules the Tex-Mex scene in Middlesex County. It’s always packed, the parking lot overflowing well past the time other restaurants in the area are thinning out for the night. Chevy’s in nearby Linden doesn’t really compare, so we kept going south down Route 1 until we hit On the Border in New Brunswick where you can always see a new movie in an uncrowded multiplex.

Not surprising for a Saturday night, the restaurant was bustling and we were quoted a short wait. What I was surprised by was the predominantly Indian clientele. That’s why I like New Jersey so much. Sure, it’s the suburbs but it’s not the all-American West Coast suburbs of my youth. The setting would've been ripe for painful Outsourced-style humor involving Sikh turbans.

On the border apps

The chicken-and-cheese stuffed jalapeños (they didn’t call them poppers) aren’t so different from mirchi bajji, really.

On the border fajita

Their fall Hatch chiles menu is kind of on trend. This year in particular, they’ve been getting a lot of press. The weird thing was that I didn’t really taste the green chile and I didn’t expect cheese on my grilled meat. Of course, melted cheese in the trademark of any fine chain, but I was asked if I wanted cheese or guacamole, and I went for the latter if only to lower my cholesterol marginally.

I ordered one agave margarita, which tasted bitter and lingered like it contained artificial sweetener. My second, a standard version, tasted exactly the same, so then I was confused. I will say that one thing Jose Tejas definitely has over On the Border is the margaritas.

On The Border * 51 US 1, New Brunswick, NJ


Bud’s Hut

I now understand the fear of the unknown and how it drives suburbanites to chain restaurants. It's one thing if you live in a metropolis rife with thriving unique eateries or dwell in a cutesey smaller city like Portland (my favorite whipping boy) where the indie ethos is pervasive. Local is likely better. But when franchises are the norm, as with most of the New Jersey townships within an hour's drive from NYC, non-chains can be a scary prospect. Just what are you getting yourself into?

For years, I've had a fondness for the US Route 1 corridor spanning Linden to Edison. There is not a single mall store or chain restaurant you can't find along this strip. I particularly like the northern chunk just off the Goethals Bridge because it reminds me of 82nd Street in Portland, or at least the 82nd Street of my youth.

I intentionally drove along it all the way to Clackamas Town Center last Labor Day weekend instead of taking the freeway (I love saying freeway, not turnpike, expressway, parkway. It's free!) and it still appeared to be a blur of car dealerships, taverns, motels, thrift stores, vendors selling rugs out of vans. No gentrification yet (Portlanders aren't so desperate and crushed by rent prices to expand the borders of acceptable neighborhoods into the hinterlands—right before I moved to NYC I lived on 55th and Glisan and that was really pushing it, 39th being the invisible line between cool/uncool neighborhoods) just new unexpected businesses like a drive-thru banh mi shop.

Bud's huts

Along this multi-laned road sits Bud's Hut, a sullen, windowless, dark wood anomaly that would be just at home in the Pacific Northwest. Its impenetrability implies bar or something more illicit, but it's advertised as family friendly. In the three-second glimpse I get in the passenger seat, there never appears to be many cars in the parking lot. There is no hint that it's a dive harboring a specialty like Rutt's Hut, the better known New Jersey establishment sharing half a moniker. In this era of user-generated content, not a single peep online only made me more suspicious. A restaurant untouched by Yelpers and Foursquarers?  I'd have to take matters into my own hands the old fashioned way.

Saturday at 9pm James and I met up with three others that I'd coerced into solving the Bud's Hut mystery. It actually wasn't all that mysterious, as a member of this party only lives a few towns over and had been before, some time ago (and got food poisoning).


The décor was more nautical than I'd anticipated from a hut, a little '70s colonial with firm sweepable carpet, faux Tiffany lamps and boats and ships galore. Not seedy, just faded.

Only two other tables were occupied in the dining room and soon enough we had the place to ourselves. Our friendly waitress, who was as interested in the new Dee Snider reality show as we were, announced, "You can be as rowdy as you want now." After a few glasses of Yellowtail Shiraz, I was getting there. And really, Bud's Hut is probably better suited for drinking. The bar and outdoor patio still had decent crowds when we left.


The menu is based on favorites: steak, seafood…and a bloomin' onion with Italian-American staples like chicken parmesan and linguini with clam sauce (I think that's actually angel hair pasta). Garlic crabs, another New Jersey Italian thing, were also being advertised but cracking crustaceans is always such a hassle and better suited for the outdoors.


