Boston Chefs Serve Lobster, Oysters With Biotech Boom: Review

Can restaurateurs sniff out a recovery, when the rest of the country has the jitters? It would seem so in Boston, where several well-financed new eateries have opened just as the city’s economy shows signs of a small, biotechnology-driven boom.

The nation’s largest private construction project is on Boston’s waterfront, anchored by Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. (VRTX)’s $900 million, 1.1-million-square-foot office building. Already on the scene is Legal Harborside at Liberty Wharf, a venture of the Legal Sea Foods chain, which has 18 casual restaurants and markets in Massachusetts and units in nine other states.

The new restaurant is President and Chief Executive Officer Roger Berkowitz’s answer to those who kept asking when he would open a true fine dining venue. Legal Harborside, set on what used to be Jimmy’s Harborside for 85 years, is three stories and 20,000 square feet, making it the largest restaurant in Boston.

The first floor is as casual as other Legal eateries. The second is done in the sleek style of an ocean liner, with curved rosewood ceilings and black, mast-like columns. The wine list includes bottles no other restaurant in Massachusetts has.

Both levels are packed every night, with crowds spilling onto the 150-seat rooftop bar, which opened in June and is designed to look like a ship’s deck.

The menu has 14 species of oyster, sourced in cold northern waters from Cape Cod to British Columbia. Chef Robert Fathman does a splendidly rich lobster soup dashed with sherry under a cap of buttery puff pastry, and while his tempura of soft-shell crab with grits and white asparagus is the epitome of summer food, the accompanying squid-ink vinaigrette is anything but.

Squash Blossoms

The simply sauteed gray sole gains a great deal of flavor and texture from crab-stuffed squash blossoms, a green garlic veloute and charred spring-onion relish. For dessert, go for the bruleed mascarpone cheesecake with minted berries and a brandy snap.

Downtown, three of Boston’s most highly respected chefs have opened new ventures. Michael Schlow, who also runs Radius and Via Matta, has Tico near the Hancock Center, with a menu based on his travels in Spain and Latin America. He and head chef Joshua Smith are exemplary in being among U.S. chefs who have turned a serious eye on Latino cuisine without going the molecular route.

Tico is two large, colorful rooms, with an open kitchen, mismatched tables and reclaimed wood, with an outdoor fireplace on the patio. Scores of tequila bottles are backlit at the bar.

The long menu of small plates is convincing evidence of just how far Latino spices and flavors extend beyond the usual Mexican and tapas fare. Tico’s tacos are terrific, juicy and well-seasoned, like the two-texture beef with morita chilies.

‘Can’t Decide’

From the Spanish la plancha griddle comes quail with mango and yellow aji peppers, and tostados are piled high with tuna tartare. The now requisite crispy pork belly, decadently fatty, is enhanced with sweet onions and mustard.

A good idea is to go with Tico’s “Can’t Decide” menu, chosen by the chef for the whole table. Pray it includes the creamy, buttered sweet corn with bacon, chilies and Thai basil.

Adjacent to the Hynes Convention Center in Back Bay is Boston’s newest big splurge restaurant, Towne Stove and Spirits, a glamorous, two-level spectacular run by Lydia Shire and Jasper White, both veteran chef-restaurateurs who have been innovators in Beantown since the 1980s. Shire took over the venerable but creaking Locke-Ober cafe and turned it around, and two years ago opened one of the city’s best new Italian restaurants, Scampo. White, in the vanguard of the new New England Cuisine movement, runs five Summer Shack seafood houses.

Grand Staircase

At Towne the two of them have put everything they know into high-end dining with a swank downstairs bar. Up a grand staircase, past glass walls and polished wood railings, you enter a two-level dining room that seats 300 people in roomy booths with starched linens. Yet none of it is very formal, the rooms have a free-flowing, brash swagger about them.

In that spirit, the menu offers 11 different preparations of lobster. The one you must not miss is the lobster popover, so hefty with the crustacean’s meat and so delicious you could make a lunch of it.

But then you’d miss the skewer of swordfish and octopus scented with bay leaf and grilled over a wood fire, with a citrus vinaigrette and pearls of couscous. Shire and White, along with executive chef Mario Capone, don’t seem to care a whit for dainty food, so their sugar-smoked Peking chicken -- the whole mahogany-colored bird -- is brought lavishly to your table, sliced and served with sweet potatoes. It’s an over-the- top, irresistible masterpiece and should become Towne’s signature dish.

If there’s still room, share the brown-sugar angel-food cake with caramel ice cream and maple cotton candy.

Area Four

The Cambridge neighborhood known as Area IV, between Kendall and Central Squares, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has burgeoned with biotechnology companies like Dyax-Genzyme on Technology Square, conveniently located across from the sleek, new, very casual Area Four restaurant.

There’s a fine bakery up front, while the dining area, facing huge, handcrafted ovens, turns out an array of small plates that include a tangy seviche of wild Rhode Island striped bass, thin-crusted pizzas with toppings of Wellfleet cherrystone clams and bacon, mussels cooked in white ale with roasted tomatoes, and a few larger plates, with a mac & cheese of daunting richness that you will fight friends not to have to share it.

Chef-owner Michael Leviton is happy turning out such desirable comfort food, including the dripping sundae of soft- serve strawberry ice cream, marshmallow sauce and chocolate almond meringue crunch. In keeping with the no-frills ambience, Area Four has communal tables and serves wines mostly from kegs and boxes along with 12 rotating beers on tap.

The Bloomberg Questions

Legal Harborside:

Cost? Most mains are below $50 upstairs, below $25 downstairs.

Sound level? Loud but OK for conversation: 70 decibels.

Inside tip? Downstairs is far more casual and much cheaper.

Special feature? The rooftop patio overlooking the water.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating? ***

Legal Harborside is at 270 Northern Ave. on Liberty Wharf. Information: +1-617-477-2900, or visit: http://www.legalseafoods.com/restaurants/boston-legal- harborside.

Tico:

Cost? Most mains are below $25.

Sound level? Fine at lunch, loud at night: 75 decibels.

Inside tip? Let the kitchen choose the menu for your group.

Special feature? A fireside outdoor patio.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating? ***

Tico is at 222 Berkeley St., near the Hancock Center. Information +1-617-351-0400, or http://www.ticorestaurant.com.

Towne Stove & Spirits:

Cost? Most mains are below $30.

Sound level? Fine for conversation: 65 decibels.

Inside Tip? Ask for a booth upstairs.

Special feature? Eleven different lobster items.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating: ***½

Towne Stove & Spirits is at 900 Boylston St., next to the Convention Center. Information: +1-617-247-0400, or http://www.towneboston.com.

Area Four:

Cost? Most mains are below $15.

Sound level? Loud: 80 decibels.

Inside Tip? Take something back from the bakery.

Special feature? Communal tables.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating: **

Area Four is at 500 Technology Square in Cambridge. Information: +1-617-758-4444, or http://www.areafour.com.

What the Stars Mean:
****         Incomparable food, service, ambience
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor.

Decibel levels 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 70: Convivial for conversation. 70 to 75: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 75-85: You’ll be asking friends to repeat themselves. 85-95: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 95-100: Ear-splitting din.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: John Mariani at john@johnmariani.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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