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Legal Seafood, revisited

  • g

What, you ask, would galleygirl be doing at Legal Seafood? Well, even I have parents, and since Galleymom will talk to anyone, at any time, at great lengths, we ended up with gift certificates to Legal, after Mom chatted up Derek Sanderson at a charity event...(Hussey!)

I know, once a month, in answer to the "Where can I get great New England Style seafood in Boston?" someone answers "People are gonnah jump all over me, but I stand by Legal's", or something similar...I usually nod along, because I've always remembered it as a decent place to get a piece of fresh fish, so I'm certainly not gonnah diss anyone's recommendation. I will give you that Legals' chowder is great, but I wanted to see, was there actually anything else that would rate as the best in town? After all, that's what we're continuously asked for here, or that's what I try to locate, not a decent meal, not decent fish--- GREAT fish.

I swore by Legal in the 80's...You couldn't get good seafood in every restaurant, Hong Kong style seafood hadn't established a beachhead in Chinatown, New Englanders pretty much ate baked stuffed scrod or fisherman's platters...Seafood was seen as exotic, or, as the ubiquitous Roger Berkowitz likes to suggest, less than safe...Hey, Legal has built a rep on telling everyone about the standards their seafood is tested with, intimating that if you're eating it elsewhere, you could be putting yourself at risk. But I was curious to try them once again, now that they aren't the only game in town.

We chose a variety of dishes, Seafood Fra Diavolo, skillet blackened tuna, a fisherman's platter.. I had already seen the woman at a near-by table with a woefully overcooked tuna slab, so I made sure to specify RAW in the middle...Their tuna was pan-seared with everything, kind of like an everything bagel, sesame seeds, garlic chips, salt, pepper, kitchen sink...Unfortunately, even though they warned on the menu that it was medium rare, one would be lucky if it was medium well. And to add insult to injury, there was a cool-cucumber cream sauce over it...What were they thinking; how many things can you do to embarrass a nice piece of tuna? When you've had the tuna at ECG, this tuna didn't come close. For the record, even the tuna at Barking Crab is better...if you've had the fra Diavolo at Village Fish, this left the searing edge of spicy, dense tomotoe-y sauce to be desired, the pan-sauteed sauce that captures the fresh essence of the tomatoes, while keeping the fish tender, the pasta finished in the skillet to soak up the heat...This was nice spaghetti with shellfish...When you've had a fisherman's platter at Essex Seafood, their fisherman's platter didn't measure up. As a matter fact, the FP didn't measure up to a lot of places...Lots of calamari, and for non-cephalopod eaters, as seafood platter types often are, that could be a big drawback...A 2" hunk of halibut, a few clams, lots of squid...I adore squid, but serve some people big calamari bodies, when they're thinking clams-plus, and they're not so ecstatic.

The positive, of course, is that one could get a decent version of these three disparate dishes in one place. Great for a corporate meal, great for a hard to please family, I guess. But food for people who love food? Food for the best seafood in Boston? I just don't see it. It made me sad, because I wanted to come out and say, "Yeah, you stuck up snobs, or anti-snobs (like me!), who think you can't get the best in a chain, you're wrong!" But Legal is not what it was, because decent is not what I'm looking for. Nothing (except the fish chowder) was the best you can get in our city. It may be the best in DC, and lots of the other far-flung outposts, but not here anymore...Are we looking for convenience, or food that's memorable? No one is going to post about a meal at Legal that keeps them awake nights, reliving every morsel in gustatory wet-dreams.

The food seemed homogenized to me...Imagine a seafood restaurant, on the East Coast, with no daily specials...Yes, they have their suppliers so firmly in place that they can count on them, but can the tuna be great *every*day? The effort to create consistency can lead to mediocrity...The food seemed to all be covered with lots of fat. I know this is restaurant style; we love to eat that fat, because fat is good, goddamit...But not when it's masking what should be a great piece of fish, and making it just "good". It seemed like they wanted to make sure people who didn't really like fish would like it here. This is restaurant style food, and it's a restaurant that you could find in the midwest, or at least as far away as Washington DC, and it would be the same...A big, grand restaurant with a big menu, kinda like when we import a steakhouse from KC to Boston. It reminded me of going to Anthony's Pier 4 with my parents, as a kid, kind of ossified..But when you institutionalize what should be regional food, do you lose something? In the case of Legal, the answer is yes.

