Dining Out: Chain Reaction

How did it happen? One day Park Square was one of the most idiosyncratic parts of Boston—a bit seedy, perhaps, but with the former Legal Sea Foods flagship occupying the sunken dining room at the Park Plaza Hotel where paper-parasol drinks once reigned at Trader Vic's, and a multilevel showcase for our restaurant-entrepreneur success story, Jae's. Now it's Chain Gulch, with huge outposts of Maggiano's, Fleming's, and PF Chang's serving huge plates of spaghetti, steak, and Chinese noodles.

The latest tide has swept in the most serious challenge to local pride: McCormick & Schmick's, a Portland, Oregon—based chain that has been moving inexorably eastward with its formula of seafood served in what looks like an old-fashioned steakhouse. A West Coast fish house in the very rooms where our own Legal Sea Foods reigned? The nerve! If locals were to give it even a second thought, this upstart would have to offer something different—3,000 miles different—and better than what a snappy new Legal is now serving across the street on the ground floor of the Italianate refurbished Motor Mart Garage building. I have a policy against reviewing chains, but this incursion was too provocative to ignore. I assembled a posse of diners to see whether two coastal fish houses could duke it out in Chain Gulch.

The group for the first foray consisted of a few local ringers and two visiting Romans, who had just dined with welcome-to-New England pleasure at the new Legal (presumably they felt a twinge of recognition when they saw the garage façade).

As soon as we stepped down into the plushly outfitted new space on the far side of the Park Plaza lobby, we had a feeling we weren't in Boston anymore. Oz-green walls are covered with framed prints of fish and 19th-century buildings, and faceted stained-glass lighting fixtures reveal hidden fish patterns. The place is meant to evoke Diamond Jim luxury, down to a row of booths that can be closed off with green velvet curtains for the sort of suppers that gave rise to the Gay Nineties prohibition against any decent lady being seen in a restaurant.

Our waitperson was dressed in steakhouse white coat, white shirt, and bow tie. As she handed us the very long menu, printed daily with an intimidating list of fresh oysters and fish at the top, one of my visitors asked, all innocence, how this restaurant was different from Legal.

She had just arrived from the Northwest herself, our friendly server said, and didn't have years of Legal experience. But she knew a manager across the street, and offered helpfully that she did have an idea of the difference. “Our chef just loves bacon, and he puts it into everything he can,” she said. “I understand that Legal has a lot of Jewish customers, and they don't like, well, you know, flavorful food. Our food is very flavorful.” She smiled winningly.

We ordered what must have seemed a very flavorless meal: three platters of raw oysters and clams and boiled lobster, and several kinds of absolutely plain grilled fish. And everything was excellent. The tiny Washington Kumamoto oysters ($10.75 for six) outdid the New York Blue Points ($9.85 for six) in sweet, only slightly briny flavor, and the Massachusetts cherrystones ($7.85 for six) were fat and meaty and wet, the way they should be. The grilled Atlantic striped bass ($18.95) had just turned white in the very center, with faint grill marks on the outside and an equally faint flavor of the grill, meaning it was perfectly cooked and a wonderful piece of fish. The grilled Washington steelhead, a salmon relative ($15.60), was both delicate and robust, and cooked with equal expertise.

The mashed potatoes were almost epochally good: the slightly floury meat of just-baked potatoes barely mashed with cream, butter, and salt and pepper. They were like essence of fragrant, beefy potato just out of the earth, dry yet steaming. We were transported by those alone, and very content with the fish, and felt like robber barons in our private room. All without a speck of bacon.

The trouble came when we decided to see how the other half lived. On another night, with even more testers, I went through the server's favorite flavorful food, and left without being inclined to convert. With the exception of a fresh-tasting, not-too-spicy red curry mussel stew with ginger and lemon grass ($7.90), the dishes were bland, greasy, and overcooked. The favorite dish of both servers was Atlantic salmon stuffed with Dungeness and Maine crab, Bay shrimp, and “French” Brie with lemon chive butter sauce ($20.70). It was hard to see why. There was little detectable flavor in either the fatty fish or the gooey white stuffing, awkwardly set in the middle of the plate. The Dungeness crab Louis had a fresh, straightforward Thousand Island dressing and plenty of crab meat, as it should for $18.95, but the crab meat had lost its flavor on its journey across the country. The Nantucket Bay scallops with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and applewood-smoked bacon ($24.80) had been run under the broiler to toughening effect, and the vegetables were soft and forgettable, in a light brown sauce. Not even the famous, very tref bacon made itself known.

This is chain food, designed to please the kind of big party in town for a convention that was noisily bonding outside our booth. There's no getting around the feeling of being in a big machine; even the framed scorecards and pictures of Babe Ruth at the bar, as a friend commented, look like the result of well-funded local-color research.

I like a good number of the chain's calling cards: the plushness and those comfortable booths; the very handsome raw bar with nice laminated labels for each oyster; the smooth if awfully perky service. Desserts aren't bad, either, particularly a three-berry cobbler draped with a good homemade crust ($5.95) and a sweet and toffeelike upside-down apple pie with a walnut crust ($6.95). Wines are middle-of-the-road and medium-priced to expensive. The same can be said of the odd, to-the-decimal-priced appetizers and entrées (why does fried calamari cost $8.85?).

I suspect that McCormick & Schmick's takes its star ingredients more seriously than any of its chain-bound neighbors. But I don't think I'll be asking the recipe developers for any flavorful dishes to bring to the family seder.