We started with Bud's Triangle, which is to say, a trio: loaded potato skins, mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers just like you'd find at a chain restaurant. Bud's Hut is a little Outback Steakhouse and a little Red Lobster with prices in the same range. They also have a mud slide on the drinks menu, so I'll add a dash of T.G.I. Friday's for good measure.


I had the stuffed shrimp, split and packed with buttery breadcrumbs and crab, and a baked potato with butter and sour cream because that seemed like the thing to do. I only eat baked potatoes in restaurants like this. The only thing missing was the bacon bits.


A steak and seafood combo served on an iron fish-shaped plate.

Stained glass

A bull memorialized in stained glass.


While the latest Best of Central Jersey awards are littered with chains, Bud's Hut appears to have swept a few categories in 2007 and 2008.

Me with bud's hut parrot

The parrot kind of breaks with the maritime theme. He would be more on trend at Cheeseburger in Paradise, a little farther down Rt. 1.

Bud’s Hut * 906 US Rt. 1, Avenel, NJ


1/2 Makkoli’s fluorescent glare, strip mall location and impervious daycare flooring suited for a carpet sweeper, do not mask an hidden suburban jewel. This all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet is exactly what you would expect for unlimited $20.99 sushi. Perhaps strangest of all, this is not a chain.

Makkoli entrance

I was hoping for a Minado (whatever happened to the proposed Edison location?) but this canary yellow room with only The Weather Channel on mute for distraction, didn’t quite make up for the disappointment of being quoted an hour-plus waiting time at Bonefish Grill one parking lot over, my original plan. 

Makkoli interior

That’s not to say that throughout my stint there weren't waits for seats; long tables were filled with Asian-American families with New Jersey accents, Chinese-Chinese whose only English consisted of “Pepsi,” a gaggle of bikers staking out the corner and more than a few middle aged, date night couples with bottles of wine.

Alcohol did not appear to be on the menu, there is no menu, so the wine confused me. It never would’ve occurred to me to bring wine into a buffet, though it would certainly elevate the experience. I would’ve gladly downed a few glasses of Charles Shaw.

Makkoli plate one

The seaweed, octopus and jellyfish salads were fine. The sashimi was mushy and they oysters weren’t chilled sufficiently.

Makkoli plate two

This is a small sampling of the cooked food row, which contained more Chinese dishes like prawns with walnuts and mayonnaise, scallion pancakes and dumplings. I picked up shrimp tempura, a rib, a breaded, fried crab chunk (I never understand coating on top of a shell) and a grilled prawn. The hit of any buffet is always the king crab legs; people will shove for them. I just can’t get excited about cracking and picking.

Makkoli plate three

Sushi round. The variety and flavor is better than what you’d find in most NYC refrigerated cases. Ok, that’s not saying much, but if grab-and-go lunchtime rolls are your benchmark you’ll be fine with Makkoli.

I didn’t photograph my dessert plate. You can choose from Jello, those unsatisfying but pretty chiffon cakes you find in Asian bakeries and scoop-your-own-ice cream (I’d never seen green tea that brightly colored before) that created a traffic jam in the dessert section. Don't they know that buffets need soft serve machines?

More interesting to me were the Phil-Am (fortuitous, because I needed bagoong for a kare kare recipe the next day) and closed Russian Restaurant (I’ve never encountered Russian food in such a setting) in the same mall complex.

Makkoli exterior

Makkoli * 415 Rt. 18, East Brunswick, NJ

Applebee’s Union, NJ

While I’m certain that New Jersey must offer independently owned restaurants, upscale fare, creative cooking–it’s a big state—that’s not how I treat our neighbor. My regular weekend visits are an escape from homemade pickles, impeccably sourced produce and backyard slaughtered meat. Sometimes a girl wants breaded fried cheese and cocktails made with sour mix.

But you can’t have it both ways. In order to see Greenberg opening weekend and avoid my fellow Brooklynites, I had to seek out The Court Street cinema (the smaller one with E.T. murals on the side, not the Court Street theater near Atlantic where everyone talks through the movies and can’t stay in their seats, that would be the AMC Aviation 12 in Linden, New Jersey) of New Jersey, a fourplex in Millburn.

I didn’t know the first thing about Millburn. It’s cutesy. They had a Trader Joe’s, a Starbucks and a Dunkin Donuts designed to look old-timey so as not to destroy the main street character. No major casual dining chains. Our GPS led us five miles southeast to the nearest Applebee’s in Union, New Jersey.

Union is kids selling candy in parking lots (aggressively at Target, knocking on parked car windows) while Millburn is more Cheeks Boutique (those pre-roll ads touting local businesses really work on me) and middle-aged men wearing Crocs.