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  1. Hey GG,

    Thoughtful report, and much of what you say is right on, but im afraid you just dont get it.
    Legal is not the ECG,
    Its NOT raw tuna al fresco city,
    Its NOT going to knock your socks off with its intense dry cumin rubs. a'la Chris...and its
    NOT going to serve you a whole bunch of seafood with its the body still in tact and throw the bones
    back in the alley, so you have to hold your breath upon entering.
    Don't get me wrong I love biting the head off a dry seared salt spiced shrimp as much as the next hound.
    But you DON'T go to Legal for that.
    It is a mainstream place and an extremely good one at that.
    The next time The Galley Mother drops in try:
    A. Their simple baked schrod, with a side of shandong
    or fragrant fruit sause, if you will of for the more fat tolerent, a side of melted garlic butter.
    This simple fish prepared simply is fresher tasting and as good as anything at east ocean city on a good day. (well not anything)
    and at 9 bucks for a schrod lunch of this OUTSTANDING
    freshness and quallity, including a choice of a dozen sides and hot fresh rolls and butter.
    and their simple green salad is a 7.5 for under $3
    Their staff is uniformly friendly and welcoming too even when they are swamped.
    As the most prolific poster on the boston board you of all people shouldn't dis the place because its not outlandish enough for you, and have tolerance for simple food, well done, even if prepared for the masses, and not your cup of Pla Jian.
    PS and let me know when you find fish like this in the mid west.


    10 Replies
    1. re: Jack Straw

      Sorry, Jack, I actually do get it, as someone who's been going to Legal since its early days....Legal is a mainstream place, and it's good, sometimes very good. But it's not great, and it's not a place I would direct a preson to when they look for the best seafood in Boston...As for the Shandong, I don't think it's on the menu anymore, at least not the one I was at; they've moved on to pseudo-Indian...They also have pseudo-Portuguese, so I think they are actually trying to be everything to everybody, including trying to compete in the ethnic market, as their sporadic forays into different cuisines would suggest.

      My *personal* point of view is that scrod is for people who don't really like fish, so I don't order it.

      I post my opinion, according to my personal preference, not as a cheerleader for the restaurant industry in Boston...People will, I'm sure, disagree. I felt I had an interesting oppurtunity to examine a place that gets mentioned from both sides, good and bad, frequently...I wanted to just look at the food, pure and simple.

      I ate fish similar to Legal many times at the Bristol Loungue, a hi-end place in Kansas City in the 80's, when I lived there....

      1. re: galleygirl

        I'm with you GG, go get him girl!
        Personally, I thought your Legal review was right on.

        1. re: galleygirl

          Don't worry Galleygirl. We know that you "get it". I thought your review was fair and balanced. Its purpose seemed to be to describe where Legal fits in the the "pantheon" of seafood joints. I didn't think you set out to trash the place. Those of us who remember the old Hampshire Street, chalk board, pay before you get served place, still miss it. Legal is okay in a pinch if you are with folks who want familiar dishes, but imho for the price, it is just not worth it.

          As you know, I am still an ardent fan of the simple cod dish served at Pommodoro, redolent of garlic, tomatoes, capers and olives. Perfectly cooked fish with lively accompaniments.

          More importantly, it is hard to imagine you, a non carniovore, living in Kansas City, lol.

          1. re: galleygirl

            I'm with you totally on this one, GG.

            If friends or business associates come to town and make the mistake of going to Legal, I usually get a phone call asking "what the heck is New England Seafood all about". Especailly folks from the Pacific Northwest and NYC.

