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Dining Out

Haute Legal

On its flagship's sleek second floor, the food (and prices) are fit for an occasion

Butterpoached lobster is served out of its shell, with corn, mussels, chorizo, and potatoes. Butterpoached lobster is served out of its shell, with corn, mussels, chorizo, and potatoes. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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How much the South Boston Waterfront has changed. Warehouses, whistling wind, and parking lots replaced by the ICA, Louis Boston, and restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. People come in droves. Money flows. The area is a success story. And Legal Harborside is a symbol of its evolution.

Humbly sprung, Legal Sea Foods opened its first restaurant in 1968 in Inman Square. It grew into more than 30 branches along the East Coast. Now Legal has this shiny new flagship at Liberty Wharf. The space is gorgeous, sleek as a yacht, offering a giant eyeful of a water view. It comprises three stories: a casual, boisterous first floor; an upscale second floor featuring a menu that could be termed “haute Legal’’; and a club-like third-floor roof deck. To get to it, patrons wait in lines that coil out of the building. On one visit, a bouncer grabs me by the shoulder to make sure I’m not cutting. A bouncer!

The second-floor restaurant opened in May. It is decidedly different from every other Legal, propelled by a different kind of ambition. The chain has focused on consistency and value. This branch offers a boutique experience, for a price. Legal president and CEO Roger Berkowitz is on the cusp of 60 and shows no sign of slowing down. The restaurant is an I-have-arrived statement, designed to impress.

Prices establish that it’s geared toward a mature crowd. Entrees are in the $30s, $40s, and $50s. The fact that there is only one review of the second floor on Yelp as of press time speaks volumes.

Joining executive chef/vice president Richard Vellante, Robert Fathman (Grill 23, the Federalist, Azure) steps in as executive chef; Tom Borgia is chef de cuisine and Kristin Wilson pastry chef. Dishes exhibit Asian and European influences. Each meal begins with an amuse-bouche - a tiny cup of corn soup, scallop ceviche. Small plates include a pretty bite of king crab served over wasabi mayo with orange roe, edamame, and ginger foam. It’s all pinks and greens, eye candy. Cuttlefish salad mimics Asian noodles, the seafood cut into thin strips, flavored with sesame, soy, chili, and pine nuts, the last an unexpected touch that makes the dish. Toasts are topped with uni and lardo, thin-sliced cured fat. The sea urchin tastes past its prime. If it isn’t fresh . . .

Larger appetizers are artfully composed. Shrimp cocktail showcases shrimp that are big enough to be kept as pets. They come in a fragile bowl of ice, with cocktail sauce and lemon. A single scallop the size of a fist is wrapped completely in bacon. It’s served with parsnip puree, smoked maple vinaigrette, and a sprinkling of black quinoa - sweet, salty, and smoky. Black and white linguine are combined with razor clams, pancetta, and saffron aioli. It’s like a surf-scented riff on carbonara, and it is simply delicious.

While small plates and appetizers are often successful, entrees falter. The weakest point is the one that ought to be the strongest: the fish. It is routinely undersalted and overcooked, the skin so crisp it’s almost scorched, the flesh a few degrees past the ideal.

The curried quinoa, cured grapes, and saffron butter sauce served with sablefish are delicious, but not enough to carry the day. With hiramasa, or kingfish, eggplant puree is so smoky it tastes like cinders, and tomato-ginger chutney is unpleasantly acidic and sharp. Cod is prepared very well, however, as crisp and golden on top as hash browns, and served in chowder sauce with potatoes and cockles.

It’s rare to find abalone on a menu. Here it’s described as sauteed, but “fried’’ might be more accurate. Why obtain an unusual ingredient, only to prepare it so it tastes like chewy batter? It’s served with lemon risotto and white asparagus, bland on bland.

Butter-poached lobster is better, a rich version of clambake food - served out of its shell, with corn, mussels, chorizo, and potatoes. One of the top entrees doesn’t feature seafood at all - a tomahawk steak, the bone jutting off the plate, food for Flintstones. Sandy Block, Legal’s wine maestro, has put together a focused and informative list of 50 bottles highlighting terroir, the character of the areas where they are produced.

Dessert brings a dish that looks like a Peter Max poster: tequila granita with segments of starfruit, kiwi, pineapple, mango, and lavender blobs with the flavor of coconut milk. The granita tastes like a margarita made with sour mix, and the fruit isn’t ripe. Neither is the peach in an otherwise sweet little trifle, although it’s the height of peach season. Rich flourless gianduja torte, lemon pudding cake, and a blueberry crepe with corn ice cream are much better options.

Legal is known for its service, and it is attentive and well-coordinated here, if not as polished as it might be. Like all Legals, this one is commendably responsive to dietary issues; a gluten-intolerant friend eats like a king.

At other Legal branches, one expects good food and good value. This is an occasion restaurant, priced accordingly. If the bill puts it in the top tier of Boston restaurants, the experience doesn’t quite yet. It’s not our Le Bernardin.

The real gem at Legal Harborside may be the first floor, buzzing with energy, offering an updated and appealing menu. As a friend said at the end of a meal here, “If every Legal were like this, I’d go all the time.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

LEGAL HARBORSIDE FLOOR 2

270 Northern Ave., Boston. 617-477-2900. www.legalseafoods.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Small plates $7-$16. Appetizers $11-$22. Entrees $28-$56. Desserts $8-$11.

Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we recommend Cuttlefish salad, bacon-wrapped scallop, razor clam pasta, sauteed cod, tomahawk steak.

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