One of the waitresses at this Applebee’s had a tattoo on the back of her neck with the numbers 333 sprouting devil horns and the phrase “half evil.” She was also half-helpful, explaining to the table behind me how their Two for $20 special (which doesn’t show up if you browse the Applebee’s menus online using an NYC zip code) has a lot more food than Chili’s two-fer deal. I wonder if the servers at Chili's say the same thing about Applebee's?

Applebee's margarita

This was my first encounter with a margarita garnished with a lime and a green olive. I couldn’t be bothered to say anything or to remove the offender. If anything, the briny traces probably balanced out some of the drink’s sweetness.

Applebee's appetizer trio

The Ultimate Trio with an appetizer threesome of our choosing. Yes, the pork wonton tacos were on purpose. The hot wings had been given the usual Buffalo sauce bath and had an extra sprinkling of cayenne for good measure. We got stuck on the question, “buffalo wings or boneless buffalo wing?” Can you call something a wing if it lacks bone structure? Dynamite shrimp are an updated take on popcorn shrimp, coated in panko crumbs, fried and coated in a sweet-and-sour glaze.

I was very tempted to order the fried chicken salad, but anyone with even rudimentary nutritional knowledge realizes that you may as well eat a burger and fries at a chain restaurant (they did have an Asian Crunch Salad in their under 550 calories section, but grilled chicken breast, snap peas and cucumbers is the last thing I want to eat at an Applebee’s).

Applebee's fire pit bacon burger

The Fire Pit Bacon Burger employs a chipotle spread and pepper jack, but no particular flavor stood out. It is not a burger to rhapsodize about (unlike the cheeseburger I tried at eerily empty on a Friday night, Black Market, this weekend) I was happy enough to eat my remaining half for lunch the following afternoon, though.

Applebee’s * 1721 Morris Ave., Union, NJ

Jose Tejas

What exactly is the appeal of Jose Tejas, the New Jersey Tex-Mex Cajun chain restaurant that brings a surprising amount (by which I mean one-to-two searches per day—it doesn’t take much to surprise me) of traffic to this site and commands one-hour waits after 6pm?

Jose tejas interior

Without a doubt, it’s the prices. All ending in oddball amounts, nearly every dish is under $10 and the fanciest Patron margarita tops out at $8.50. I couldn’t tell you the last time dinner for two with drinks cost under $40 (ok, that’s not counting the $5.50 house margarita at the bar).

While doing my monthly Wegmans, Costco, Target, DSW rounds in Middlesex County, Jose Tejas won out over Cheeseburger in Paradise (I mulled over Ruby Tuesday, but I have an irrational reluctance to go there after throwing up dim sum in their bathroom a few years ago).

Jose tejas chorizo mexicana

You can have your ceramic dish of melted cheese two ways: Cajun ($6.94) or Mexican ($6.83). This is the latter, an above ground pool of pepper jack with chorizo, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms sealed beneath the surface.

Jose tejas fajitas

Naively, I thought fajitas might be a minutely healthier entrée than many of the fried, dairy laden options (I don’t even consider the Cajun items because that’s just weird). Grilled meat, vegetables and tortillas, right? Sure, and a whole block of grated cheese on the side. Rice and black beans or jambalaya come with all mains. 

I ordered a combination of chicken and beef, pork is nowhere to be seen on the menu and never seems to have a presence at Tex-Mex and Americanized Mexican chains. Why is that?

Jose tejas sides

You are encouraged to wrap everything unfinished to go in Styrofoam containers, even the free flowing chips and tortillas. Even though I’ve been diligent in my carb-limiting, I still packed them all in with my untouched cup of rice because I just can’t blatantly waste food.

I also wonder if part of Jose Tejas' appeal is that it gives the illusion of being a unique restaurant. It's not until you search the name that you realize it's part of a chain whose other locations in Massachusetts and Delaware are called  Border Cafe.

Previously on Jose Tejas.

Jose Tejas * 700 Rt. 1 N., Iselin, NJ


  Kat a kat curry En route to my new favorite discount mall, I got waylaid at what used to be a huge International Food Warehouse/National Wholesale Liquidators combo. Now, the eclectic edibles—Bulgarian cheese, Serbian juice, Italian cookies—are crammed into the corner amidst Windex from Indonesia and bins of irregular Hanes Her Way.

I was saddened by the abbreviated grocery offerings, but cheered a bit when I found a box of spices for something called Kat a Kat. The name had appeal and according to the recipe on the box, the dish contains a symphony of organ meat: kidneys, hearts and brains. Not only did I put the box in my cart, I developed a sudden urge for Indian food. (I do realize now that Kat a Kat is Pakistani).

