LTK Bar and Kitchen

Legal Sea Foods cooks up an experiment  
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  July 25, 2006

TASTE TEST: Despite service flaws, much of the food at LTK is ready for prime time.
It’s odd to drive up to the new LTK (Legal Test Kitchen) and realize that it’s across the street from the defunct Jimmy’s Harborside. Who would have thought when Jimmy’s was the power-lunch capital of the Hub that some little fish-store guys from Cambridge would end up commanding the chowder business on this end of the waterfront? But all great empires fall, and new ones rise. Legal Sea Foods, which has reinvented itself so many times, is here with its concept for the new century, and the early journalistic word was that everything was going wrong. And even after a month, there is plenty to fix at LTK.

But then again, isn’t that the idea? If this (and a smaller LTK at Logan Airport) is the test bed for the entire chain, it has to have lots of mistaken ideas going all the time, right? As soon as kinks are ironed out, new kinks should be introduced. Perhaps if the name doesn’t warn you of that, the menu should carry a disclaimer.

Most of the food experiments I tested at LTK were ready for prime time. It was the service and concepts that were still failing tests. The early years of Legal Sea Foods in the late ’60s featured a very unusual and widely criticized design in which the first waiter into the kitchen would bring whatever parts of your order were ready, and then demand payment. Since they didn’t take credit cards in those dinosaur days, it wasn’t that much more trouble to have dinner on the installment plan. But it was shocking to the uninitiated, and sometimes the system broke down.

At LTK, the intended system of touch-screen menus and Blackberry-equipped waitrons apparently broke down the first night. So now the servers gather cluelessly in their pick-up space to discuss sports scores and avoid eye contact with customers. Nothing comes out on time. “I’m ___; I’ll be taking care of you tonight” disappears, and after 16 minutes and buttonholing another server, we finally have drinks. Four more minutes and two more interactions to get appetizers and sweetener for the iced tea. Eventually someone else appears with an order for another table, and then a third poor soul who doesn’t know who’s having what, although she does have the right dishes for our table. Then ___ returns to ask a guest if she is “still working on that.” Servers: the customers are not working; they are supposed to be enjoying a night out.

It also takes a while even to order because the menu has been incomprehensibly over-categorized into “Bare,” “Simmer,” “Refresh,” “Nosh,” “Nibble,” “Comfort,” “Nourish,” “Heat Up,” “Exhilarate,” and “Zazzle.” If you are good at puzzles — perhaps the intended demographic for LTK — you can guess raw bar, soups, salads, etc. “Zazzle” is another throwback: eight species of seafood permuted by four cooking techniques, with four sauces and six side dishes.

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