If only I could get some service. Hello? Waiter? Good thing I’m not on any schedule other than to take the pulse of another option in the historic landmark. Once my order is finally taken, my place mat keeps me company. On it is a timeline flagging high points in the life of Legal Sea Foods. All hail the Berkowitz family of Massachusetts for setting industry standards for food safety, with a quality control center for fish processing and distribution.
Some thought went into the design. Note the retro, pink-and-green tiles on the floor and the big zinc “scales” fronting the kitchen. Tall community tables in the back call to small groups; my perch near the railing takes in the bustle of worker bees and tourists.
A bowl of chowder, lightly creamy and stocked with tender clams, makes me happy. But the fried food that follows is a letdown. Kung pao cauliflower sounds like a kick, but its doughy tempura batter holds the snack back. Shrimp is flavored with dessert-sweet orange marmalade, plus shaved coconut fried so dark, the curls appear to be chocolate. Legal Sea Bar’s french fries are unusual, in that they look the part, but they have virtually no potato flavor. They’re just thick and crisp and blank without an assist from ketchup.
Of the sandwiches, the crab cake slipped inside a glossy bun proves a better bet than the surprisingly mute $30 (!) lobster, bites of which are tossed with celery in a thin binder and cradled in a bun that begs for toasting.
Take two. A week later, I head straight to the bar, where the woman next to me is goading a companion to drink before noon (“I hear there are antioxidants in wine”) and I’m greeted as if I’ve got a train to catch: promptly and efficiently.
This meal, there’s more to write home about. Romaine plus apples, red peppers, goat cheese and tortilla strips equal a strapping salad, the bounty tossed with a dressing of orange and avocado. Clam bellies are fried to a pleasing shade of gold, then presented in a wire basket with tartar sauce that tastes made from scratch. The runaway hit, though, is a main course of roasted cod, carpeted with bold accents — olives, capers and lemon — and shored up with steamed rice and creamy house-made coleslaw. The plate is what I want more of from Legal Sea Bar: a meal to linger over.
50 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 202-864-0401. Sandwiches and entrees, $12.95 to $31.95.