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Barnacle Ben's Seafood Restaurant
200 Larchmont Boulevard Mt. Laurel, NJ 08054 Burlington County, New Jersey
(856) 235-5808

Restaurant has relocated to the address listed above since this review was written in 2004.

By The Artful Diner
March 22, 2004

"... Bus boys and girls ferry huge tubs of dishes, clean tables, hurriedly replace silverware, and 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?"

I penned these thoughts nearly four years ago... and not a great deal has changed in the interim. Except for the venue itself, of course, as Barnacle Ben's recently settled into spiffy new quarters in the Moorestown Commons. The slightly tacky psychedelic colors of the old utilitarian dining room have been replaced by warmer neutral tones and larger, more sedate surroundings. There is even a banquet room that can accommodate forty-five patrons and al fresco dining in warmer weather.

My assessment of the food also remains pretty much the same. And although the menu has been updated to provide a few more concessions to landlubbers, what you are likely to encounter are the robust hit or miss preparations of the inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker presented at less than wallet-busting prices. Just be advised that this bustling BYOB is not about to send your taste buds soaring into some new gastronomic orbit.

Another culinary constant, however -- and a most auspicious beginning to your meal -- is the breadbasket filled with dense and delectable homemade twisty rolls. Certainly one of the more memorable aspects of a sojourn to Barnacle Ben's... If only appetizers and entrées managed to reach the same consistent heights. You may dine reasonably well here, but a good deal of circumspection -- especially with regard to your main course -- is most assuredly called for.

When starting things off, a good test of any seafood eatery is invariably the Manhattan clam chowder ($3.00 cup/$4.00 bowl). Unlike its New England cousin, there is no ocean of cream to camouflage the chef's solecisms; thus, a palpable hit here bodes well for the remainder of your meal. Four years ago, I noted that Barnacle Ben's entry into the chowder sweepstakes was on the bland side... and the same holds true for the contemporary version. It is good but not outstanding and could benefit, in my opinion, from a good deal more pizzazz in the seasoning department.

Many of the gelid preludes you will encounter are strictly standard issue and hold absolutely no surprises: shrimp cocktail ($8.00), crabmeat cocktail ($10.00), littleneck or cherrystone clams on the half shell ($5.00)... all accompanied by the all-too-typical standard issue cocktail sauce. On the other hand, the cracked crab claws ($6.00) arranged around a ramekin of zippy mustard sauce are quite excellent... ditto the special snow crab claws ($9.00), if our waitress (more on her later) hadnt mistakenly taken them out for a spin in the microwave.

Among the hot appetizers, the deviled crab balls ($5.00), mini versions of the establishment's popular deviled crab cakes ($13.00), contain a good deal of filler and melted cheese but are still highly recommendable. And the same may be said for the coconut shrimp ($6.50), meaty bacon-wrapped scallops ($6.00), or the plump mussels swimming in garlic and oil or marinara ($6.00).

Entrée-wise, trust me, keep matters as simple as possible. I say this for two very good reasons: 1) More adventurous presentations are either too gussied up for their own good; or 2) Suffer from serious preparatory lapses. "Barnacle Ben's Flounder" ($16.00), for instance, promises a filet of flounder baked with Jarlsburg cheese, chopped onion, and bread crumbs. The flounder itself is perfectly flaky and moist... The crust, however -- unmelted cheese, raw onion, and pale & wan breadcrumbs -- has never seen the inside of an oven.

Meanwhile, the special red snapper ($21.00) set on a seabed of spinach and tomatoes is totally at the mercy of a heavy-handed crust of soggy shredded potatoes and horseradish... And any natural flavor of a tilapia filet ($17.00) is completely smothered beneath an oppressive topping of salty semi-baked seasoned breadcrumbs and overly acidic bruschetta.

