Dining Out at Legal Harborside

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

Photographs by Michael Piazza

BY MY THIRD DINNER at Legal Harborside, it was just starting to feel like a restaurant hitting its stride. I mean just starting: The steps were still baby ones. But that’s no surprise; it’s a big, expensive, ambitious venture unlike anything the Legal Sea Foods chain has attempted before.

Located on the site of the old Jimmy’s Harborside, on what’s now called Liberty Wharf, it’s part of a huge development that includes Mexican restaurant Temazcal and Del Frisco’s steakhouse, which opened around the same time. The whole area is mobbed these days, and Liberty Wharf, for years merely a glint in Mayor Menino’s eye, is suddenly electric.

[sidebar]At 23,000 square feet, the new flagship of the Legal brand is gigantic. On the ground floor, there’s a packed bar and restaurant offering a typical Legal menu, plus pizza and a few new casual-dining dishes. The third floor is a wine bar and cocktail lounge serving finger food in a hip, mostly open-air space with a big fireplace and striking views of the harbor and skyline. Floor Two, where I ate, is Legal’s first foray into fine dining, with white tablecloths and prices to match.

Incredibly, Legal president and CEO Roger Berkowitz has never before had a restaurant with these kinds of water vistas — and never anything like Floor Two. The 150-seat room is suitable for Boston power brokers: sweeping and sleek, with a spectacular wall of windows and a curved rosewood ceiling swooping to a wide, open kitchen. It has a spare, expensive, modern feel — like Terminal E with tables. The city’s suits have found it, and they seem to have gotten all of the reservations. (Reserving a table can be a feat; you call the main Legal Harborside number, wait a long time after asking to book on the second floor, and can wait even longer to find a night when they have a free table). Startlingly, two of the three times I was there, Berkowitz was working the floor, and greeted many customers by name.

But aside from the luxury and the views, Floor Two’s identity is as vague as its name. There’s plenty of good old Legal in the DNA, most obviously in the service, with different waiters appearing at different points and some randomly calling you “hon.” There’s the familiar, comprehensive, well-priced wine list. And, of course, there’s plenty of fish.

As for its theme, I couldn’t much tell. The staff is told to call it “chef-oriented food,” using a wider variety of fish species and more meat than any of the other Legal locations. The menu was created by chef de cuisine Thomas Borgia and longtime Boston chef Robert Fathman, who shares the title of Legal Harborside executive chef with Richard Vellante.  

Where Floor Two succeeds is where Fathman and Borgia, who worked together at the Federalist, the short-lived restaurant in XV Beacon, have had the most experience: hearty New American food. The best appetizer I tried was a huge bacon-wrapped scallop with parsnip purée and smoked maple vinaigrette ($13, pictured above). Nobody can resist scallops with bacon; here, they’re stuck together with transglutaminase (often called “meat glue”) and basted with butter and thyme. Black quinoa on the plate offered visual contrast, but the dish was sunk by its gummy texture. The same problem plagued black and white linguine with razor clams and pancetta ($16), the worst appetizer I tried. Borgia worked in a Siena restaurant, he told me, so he should know when pasta is rubbery, or leaves the kitchen cool and congealed in a too-rich sauce that tastes of little besides butter.