Pop culture continues to enthrall me. This week I'm obsessed with Ally McBeal. Not because I like the series so much, but because of the show's disregard for setting. McBeal takes place in Boston, but you'd never know it. Unlike the cast of the Chicago-set ER, which is always going to Bulls' games and extravagant lunches at gourmet restaurant Charlie Trotter's, the McBeal cast rarely leaves the building in which its members try some of the weirdest cases on TV since L.A. Law. There are no jaunts along the Charles River. No expensive dinners at chef Lydia Shire's Biba. No Red Sox games. Heck, not one of the characters has a Boston accent. (I'll save the fact that these lawyers never lose a case for another discussion I'll call "Reality.")
The setting of Ally McBeal is really Anywhere, U.S.A., which insults those of us who actually lived in Boston and might watch the show for nostalgic reasons. And, funnily enough, I came to this realization only after dining at Legal Sea Foods, a month-old seafood and fish restaurant in the Oasis, the new, outdoor section of Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. The restaurant is a chain with long-time roots in the Boston area; George Berkowitz opened the first one in Inman Square, Cambridge, as a fish market in 1950, next door to his dad's Legal Cash Market, a grocery store. Customer response prompted Berkowitz to add a restaurant in 1968; by the late '80s, the restaurant had five locations.
I'm particularly fond of the Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, where my husband and I had our first lunch date. We later celebrated special occasions there, including my pregnancy -- though my in utero daughter didn't exactly appreciate the demands made by a baked Maine lobster stuffed with crabmeat. Though I shouldn't expect stasis, I'd prefer that the restaurant stay the way I remember it: bursting with yuppies on overstuffed banquettes downing after-work bloody marys heavy on the horseradish and served with both celery and cucumber.
Well, the recipe for the bloody marys is still the same, but as for the rest,... welcome to the millennium. You can now find Legal Sea Foods restaurants and markets all over the East Coast. But the Sunrise operation, comprising 344 indoor-outdoor seats, looks less like the Cambridge restaurant than it does a busy airplane hangar: huge propeller fans suspended from the high ceiling, lots of chrome railings, and neon accents. The place is smart and eye-catching, just like Ally McBeal herself, but the setting doesn't say Boston to me.
Nevertheless some of the fare does. Legal Sea Foods is at its best when it offers Northeastern specialties, including the dishes it made famous. Mussels au gratin -- an appetizer platter of blue-shelled mussels smothered with garlic, cheese, and bread crumbs -- were as tasty on a recent visit as they were on that long-ago date, when I was too nervous to appreciate truly the textural contrasts of plump, slick shellfish and stringy, bubbling cheese. Gently steamed Ipswich clams were also superb as a starter; the dozen moist little beauties were easily coaxed out of their shells and into a ramekin of clarified butter. Unfortunately the restaurant had run out of its signature New England clam chowder, which is made in Boston and shipped to Florida; the plane carrying a fresh supply hadn't landed yet. (On another occasion we tried to pick up a take-away bowl of it, and while the soup was in, the containers were out. Strike two.)
No matter what the location, Legal Sea Foods prides itself on the seasonal availability of two things: Maine lobster and more than 40 varieties of fresh fish. We indulged in some lovely arctic char, a type of trout, for an entree. The pink-fleshed fish, reminiscent of salmon, was served with a tropical fruit salsa. Though the dichotomy sounds strange, the simply grilled northern fish was complemented by the bright, tangy fruits. As for Maine lobster, Legal keeps a 60,000-pound supply in its in-ground tanks in Boston, where lighting, temperature, and water quality are designed to make the lobsters feel right at home. And let's face it, a happy lobster is a tasty lobster. We ordered ours baked and stuffed with the exemplary cracker crumb-crabmeat filling and were pleased that the flesh of the crustacean hadn't been dried out in the oven. Be careful when ordering this dish, however. A baked stuffed lobster can cost as much as $49. (Steamed are typically much less expensive. Ask the waiter for prices.)
I also give the restaurant credit for being forward-thinking and expanding my horizons. Legal was where I first sampled fried calamari, which wasn't as plethoric as it is today, and Legal continues to supply the tastes of other countries to its customers. Unfortunately, in this worldly aspect, the restaurant sometimes fails. An appetizer of Malaysian-style curried shrimp, billed as spicy, was overwhelmingly bland. The handful of jumbo shrimp was fresh, and the centerpiece of jasmine rice was aromatic, but the coconut-milk sauce, dotted with red bell peppers, was in serious need of seasoning. A lunch main course of gumbo also could have used a bigger kick. This Cajun stew -- featuring tender shrimp, scallops, and whitefish -- surrounded jasmine rice, which provided an odd Eastern note; a heartier infusion of andouille sausage and tasso would have counteracted the perfume of the rice more thoroughly.
Legal claims that its shellfish pass through eight quality and bacteria-analysis checkpoints in an in-house laboratory, but we thought the fried oysters in the po'boy, a hefty sandwich made on crusty bread with zesty mayonnaise, a little stale. We feasted on the side dish of onion strings -- shredded, deep-fried onions -- instead. On the other hand, an appetizer of Maryland blue crab served with rice crackers was both sweet and plentiful in a zingy horseradish sauce.
For landlubbers who disdain pompano en papillote, pecan-crusted red snapper, or spicy baked bluefish, there are sirloin steak, filet mignon, and kosher chicken breast. Otherwise you can pretty much expect just about every item to contain some kind of fish or shellfish. That doesn't apply to the desserts, of course. Whether you choose to indulge in the old-fashioned grapenut custard, a decidedly acquired taste, or the more universally appealing profiteroles (cream puffs stuffed with vanilla ice cream and topped with hot fudge), you can be sure there's nothing fishy about these sweets.
Even before I was introduced to it, Legal Sea Foods was a chain, so I can't fault its owners for going national. I'm still pleased with many of its traits, which include super quality control and excellent service. (The restaurant was one of the first to employ a team approach, which means you can ask any server for any item, and it will be politely and expediently delivered.) I do worry, though, about overexpansion and Legal's entrance via its decor into the trendy concept market. I'd worry less, of course, if the Legal in Sunrise were to make me one promise: to stock more of that clam chowder.
Legal Sea Foods, the Oasis at Sawgrass Mills, 2602 Sawgrass Mills Cir., Sunrise, 954-846-9011. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.; Sunday from noon till 10 p.m.
Clam chowder (bowl)
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Mussels au gratin (large)
Maine lobster (steamed, 1 1/4-1 1/2 pound)