Everyone knows Legal Sea Foods. The New England institution, diligent if not always inspired, came early to emphasizing quality and the importance of provenance. The Legal experience is consistent. One knows what to expect.
But sly fox president and CEO Roger Berkowitz enjoys tweaking sensibilities — with dinners featuring species deemed threatened, with button-pushing ad campaigns. He can be as fresh as his fish. Consistency is to be embraced, but the expected? Not so much.
One of Legal’s current strategies — a smart one — is diversification, with spinoff concepts such as Legal Test Kitchen and Legal C Bar. Upcoming, Legal Oysteria is planned for the former Olives space in Charlestown, to feature Italian seafood dishes. And in March, Legal Crossing opened. Named for its Downtown Crossing location, the restaurant is glossy and modern, with a late-night pulse. (In the bar and lounge area, at least. In the dining room, staffers begin pushing floor sweepers around before 10, as if no one were there.) It is decorated in shiny black brick, amber and natural wood, with black leather booths and black-and-gray plaid accents. There is an open kitchen at the back of the dining room, headed by executive chef Richard Vellante and chef Jackson Wu. In the bar is a mural that looks like mountains; closer examination reveals a woman’s curves.
The menu is modernized, too. There is some classic Legalese — clam chowder, baked cod with buttered crumbs and seasonal sides. But there is more of an emphasis on international flavors and small plates. Dishes are culled from the menus at all of Legal’s different restaurants, and there are new inventions, as well.
Oysters are served every which way. Raw, with cucumber, melon, and jalapeno sorbet, they are overshadowed by the accompaniments, which are melting upon arrival and taste fizzy, as if starting to ferment. Grilled, with garlic butter and Parmesan, they seem wan rather than robust. Boston has become a serious oyster town, with aficionados well versed enough in varieties, origins, and farming methods to write dissertations on the topic. Legal, which has been serving the bivalves longer than most, here has some catching up to do.
Lamb ribs have been appearing on menus citywide; Legal Crossing offers a version aromatic with five-spice powder and glazed in hoisin. A Caesar salad is made with ubiquitous kale (first billed, barely in evidence) and romaine lettuce, yogurt dressing, and white anchovy (last billed, never tasted).
Whole, head-on shrimp are served in a brick-red paprika sauce with chickpeas and Chinese sausage. The dish is cleverly conceived — half-Spanish, half-Chinese, and delicious (although underseasoned on one visit). The sauce is warming, the shrimp succulent. For another riff on Chinese food, there is bang bang cauliflower, a vegetable in General Tso’s clothing. It is a guilty pleasure, fried, spicy, sticky, and great with drinks. And classic takeout dish pad Thai goes upscale along hoisin-glazed salmon.
It’s the whiff of misogyny and objectification that throws off the drinks. In trying awfully hard for an edgy kind of humor, the list risks alienating at least half of Legal Crossing’s customer base.
For more-classic flavors, halibut crab imperial comes with steakhouse spinach and radish-tomato salad. What stands out is the fish itself, a beautiful, snowy piece nicely prepared. Lobster poached in butter, with corn, mussels, chorizo, and potatoes, is wonderful, the lobster fresh, sweet, and buttery tender. When Legal Crossing is at its best, it is because someone in the kitchen really knows how to cook seafood.
Maybe that person isn’t always in the kitchen.
Too many dishes here feature overcooked, or oddly cooked, fish. Trout amandine (“artisanal raised”) and gray sole with lemon and capers are both bland upon bland. A fat slab of seared tuna is an uncanny dark brown, somehow cool on the outside and warmer on the inside. Linguine with a trio of clams features small, shriveled shellfish that look as though they have been sitting around; the pasta itself tastes like bottled lemon juice.
Scallops are seared well, but the oxtail ragu with which they are served has a bitter note that throws off the whole dish. And mussels, fried tempura-style on skewers, are flavorless nuggets served with equally flavorless yogurt dip. “Is it just me, or does this taste like . . . nothing?,” asks one diner.
For dessert, there is pistachio cake with citrus and raspberry puree, a puffy little confection with the texture of a pancake. Run-of-the-mill sticky toffee cake comes with buttermilk ice cream, caramel sauce, and brownie dust — yet there is no brownie on the menu. Is this kitchen baking brownies for the sheer purpose of pulverization? Is that not a crime against baked goods? Profiteroles get a very adult update with bourbon ice cream.
Pastry, booze, ice cream, chocolate sauce: The profiteroles are just fine. But the adult update Legal Crossing itself gets is rather tasteless. Aside from the abstract naked lady wall art, this mainly plays out on the cocktail list. It attempts to be a sassy neighborhood salute. For instance, there is a drink called Cold Tea, a nod to illicitly alcohol-fueled meals in after-hours Chinatown (description: “late night tradition, watch your wallet, delicious & fun beer cooler”). Watch your wallet? I’m sure Chinatown’s business community loves that one. But mostly the drinks leer backward at the area’s Combat Zone history, with the likes of Glitter & Shame (“nice melons, tasty cocktail, so fresh, so clean”), Bromfield (“traditional lemon sour, ‘Gentlemen, on the main stage, please put your hands together for Chamomile!’ ”), and Rising Sun (“a post-op gin & tonic, yuzu, aperol, aloe, tart, adventurous and ready to party”). Never mind that the descriptions are unusably vague. It’s the whiff of misogyny and objectification that throws off the drinks. In trying awfully hard for an edgy kind of humor, the list risks alienating at least half of Legal Crossing’s customer base. That’s funny business indeed.
It stands in contrast with Sandy Block’s user-friendly wine program, which emphasizes value, educates and explains, and encourages experimentation, periodically highlighting regions like Spain. (A glass of txakoli rose is lovely on a warm night.) And maybe its attitude trickles down. Servers here can be spacy, gruff, and poorly informed. They can also be lovely, forthcoming, and fun to interact with. Either way, they deserve basic respect. On a recent evening, within earshot of our table, a managerial type tells off the waitresses: “Idiots!”
Legal Crossing has a late bedtime, but it may still have some growing up to do.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.