In point of fact, many of the culinary combos here appear to be rather ill-conceived, with finny creatures suffering a variety of indignities at the hands of an overly aggressive saucier: flounder marinated in Caesar dressing ($16.00); Chilean sea bass pan seared in a sweet & sour ginger glaze ($19.00); salmon dipped in honey and coated with crushed walnuts ($17.00).

Barnacle Ben's also invites you to choose your favorite fish and match it with any of the sauces or toppings available on the menu... which strikes me as a kind of gastronomic Russian roulette. On the other hand, if you are of the opinion, as I am, that the delicate denizens of the deep are best served by accoutrements that intrude the least, then I would suggest that you enjoy your fish au naturel -- or "naked" as the menu so poetically puts it -- simply adorned with white wine, lemon, and a touch of butter. The swordfish ($18.00), while a bit on the anorexic side, is quite excellent prepared in this manner.

Dinner entrées (with the exception of pastas) are accompanied by your choice of two vegetables. So here's my take on the sides... The coleslaw is homemade and very good; I also like the stir-fried vegetables. The broccoli (vegetable of the day) is cooked just right but needs a touch of seasoning. The french fries are undoubtedly commercially produced but impossible to resist. Rice on the other hand is best avoided. The white rice is incredibly bland and the wild rice is overly salty and tastes like it sprang full-blown from a box or plastic pouch. Other possibilities include baked potato, baked yams, pepper hash, stewed tomatoes, and applesauce.

Desserts, all made on the premises, are wholesome and filling. The denouement with the lightest touch is undoubtedly the lemon meringue pie ($5.00), which sports a first-rate crust and is appropriately tangy. Conversely, theres nothing subtle about the "in-your-face" fried cheesecake ($4.00); it is dense, decadent, and definitely for those with superior abdominal capacity and peristalsis. In my opinion, however, the pick of the litter is clearly the rich chocolate cake with luscious mint filling ($5.00). Chocoholics, take note.

As to the service... During the vast majority of our visits over the years, we have found it to be brisk, efficient, and ably carried out by a phalanx of motherly waitresses, all of whom appear to be battle-scarred veterans of the diner/banquet circuit. On one occasion, however, we encountered the waitress from hell -- yes, that's right, the dear lady who hadn't a clue and attempted to incinerate the snow crab claws in the microwave.

And the fact that we had inherited the original, without equal, one-of-a-kind, unmitigated FUBAR (foul-up beyond all recognition) of the illustrious food service industry was not long in coming. Moments after we were seated, a couple just a few tables away -- who, of course, just happened to be in Ms. Fubar's section, were heard pleading with the hostess: "Do you know anyone who can help us get out of here?"

Not that this waitress was blatantly rude, crude, or obnoxious. Quite the contrary, she seemed to possess a very pleasant personality... but the poor dear was just... well, yes... totally inept. Give this woman one table and she's already "in the weeds."

In addition to the faux pas with the snow crab claws noted above, she was constantly misplacing orders -- including my Manhattan clam chowder, which never did materialize but still managed to make a guest appearance on the check -- as well as disseminate improper information to her customers. When asked how the aforementioned special red snapper was encrusted, for example, she was heard to reply: "Oh, just with some breadcrumbs." The breadcrumbs, of course, turned out to be a thick, soggy coating of shredded potatoes suffering from a nearly lethal overdose of horseradish.

But even after delivering this order to our table and, hopefully, noting her error, she still continued to blab the wrong info to other patrons. "You see, Watson," Sherlock Holmes intoned to his good friend and colleague, "but you do not observe." This is, unfortunately, Ms. Fubar's sad story as well.

The conclusions of my first critique remain virtually unchanged. 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. Just be advised... on weekends it bears an uncanny resemblance to a soirée at an Elks convention... And if Ms. Fubar happens to be in action, you, too, may be uttering the diner's sad refrain: "Do you know anyone who can help us get out of here?"

Cuisine: Seafood
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 3:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, Discover
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.barnaclebens.com

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