Restaurant Review: Legal Harborside in Boston
The seafood chain has debuted a flashy fine-dining concept on the waterfront—and despite a few early hiccups, things are going swimmingly.
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.
The more-classic appetizers are a surer bet. With a base of deep-flavored stock, lobster soup ($14) was elegant and silken. Lobster cocktail ($18), meanwhile, is set over dry ice, and when hot ginger tea is poured over it, a smoky cloud is released; the whole preparation benefited from a coconut vinaigrette with sriracha chili sauce and cilantro. Shrimp cocktail ($20, right) was even more dramatic: five almost scarily big shrimp are arranged on a hollow ice globe made by rolling a balloon in liquid nitrogen. It’s so Vegas-y you won’t mind paying $4 a shrimp, particularly if they’re really good, as they were at the second dinner.
At the first one, though, they were waterlogged and mealy, and at the third imperfectly cleaned, so you could see black flecks of intestine. Oddly enough, the most successful first course was meat: crispy pig’s head ($13) with fried clams. The shredded meat was formed into a croquette, breaded, deep-fried, and served with a vinegary ravigote sauce. And at my first two dinners the finest entrées were meat or poultry, too. The best was Misty Knoll Farms chicken accompanied by truffled celery-root purée and a big raviolo with oozing egg-yolk filling ($28). The white meat was moist from being prepared in a fancy CVap oven, which uses controlled steam to cook meat evenly. That oven also produces the Pineland Farms tomahawk steak ($56), which was a perfect medium-rare from the center to the butter-seared exterior. The steak is so good it’s almost worth the price.
I can’t say the same about the $54 butter-poached lobster, which comes with a few steamed mussels, chorizo bits, and pearl onions garnished with corn foam. As a whole, the dish was frilly and bland. Reassuringly, the best main courses at my third dinner were fish. The kitchen uses exotic species Legal hasn’t featured before, like hiramasa, a fish usually farmed in Australia. Here the firm, salmonlike fillet is sautéed and well paired with smoky eggplant purée and a not-too-sweet tomato-ginger chutney ($36, right). (One night, however, the purée tasted doused in liquid smoke; another night it was just alluringly smoky.) My favorite fish entrée showcased Borgia’s Siena training: pan-seared cobia ($32). Rich and firm like hiramasa, it’s served with kalamata vinaigrette and a Tuscan-style stew of green beans braised with olive oil, tomatoes, fennel seed, and rosemary.
Abalone was less successful; it’s something I always find tough, and Legal’s version, served in a scaloppine with lemon risotto ($45), was no exception. Desserts aren’t much worth trying, though three scoops of warm sticky-toffee pudding ($9) were pleasantly sweet. The gianduja torte ($11, right) was a bit too sweet, but reminded me of a radically upgraded 3 Musketeers bar, which I’ll admit I love. The food, then, isn’t where I bet it will be in another year, or even another few months. But Legal Harborside is a glorious new luxury liner, and Roger Berkowitz is pacing the decks, surveying it all. Soon it’s likely to be in full sail.
Sautéed hiramasa with smoky eggplant purée and tomato-ginger chutney, $36.
Shrimp cocktail with lemon, $20
Gianduja torte with hazelnut-praline powder and chocolate sauce, $11
Legal Harborside Floor Two, 270 Northern Ave., Boston, 617-477-2900, legalseafoods.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.