Mantra lounge

I did contemplate Bobby’s Burger Palace at the Bergen Town Center, but stuck to my guns: South Asian or nothing. It’s not like Paramus is Edison, teeming with options, however, it did look like there was an upscale-ish Indian restaurant, Mantra, just across Route 4 in a strip mall with a Macy’s Furniture Gallery. I imagined it would be similar to Moksha, and it was, though a bit more loungey–check out the flames popping up in the divider separating the bar, where they serve Desi wings and cheese amigos (inside out jalapeno poppers) from the dining room.

Mantra bhel poori

Bhel poori, the spicy-savory puffed rice snack presented while you pore over the menu, tended to confuse the half of the diners who weren’t Indian. Do you use your hands or eat it with a spoon like cereal?

Mantra samosas

Lamb samosas, nothing fancy. I always feel that the thick shell takes more precedence than the filling. Other appetizers like a balsamic-dressed salad with oranges and pears seemed too pedestrian while the lobster chat, too aspirational.

Mantra fish curry

The Mumbai fish curry was the best dish, very fiery and like a more overtly Indian fish head curry. Chile heat, yes, plus more curry leaf and brown mustard seed undertones. Tilapia isn’t the most exciting fish, but I don’t mind it in strongly favored sauces (in fact, I just used tilapia filets for a heavily spiced tagine).

Mantra mixed tandoori grill

Mixed tandoori grills tend to be…well, mixed; some chunks are more interesting than others. The bone-in meat was moister than the ground and re-formed pieces. This sampler included mal mal kabab (ground chicken), kesari jhinga (prawns), Lahore seekh kabab (lamb), barrah kabab (more lamb). Not all are pictured because I grabbed first, shot later.

Mantra exterior

Mantra * 275 E, Rt. 4, Paramus, NJ 

Legal Sea Foods

Did I love it? Eh, it’s purely a platonic relationship.

Legal seafood interior

Not that I make a habit of frequenting higher end seafood chains, but my recent experiences at McCormick & Schmick's and now at Legal Sea Foods (not so much Bonefish Grill—I’m sad that I didn’t have time to use my $10 ten-year [dating] anniversary gift card before it expired. If you don’t mind giving out personal information, you can get promotional gift cards on your birthday and anniversary for registering on their site. I get off on crap like this) have felt a little desolate and dreary. I’m not sure if it’s the economy or that I dine too late and the room has emptied out by the time I’m hungry (that’s what eating sliders for lunch at 4pm will do to you). At 9:30pm on this particular Saturday, there were only five or so other tables occupied while on my previous visit in 2004 there was a solid 45-minute-wait.

Legal seafood wontons

The shrimp dumplings–or rather wontons as they called them–were preferable to P.F. Chang’s version. The shrimp tasted like shrimp and the wakame salad was refreshing for a chain appetizer.

Legal seafood mahi mahi

Bizarrely, I liked everything about this special except the fish. The mahi mahi was overcooked and a bit lifeless, but I liked the Spanish-meets-fall flavors of kale, raisins and sweet potatoes. I’m not sure where the cashew crust fits in to all of that. I probably would’ve used pecans because that seemed more logical.

I’ve never been to a restaurant, chain or otherwise, so aggressive in talking up its wine. I don’t need any prompting, as I’m one of those oddballs who always requires an alcoholic beverage with my chain dinners because I’m classy (one of the reasons why I don’t gravitate toward fast food unless it’s the daytime or super late night). But our server must’ve just attended a pep talk on promoting their Chilean wine, also boldly announced in an insert in the drink list. I think the Olive Garden servers are also supposed to highlight wine, but at least in the city they don’t even make an effort.

We appeased him by ordering a glass of Cono Sur Pinot Noir, then he went into a spiel about how you can now take unfinished bottles or wine home due to changes in the law. (I was just going to say that I’ve never seen anyone actually take advantage of this, but the other night two women at Bocca Lupo ordered a second bottle between them. I admired their moxie. They did take a majority of that bottle to go, though.) Eh, I started with a cocktail so one glass was fine.

Speaking of wine, the next time I’m at the Garden State Plaza I’m totally eating at the Napa Valley Grille. There’s something very twisted about attempting to emulate West Coast wine country inside a New Jersey mall. Even better though, would be eating at the Napa Valley Grille in Yountville. French Laundry? Never heard of it.

Legal Sea Foods * 1 Garden State Plaza, Paramus, NJ