Thursday, June 13, 2024

A lobster roll and asparagus at Row 34a perfect after-work spot or night-out destination in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

We’ve been a bit in the hole for good seafood and shellfish bars in Camberville. A big hit came when the brothers Berkowitz sold off Legal Sea Foods, founded in 1968 in Inman Square, to the PPX Hospitality Brands (which includes Smith & Wollensky and Strega Italiano); the franchise left its Harvard Square digs in The Charles Hotel complex, and the Kendall Square outpost shut down for Covid and then some. Sure, we still have Summer Shack and Waypoint, as well as The Hourly Oyster House, Russell House and The Red House with their happy hour oyster deals, but those are largely Harvard Square-centric establishments. Elsewhere, in the Kendall/Central/Tech Square area, shucked treasure stop-ins have been nowhere to be found. But hey, now Legal’s Kendall is back, and right across Main Street in the MIT and tech-dominated mecca, the oyster bar chain Row 34 has just set up its fourth storefront after Burlington; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Boston Seaport locales. During my pre-Covid days in the Seaport I become a fan of the eatery’s lighter fare – the smooth and smoky clam chowder, pristine raw bar and lobster tacos.

The new Kendall Square Row 34 is pleasantly spare and modern, with mounds of shellfish-encrusted ice just behind the glass of the long, soapstone bar top. The inviting atmosphere makes for a perfect after-work spot or night-out destination. The menu, as you can guess, is raw-driven, but there are big plates such as roasted monkfish (such an underrated seafood), roast chicken, smoked haddock spaghetti, white fish arancini and fish and chips. (My daughter is a fish and chips connoisseur, so a future taste test looms.) Some smaller plates, such as the crispy oyster lettuce cups with pickled vegetables and togarashi aïoli, and the minibun slider version of the fried oyster, pleasantly surprise – though if you have to chose, I’ll just say a brioche minibun will top a lettuce wrap any day. The real tastebud popper was the very plump buttermilk biscuit with a generous honey and rosemary drizzle, which doesn’t come from the sea but is a meal in itself. The perfectly grilled asparagus side with roasted garlic may be a humbler entry on the menu, but it was a scene stealer; it joins the roasted asparagus at Josephine’s as being worth a journey in its own right.

I did venture to try the lobster roll on one trip. There are warm and cold mayo options, and I got a recommendation to try the Connecticut warm butter version, which was counter to my tastes; I prefer cold, light on the mayo, with a whiff of celery and plenty of tail meat (there’s nothing more disappointing than a roll that’s all claw meat). That said, I did grow up in Connecticut; the best warm lobster roll I’ve had was made by my mom, who, refusing to spend big, often subbed in monkfish, aka “poor man’s lobster” or, closer to lobster, langoustines. She was a master of getting the buns buttery and perfectly golden on her big, open griddle range. Nonetheless, the Row 34 Conn lob was a fine dine but, given the price tag, one that’s hard to justify. 

A fried oyster slider and biscuit at Row 34. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The raw bar at 34 offers fine, medium-sized oysters, cleanly shucked. I tried a whitefish pate that looked promising, but the chopped fish was so cold it was hard to taste its nuance; next time, I’ll let it sit for 10 or so before indulging.

So do we have a trove of oceanic eateries, or a brewing seafood feud? Row 34 and Legals are very different. Legals says family and comfort, whereas Row 34 has a more buttoned-up atmosphere with a bar scene. Culinarily, Legals has always been about the basics and their basic preparations, while Row 34 is more inventive and playful. Things you can get at one that you can’t get at the other: For me, Legals has always been about the crab roll, or a simple, nicely grilled piece of tuna or a homey, breadcrumb-topped, seafood casserole (which, sadly, I don’t see on the menu anymore). At Row 34, there’s squid ink rigatoni and that irresistible biscuit. 

Row 34 (314 Main St., Kendall Square, Cambridge) 

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.