            To me, Legal is the Olive Garden of seafood, only obscenely overpriced.

          2. re: Jack Straw

            My personal experience jives with gg...the Legal's here (in cambridge) seems to only be able to cook fish either overcooked, or rubbery-raw, so that you can't even cut it with a fork (and I've asked them on at least (literally) two dozen occasions for medium rare). It's a shame when such flawless pristine and fresh fish is ruined at the last step by the chef. The ironic thing is that the Legal Seafoods I used to eat at in the DC area (Tysons corner) actually *was* capable (perhaps accidentally?) of cooking fish that was medium rare. Somehow Legals here has lost their original vision and turned into a cafeteria, the McDonalds of seafood. I have nothing against Big Macs but I don't think they're a good representative of the best "local" food that Boston has to offer.

            1. re: Jack Straw

              if i'm not mistaken, scrod isn't really an acutal species of fish right? think about that before you go telling someone that they "don't get it". it's like the white zinfandel of fish.

              i agree, legal's isn't anything special. they did a great job at making everyone feel safe about eating seafood there because berkowitz is a microbiologist blah blah blah. and they do an even better job of making you believe you're getting a good deal considering that it is "guaranteed fresh". in reality the prices really aren't that cheap considering you're eating something that breaded with ritz crackers rolled in butter. IMO, it attracts the people who are afraid of food they're not familiar with by offering a basic menu. the fish may be fresh, but you would never know it because they ruin it for you with too much butter/sauce/spice, etc. and as far as the freshness thing goes, they may test everything in a lab before hand, but all it takes is one person infected with hepatitis B to handle that fish to make people sick (as in any restaurant).

              1. re: reyes

                Hi Reyes,

                According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, scrod is:
                A young cod or haddock, especially one split and boned for cooking as the catch of the day.

                Hope this helps clear things up.


                1. re: reyes

                  You get Hepatitis A by fecal/oral spread. It is unlikely you would get Hep B in a restaurant unless you had sex with the person handling your scrod

                2. re: Jack Straw

                  Legals (at least the one in Cambridge) also has this strange reservation policy in which they take your name, party size and requested time but when you get there, they've already given away your table and you wait your turn in line at the door behind everybody else who just walked in and put their names on the list without calling ahead. They call it their best-efforts reservation policy or something like that but in fact they make zero effort to hold a table for you, it's first-come first-served, those who call ahead get no priority whatsoever. SOrt of like the USPS 2-day "priority" mail scam. Some of the servers there have a bad attitude although the managers to their credit are sincerely helpful.

                  1. re: Jack Straw

                    Jack Straw, from Witchita? You go man! Leagls is one of the best and to many jaded chowhounds don't get it. I do like Turner Fisheries quite well as well.

                  2. I totally agree with others that they don't have the real special "nouveau" seafoods - I don't think they ever did, and what they tried was never stellar. Bake, fry, or broil... pretty straightforward. I haven't been there in a while, but one thing they used to do well was raw bar. They had a variety of oysters, and carried both littlenecks and cherry's. I remember they picked up Sam Adams ahead of the crowd - and I used to love just getting lots of raw bar, a couple of Sams... if the evening went on, I'd have some steamers.

                    Is this gone? I enjoyed eating on the bar side at Kendall - that's certainly gone. I'm not even sure where I'd like to go to test them out - or just to hang out with the beers and simple seafood (chowder, steamers). Maybe that's part of the problem - you don't hang out at the Burlington Mall. Maybe all they want now are the busloads of blue-hairs.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: applehome

                      The Legal bar at the State St location overlooks the aquariam and is a great spot. Its my favorite place for a chowder and a beer in Boston, has an outside patio and a good wines too.

                      1. re: pluziam

                        Good point, Pat...One thing I forgot to mention about the bar at Legal, is that they cater to those interested in exploring wine by offering a number of generous wine flights, very reasonably priced...I wouldn't turn down the raw bar (they can't ruin that stuff!) with a flight of wine there.

