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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Barnacle Ben's Seafood Restaurant
Maple Shade, New Jersey

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
May 8, 2000

This review reflects the critic's impressions at the restaurant's former location. See the The Artful Diner's 2004 review at the new location in Moorestown.

Finny creatures are the most perishable of all comestibles; so it is not at all surprising that various seafood establishments are occasionally been better known for their creative use of cryogenics rather than any inherent culinary talent. Bearing this in mind, Barnacle Ben's location alone -- in the landlocked Kingsway Plaza -- is enough to cause even the most devil-may-care diner to raise a skeptical eyebrow. And, unless you've spent the last several years foraging for nuts and berries on a desert island, this bustling BYOB eatery isn't likely to send your taste buds soaring to new heights of ecstasy. However, it's wholesome, well-prepared inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker will undoubtedly assuage your appetite without causing your pocketbook a major monetary infarction.

The utilitarian dining room isn't large, but it's decked out in a host of eye-catching psychedelic colors -- and in a constant state of motion. Bus boys and girls ferry huge tubs of dishes, clean tables, hurriedly replace silverware, paper placemats and napkins, dispense water; no nonsense waitresses scurry to and from the kitchen and chatter with patrons like long lost relatives; the patrons themselves flit from table to table -- laughing, joking, exchanging gossipy tidbits -- moths in search of a conversational flame. Have you, perhaps, inadvertently stumbled into a family reunion?

As you peruse the bill-of-fare -- and treat yourself to dense and delectable sesame, onion and raisin twists -- you quickly discover that, apart from precious few concessions to avowed landlubbers, the menu pays homage to all good things piscatorial. And, in my book, a good test of any seafood eatery is inevitably the Manhattan clam chowder. I say this because, unlike its New England cousin, there is no ocean of cream to ameliorate the chef's possible faux pas. A palpable hit here bodes well for the remainder of your meal. You will find Barnacle Ben's version ($2.25 cup/$3.25 bowl) to be a trifle on the bland side, the clams slightly chewy... but, on the whole, quite acceptable.

Among the cold starters, you encounter the typical shrimp cocktail ($6.95), crabmeat cocktail ($8.95), littleneck clams ($4.50), and cherrystone clams ($4.50), all served up with an equally typical cocktail sauce. The cracked crab claws ($5.95), on the other hand, arranged around a ramekin of delightfully tasty mustard sauce, are a good deal more interesting.

But the hot appetizers, I would suggest, hold infinitely more potential than their gelid counterparts. The yummy deviled crab balls ($4.95) are diminutive versions of the establishment's extremely popular fried crab cakes. The Prince Edward Island mussels ($4.95), swimming in either a red or white sauce, are a succulent treat. Then, of course, you may always opt for a personal favorite, luscious broiled scallops wrapped in bacon ($5.95).

A standard salad of mixed greens with a variety of dressings is included with your entree. If you are inclinded toward this somewhat lighter fare, however, there are certainly more provocative possibilities. The grilled or blackened tuna Caesar salad ($12.95), for instance; this may also be ordered with chicken ($11.95), if you so desire. And the Mediterranean salad ($12.50) features a most agreeable combination of iceberg and romaine lettuces tossed with shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat.

With regard to entrees, there are certainly a number of ways to go here. Among the "House Favorites" may be found such items as shrimp pot pie ($12.95), flounder Parmesan ($15.95), Alaskan king crab legs (market price) and a 1 1/4 lb. Maine lobster broiled and stuffed with seasoned jumbo lump crabmeat ($23.95). From the broiler: seafood Newburg ($15.50), lobster au gratin ($22.95) and broiled seafood combo ($23.95). You may also choose from among the pastas or cast your lot with the fired selections. All are good and quite satisfying... though hardly exceptional.

When my wife and I chow down here, we inevitably head for the catalogue of finny creatures that may be broiled, blackened, or grilled. Choose from broiled flounder ($14.95), swordfish ($15.95), rainbow trout ($13.95), Chilean sea bass ($14.95), yellowfin tuna ($15.95), mahi mahi ($14.95), orange roughy ($13.95), and Norwegian salmon ($15.95), just to name a few. Additionally, you may create your own unique gourmand's delight by embellishing your choice with an appropriate topping ($2.50 extra). Thus, for example, we found the swordfish a most amenable match for the teriyaki/scallion in a low sodium soy sauce, the hearty black bean salsa, or the Mediterranean: onions and mushrooms sauteed with spinach and tomatoes. Ditto the tuna. And the salmon marries quite well with a fresh veggie topping with just a touch of Dijon mustard or the Tuscany, roasted peppers, chickpeas, black olives, onions and artichokes in an ingratiating marinade. Well, you get the idea.

Diners may also choose two side dishes to accompany their meal. The stir-fried veggies are quite good, as is the yummy homemade cole slaw; and the stewed tomatoes make a very nice combo with the fried codfish cakes ($11.95). Asparagus, the special on one particular occasion, was woefully overcooked; the steak fries, however, though undoubtedly commercially produced, are difficult to resist. Baked white and sweet potatoes, two rice dishes, apple sauce and pepper hash round out the standard list of options.

Although almost all the desserts are shipped in from a local bakery, they are still a significant cut above average. The lemon mousse cake ($3.25) is very nice. On the other hand, the homemade rice pudding ($2.25) is outstanding. No espresso here, but the coffee and decaf (both $1.25) are up to the mark.

One final word... If you and your spouse/significant other are not in the mood to cope with the rigors of dinner preparations after a hard day at the office, Barnacle Ben's is the perfect spot to enjoy a pleasant midweek repast. Conversely, if you have an incurably romantic nature and are planning a Saturday evening tete-a-tete, you would do well to dine elsewhere. For while the joint is always jumpin', on weekends it bears an uncanny resemblance to a soiree at an Elks' convention... And people visit their neighbors with irascible impunity. During one particular visit, a woman's more than ample derriere rested against our table for the better part of twenty minutes while she prattled on to the couple seated next to us. Needless to say, this was hardly conducive to conversational intimacies -- or good digestion.

Cuisine: Seafood
Hours: Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Very casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Special: Barnacle Ben's is also located at 14 Balligomingo Road, West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, (610) 940-3900

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