Legal tries trendy, and succeeds
Legal C Bar, a spinoff of Legal Sea Foods, reads like a product born of focus groups. It’s an amalgam of things that are officially trendy: small plates, casual dining, craft cocktails. Located in Dedham’s Legacy Place, it opened at the end of December (there’s another branch in Logan Airport), clearly aiming at 20- and 30-somethings who might not go to Legal Sea Foods unless in the company of older relatives. But Legal isn’t trendy, and the dangers of trying to be so are clear. As anyone who went to high school knows, attempting to be cool most often leads to looking like a doofus. (For an example, look no further than sibling spinoff Legal Test Kitchen’s goofy menu categories when it opened: nosh, nibble, simmer, comfort, refresh, and “zazzle.’’)
The surprise here is that Legal C Bar is not lame. It works. Shockingly well. It’s an open, modern space of wood, mirrors, and exposed pipes, replete with booths and nooks. At the center of everything is the bar, U-shaped and user-friendly, with Emeco-style stools and hooks below for hanging bags and jackets. The lighting is low, the soundtrack is eclectic, there are catwalks above, and the bathroom hand dryers light up when you use them. It feels like a legitimate nightspot.
But the best thing about Legal C Bar is that you can get a well-made drink here. Last year, Legal Sea Foods hired former B-Side Lounge owner Patrick Sullivan to run its cocktail program. There, he trained some of the best bartenders in Boston, who have gone on to shake things up all over town. Here, he’s already having an effect, because the balance we find in our glasses doesn’t come about by accident. A sip of a perfect Manhattan convinces us we’re in good hands. A drink like the refreshing Deadrise — vodka, muddled cucumber, lime, and grapefruit bitters — tastes like it’s been around forever. The cocktail list is a mix of classics and invention. Spirits go far beyond flavored vodka, and a host of bitters and semi-obscure mixers make appearances. There’s also a good selection of beer, plus a wine list smaller than that at Legal Sea Foods but featuring more unusual selections.
Apparently the denizens of Legacy Place have been thirsting for something like this, because the place is busy on a horrid, rainy Tuesday night; Thursday at prime time, there’s a wait for a table and a serious scene at the bar. A handsome, silver-haired gentleman orders a drink, and five women descend upon him cooing. “What’s that? Ooh, that looks good!’’ Everybody hungry?
He heads off to his table, so the ladies will have to settle for food. The menu is recognizably Legal, with oysters and shrimp cocktail, chowder and lobster rolls, crab cakes and grilled fish. (Legal’s Jasmine Special appears, here called the Roger Special; this is a dish I have never understood, steamed shrimp and broccoli arranged in a floral pattern over brown rice topped with melted cheese. Are you healthy or not? Decide.) The service, too, hews to the old ideal: very friendly and fairly knowledgeable. To the original menu, Legal C Bar adds small plates — “great for sharing,’’ in case you haven’t heard — more sandwiches, and nightly specials.
If it doesn’t live up to the drinks, the food here is still more interesting than the usual Legal fare.
Small plates cover a lot of ground, from edamame to spinach and feta dip. There are fried, stuffed olives, a good idea that doesn’t quite work; the outside of the olive doesn’t soften enough in cooking, while the fillings of cheese and sundried tomato are nearly liquefied. Calamari are served Rhode Island style, fried and tossed with peppers; the squid is tender, although the batter isn’t quite as crisp as it could be.
Deviled eggs are touted as devilish: “smoked salmon, chili sea salt,’’ the menu promises. When they arrive, there’s no evidence of spicy salt. As for smoked salmon, there’s a tiny dot atop one of the halves — barely enough to count. A shrimp and pesto pizzetta on a whole wheat crust is tiny, the flavors muddy. Slow-roasted ribs, however, are very good. They’re tender and perfectly plain, not saucy. You get to focus on the flavor of the meat, which comes right off the bone.
Legal C Bar does a nice job with raw offerings. Blackened tuna sashimi comes with pickled ginger, sesame-chili vinaigrette, wasabi, and seaweed salad; it tastes like something you’d get at East Coast Grill. A small shellfish platter features generous amounts of clams, oysters, shrimp cocktail, and crab legs, plus an assortment of sauces. When we’re done, a server brings lemons and wet cloths for our fingers. Very civilized.
The lobster roll gets an update as a wrap. Wrap sandwiches are so often cold and cardboard-esque in flavor, I’ve all but given up on them. This one redeems the genre, brimming with big pieces of lobster and plenty of bacon in flatbread. There’s supposed to be avocado, but we don’t find any.
A tuna burger is a natural for this menu, the perfect midpoint between Legal Sea Foods and pub grub (there’s a burger made from Niman Ranch beef, as well). It’s a plump patty of freshly ground tuna, with just the right amount of roasted red pepper sauce. Another natural is a swordfish Reuben. The fish is topped with Russian dressing, gouda, and coleslaw, served on buttery grilled bread. It’s great in the way that Reubens are, but you sure can’t taste the swordfish.
Daily specials include crispy cod cheeks with haystack fries and coleslaw (Sunday), lobster mac and cheese (Wednesday), and snow crab legs (Thursday). We try this last, which involves a heap of crab legs and plenty of melted butter for dipping the meat. The crab is wholly enjoyable. The accompanying sweet corn fritters, however, are disappointing. We pictured flat, golden rounds of kernels bound together with light batter. Instead, we get heavy, bready balls of sweet dough studded with occasional pieces of corn, overfried to dark brown.
As for dessert, it’s a dud. Boston cream pie tastes like curdled tiramisu. There’s a dry puck of bread pudding, the proceeds of which benefit Haiti. At least it benefits someone. Cookies with ice cream have a post-microwave texture; they’re cracked and broken, a lame excuse for a cookie plate.
But if something has to be lame, let it be dessert. (P.S. There’s a J.P. Licks in Legacy Place.) As a place to eat, Legal C Bar is fine. As a place to be, it’s a phenomenon in Dedham. Nothing says success like lines out the door.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.