                    2. Just wanted to say that this was the best description of Legal's I have seen; it's excellent, and in my opinion totally accurate.

                      In Nashua, we are lucky to have a nice restaurant called "Surf" which does a much better job with seafood than Legal's does. (We have not been to East Coast Grill.) Another place up in Maine is the Fore Street Inn - very good.

                      In these days of very stringent fishing regulations, I'd be very wary of inexpensive, chain fish meals. What are you getting? How old could it be? When was it caught? Where?

                      Our last meal at Legal's took place in Brookline/Newton at the mall over there on route 9. The bluefish was not bad, but not spectacular. The lobster was 2nd rate and not worth the expense. I agree that the place is in no way horrible, but it's not like it was decades ago with that crowded, noisy but cool place around in back of the Four Seasons which really worked to bring the fish to you the precise moment it was ready. (Park Sq.)

                      1. I've been to Legal three times, twice I got raw oysters, lobster and a proper Old Fashioned. The third time, I got the "everything bagel" tuna. It's exactly like Galleygirl describes. I was very disappointed. It was like someone emptied a vacuum cleaner bag onto an innocent slab of tuna. They can't even do beer-battered fish and chips right, if my Dad's portion was any indication. The beer batter came out soggy, and the fries were slightly shriveled.

                        The first two visits were among the highlights of my seafood eating life. As long as it's strictly ingredients on parade, Legal delivers the goods. Otherwise, it's a total fiasco.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Lindsay B.

                          Hee, hee- the Everything Bagel tuna! I had this a few months ago as I was suckered into going to Legal for a free Alumni Association dinner. I believe mine even had caraway seeds in addition to sesame, onion, & salt. Caraway is not exactly a subtle flavor and the cream sauce was thick and pasty enough that I would have asked for a putty knife to remove it. I ordered it thinking "seared tuna-- how bad can it be?" but this dish is a major loser.

                        2. Personally, I hate the ECG. I think it is overhyped and just not that good. I have gone five times, trying different things each time. And I just dont find it all that great.

                          But, whenever someone posts bad about it, they are asked to not judge on one time and go back. So i think the same should be said here. I would go back and try different things.

                          There is one thing to be said about Legals: they respect food allergies like crazy. Even though they are a chain, they are able to prepare almost all of their dishes to fit your allergies.

                          The independents simply are not as accomadating. My wife has a gluten allergy. The folks at ECG did not even know what that is. The lowly busboy at Legals knew what it was.

                          1. Excluding ECG, what is the best retail seafood restaurant in town in your opinion (and anyone else's)? I'm primarily interested in non-fried dishes (which tends to rule out the barking crab). While I know there are plenty of good ethnic places (Peach Farm, various Italian eateries), sometimes I like grilled/sauteed fish with or without various sauces. I mostly prefer a thin blackening served medium rare. For example, I think the Franklin does a wonderful job on their mahi, but I wouldn't consider them to be primarly a seafood eatery.

                            I've done ECG a few times and like it well enough but want other opinions/options as well.

                            I my opinion, to like fish/seafood does not necessarily mean you have to order rare tuna or the like. Perfectly cooked fish (even cod) can be an excellent dish in my experience as well.

                            Is Grillfish significantly better than Legal? Are there others out there that beat the pants off both?

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Dax

                              great bay is my new favorite seafood place. a little bit in the higher end as far as pricing, but i love the vibe and the fact that i can eat in the lounge or at the bar if i just want a bite, not neccesarily full entrees.

                            2. Thanks GG for your review-I have the same general sentiment toward LS as you, although I haven't been too many times because my first few experiences were disappointing.

                              That said, I had a great sample of Asian-glazed salmon from LS at the Taste of Cambridge. If memory serves me correctly, it was kind of like a poached piece of salmon except instead of being served with a sour cream and dill sauce (which I really like), it was done with a soy sauce-based glaze with black sesame seeds and seaweed. I thought it was surprisingly delicious, and when I asked the staff at the booth if this was on the regular menu, I was told that it's usually a special but if I requested "the salmon done like it was at the Taste of Cambridge," I could get it even if it wasn't listed that night.

