Battered fish fries dominate the local fried fish map, but in my youth I got hooked on New England seafood houses, with their crumb-coated Ipswich belly clams and sweet morsels of native shrimp. Ever since I moved back to Buffalo, a day's drive from the ocean, eating seafood has seemed slightly riskier than other foodstuffs, justified or not.
Perhaps it was the supermarket seafood counters where I was sold fish so elderly it didn't make it to the car before raising a stink. Maybe it was the times chasing bargain fish fries left me freezer-burned and ruefully remembering that good seafood costs good money. Cheap fish often explains why it's a bargain with the first bite. That goes a long way toward explaining why, when I miss New England, I point my car east. Toward Clarence, until it comes to rest in the parking lot of Hayes Seafood House.
Hayes is a family run business that has worked with fresh fish and other seafood since 1877, when Ulysses S. Grant was president. Its latest incarnation, opened almost 12 years ago, is a restaurant and seafood market on Main Street. Photographs of prior parlors dating back a century decorate the walls. Customers can buy fresh seafood to cook themselves, but most people who walk through the door are there to eat. Fridays can get crowded, with parties waiting for tables and take-out orders.
Like the Cape Cod spots that inspired it, the regular menu is posted on the wall. Customers order at a cash register and slide down to pick up drinks, including bottled beer and wine, and fetch their own water. Then they take a table, and servers bring plates when they're ready. It's a notch fancier than a seafood shack, though, with paper over the tablecloths, changed between customers, and real china and flatware instead of disposable versions.
A specials board beside the register is worth checking for seasonal specialties available for a limited time, like a dinner plate of those belly clams ($22.99). Soft-shell crabs are in, and Hayes will serve a pair fried in its standard crumb coat ($19.99), or maybe even saute them with shallots and white wine.
I'd probably go with the fried version, because that's what Hayes does best. From haddock to lake perch to calamari to shrimp, Hayes sets a golden-crusted standard for breaded seafood.
Get your beer-battered fix elsewhere. Ordering the haddock dinner ($13.50) brought a crispy edged filet whose sublime jacket can survive a trip in a steamy takeout container, a notable achievement. The fish inside was delicate and sweet. Like other dinners, it comes with a roll and butter, coleslaw and fries or potato salad.
Shrimp ($15.99) has eight big tail-on crustaceans. Ocean perch ($12.99), a special, included five smaller filets, which made it especially good for sharing, their greater surface area giving them a lower crust-to-fish ratio.
Calamari comes as an appetizer ($9.50), all rings, but tender and addictively munchable with marinara tomato sauce and a squeeze of lemon. Lobster bisque ($3.95), was grainy, not as luxe as downtown versions, but loaded with creamy lobster flavor.
Hayes, which also supplies seafood to several local restaurants, has the appetizer basics covered. Oysters are available raw and fried, clams raw and steamed, plus snow and king crab legs mussels, and shrimp cocktail.
Dinners also are offered broiled and blackened. My blackened scallops ($23.99) were well-cooked but the delicate shellfish flavor was overwhelmed by the black-pepper-led spice mixture. Yes, I asked for it, but I wouldn’t ask twice, not on seafood this fresh.
The broiled salmon ($19.99) was dusted with dried herbs that didn’t add much, but the fish was pleasantly supple instead of the chalk-dry briquette that salmon turns up as all too often.
A special of stuffed shrimp with lobster sauce over rice ($22.99) left me lukewarm, with five large shrimp curled around stuffing that could have done with more character, and an exceedingly mild lobster gravy. A lobster roll ($16) was a small sandwich that could have used less celery and more lumps of that fresh, firm lobster.
Cole slaw from the sweet confetti school, and standard-issue french fries were solid, and I liked the potato salad, a placid picnic-like jumble of lightly mayoed potatoes. Other sides didn’t satisfy as well. Vegetable of the day was a mixture of green and yellow beans, which were a mixture of textures, from firm to crumbly-soft. Hayes' twice-baked potato was more flavorful than plain potatoes, but not as rich as many versions.
For dessert, consider saving room for a time-honored classic dessert. Key lime pie ($5.99) in a graham cracker crust packed a sweet, cool citrus wallop.
Some of its more elaborate dishes left me cold. But if you're hungry for New England-style lobster shack cooking, especially fried seafood in crumb coats, Hayes will hook you up.
Hayes Seafood House – 7 plates (out of 10)
Family fish business puts sources to good use.
8900 Main St., Clarence (632-1772, hayesseafoodhouse.com)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Price range: Appetizers, $2.99-$18; dinners, $10.50-$23.99
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free options: Broiled, steamed and raw seafood and more.