It’s odd to drive up to the new LTK (Legal Test Kitchen) and realize that it’s across the street from the defunct Jimmy’s Harborside. Who would have thought when Jimmy’s was the power-lunch capital of the Hub that some little fish-store guys from Cambridge would end up commanding the chowder business on this end of the waterfront? But all great empires fall, and new ones rise. Legal Sea Foods, which has reinvented itself so many times, is here with its concept for the new century, and the early journalistic word was that everything was going wrong. And even after a month, there is plenty to fix at LTK.
TASTE TEST: Despite service flaws, much of the food at LTK is ready for prime time.
But then again, isn’t that the idea? If this (and a smaller LTK at Logan Airport) is the test bed for the entire chain, it has to have lots of mistaken ideas going all the time, right? As soon as kinks are ironed out, new kinks should be introduced. Perhaps if the name doesn’t warn you of that, the menu should carry a disclaimer.
Most of the food experiments I tested at LTK were ready for prime time. It was the service and concepts that were still failing tests. The early years of Legal Sea Foods in the late ’60s featured a very unusual and widely criticized design in which the first waiter into the kitchen would bring whatever parts of your order were ready, and then demand payment. Since they didn’t take credit cards in those dinosaur days, it wasn’t that much more trouble to have dinner on the installment plan. But it was shocking to the uninitiated, and sometimes the system broke down.
At LTK, the intended system of touch-screen menus and Blackberry-equipped waitrons apparently broke down the first night. So now the servers gather cluelessly in their pick-up space to discuss sports scores and avoid eye contact with customers. Nothing comes out on time. “I’m ___; I’ll be taking care of you tonight” disappears, and after 16 minutes and buttonholing another server, we finally have drinks. Four more minutes and two more interactions to get appetizers and sweetener for the iced tea. Eventually someone else appears with an order for another table, and then a third poor soul who doesn’t know who’s having what, although she does have the right dishes for our table. Then ___ returns to ask a guest if she is “still working on that.” Servers: the customers are not working; they are supposed to be enjoying a night out.
It also takes a while even to order because the menu has been incomprehensibly over-categorized into “Bare,” “Simmer,” “Refresh,” “Nosh,” “Nibble,” “Comfort,” “Nourish,” “Heat Up,” “Exhilarate,” and “Zazzle.” If you are good at puzzles — perhaps the intended demographic for LTK — you can guess raw bar, soups, salads, etc. “Zazzle” is another throwback: eight species of seafood permuted by four cooking techniques, with four sauces and six side dishes.
Food begins with garlicky focaccia in a paper napkin in a wire cone. The dip is a white-bean paste like hummus, with fabulous olives. A best buy among the appetizers is cherrystone clams ($1.25/each) from the “Bare” menu. They’re served on melting ice, impeccably fresh even on Sunday night, and hardly bare — one has a choice of a soy dip or cocktail sauce. Mysore rasam seafood soup ($3.95; $14.95/main dish) is a redo of a dish on the Legal menu, an Indian soup with rich spices but not too much hot pepper, nicely filled with sea scallops and shrimp.
A more radical departure from Legal’s past is the whole-wheat pizza ($9.95), healthful crust almost as thin and crisp as a potato chip topped with fresh mozzarella, cherry-tomato halves with actual flavor, and dabs of arugula pesto. The whole is a bit greasy, but entirely satisfying and delicious.
Grilled tuna Niçoise ($12.95) is actually seared, sushi-quality tuna. The garlic of a traditional salade Niçoise is adjusted down to a Caesar-like dressing on greens, egg, green beans, seeded olives, and halved grape tomatoes. Steamed mussels ($9.95) are simple and classic, served in a garlic-wine sauce (or you could choose Thai green curry).
Seafood pho ($13.95) is a novel spin on the Vietnamese beef soup. The broth is surprisingly sweet and a little hot, and mostly taken up by the cellophane noodles, so we have a mini-wok full of noodles, pea pods, shitake and straw mushrooms, squid, sea scallops, and shrimp. Of the traditional mix-ins, bean sprouts, Asian basil, chili paste, and hoisin sauce are offered. It’s fun and tasty, if not convincing as fusion. The anise-flavored Asian basil is terrific in this mix.
Reaching “Zazzle” we tried “native calamari” ($15.95). None of those wetback squid for us. Our choice of method was grilled, and LTK’s kitchen knew exactly how much to grill squid before the rubber meets the road. Our sauce was “tatsiki,” a cooling cucumber-yogurt mixture, and the sides were real Thai jasmine rice and baby spinach sautéed to nearly nothing, but tasty.