                              Anyway, I have yet to actually go to the LS in Cambridge and try this out, but I wanted to give my two cents and say that the TOC experience made me rethink my negative opinion of them.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: Natalie

                                I heard about the Salmon, they serve it at the Route 9 outlet. My boyfriend loves the seafood risotto that comes with it. The only reason to go to Legals.

                                1. re: Jane

                                  Actually, I think there a few reasons to go to LS if you promise yourself beforehand that you will not order any of their fancier dishes -- their chefs are just not up to it. When Jasper White was executive chef he loaded the menu with so-called "gourmet" dishes that the culinary newbies in the kitchen simply cannot execute. So it's just as well to stick to the simpler stuff that nobody can do better than Legal.

                                  Chowder --fabulous.
                                  Wine by the glass -a terrific selection.
                                  Oysters and clams --how can you beat them?
                                  Rolls --warm and fresh.
                                  Simple wood grilled fish --all are delicious, but the trout is outstanding.
                                  That little green salsa that comes with the clams --man! I order a serving or two of that to complement everything!
                                  Salads --gigantic and fresh. Cobb is particularly good. ALWAYS order the dressing on the side or you get the abovementioned mess.
                                  Blackened tuna sashimi appetizer --varies in quality, but when it's good it's great.
                                  Anything fried --just great because the oil they fry it in is clean.
                                  Bluefish pate --excellent.
                                  Seaweed salad --amazing, and much better with fried fish than their cole slaw.
                                  Boston Cream Pie --SHOCKINGLY good. The profiteroles aren't bad, either.

                                  That said, I agree that many of even their plainest dishes aren't as good as they could be. Crabcakes? Too bready. Lobster roll? Too tiny. Mussels in white wine/garlic? Significantly lacking in both. And every single item is waaaaaay too expensive.

                                  So I think the experience is worthwhile only if you have a craving for one of their better dishes, and there are quite a few to choose from. Personally, I'd be happier with a fried cod sandwich and a Sam than I'd be with any exotic fish anyway. For exotic you can eat at Great Bay.

                                  1. re: SSqwerty

                                    Actually, the simple grilled fish aren't all that, either....Grill heat way too low for fish, cooked all the way thru, yet not crisp or blackened on the outside. Nothing like wasting a $30 piece of swordfish.....

                                    1. re: SSqwerty

                                      I agree with your list 100%. The key is to go there for specific things, particularly appetizers and sides such as the seaweed salad or peapods in oyster sauce. Also not all locations have my favorites like bluefish pate and smoked salmon plate. Copley does, but not the Pru or Park for instance.

                                      I'd also add that you can ask for "spicy" batter on any of the fried fish such as the popcorn shrimp or cod which is delish. I used to get their roasted red pepper sauce on the side but they don't have that anymore. I'll have to try this green salsa, I don't know that I've ever had it.

                                      1. re: Niblet

                                        Have to respectfully disagree with the spicy fish n chips. Posted on that a while ago, and I thought they were really vile.

                                        But I agree there are a few items that are good, if someone *makes* you go there. Flights of cold white wine come immediately to mind. :-)

                                2. I've been going to Legal's for 30+ years. My first Legal's meal ever was at the original Inman Square location. I've had some great meals, and I've had some terrible meals. My recent experiences: It still is possible to have a good meal at Legal's, It still is possible to have a bad meal at Legal's. It is nearly impossible to have a great meal at Legal's.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Blumie

                                    Well Blumie you stated that perfectly! I work near the Legals at South Shore Plaza and that location has been extremely hit or miss. I like the atmosphere, the wine, the oysters, but venture onto the entrees and it really is hit or miss. I gave up on ordering the lobster roll because, on more than one occasion, I've found bits of shell, and the fried clams can be either good or soggy. Staff at Braintree though is quite good, at least at the bar, and they do seem to have little turnover.