In its original incarnation, Legume managed to pack a lot of culinary ambition into a tiny storefront along Regent Square's restaurant row. The husband-and-wife operating team were early adopters of the now-ubiquitous fresh/seasonal/local mantra, and showed just how brilliantly it could be done in a city only lately shaking off its deep-fried heritage.
Last year, their ambitions proved to extend beyond the food on the plate when they announced that they'd be leaving the old neighborhood for a much larger space, complete with a full bar, on the ground floor of a gracious old apartment building in Oakland. Here, the butter-drowned scampi of former tenant Moré, an old-school Italian stalwart, has ceded to such 21st-century delicacies as lamb kielbasa with celeriac purée. The change was inevitable; the question was how Legume's approach, honed in an intimate nook on a neighborhood main street, would translate to its spacious, upscale new digs.
The new Legume rambles a bit, with a hip bar on one side and several small dining rooms on the other, divided by decorative screening. Creamy walls showcase an eclectic art collection that has been growing since opening. Service is efficient, well informed, yet more friendly than formal; for us it hit a sweet spot that suits the food.
The menu has been enlarged somewhat from its former length, but we noted few departures from Legume's original premise, just perhaps a touch more exploration, and an even more rigorous commitment to freshness. Sugar snap peas tasted as if they'd been picked that afternoon, and one of the goals of a larger space — to provide enough kitchen room for on-site whole-animal butchering — has been realized. Aside from permitting precision in cuts, this also leads to better meat at reasonable prices, as our region is still graced with traditional small farmers who can provide whole, pastured animals at modest cost.
As a result, the menu includes meat in a variety of forms, including two cuts of steak and a platter with lamb, pork and game sausages. This isn't to say that Legume is no longer vegetarian-friendly, but that both sides of the plate are more fully explored. In fact, some of the best examples came with the salads. Jason's grilled escarole was evocative of Caesar, with Parmesan and anchovy, but with the smoky flavor of the greens predominating deliciously. Grilled romaine has been a thing for a few years now, but the heartier flavor and texture of escarole is much better suited to the treatment, and the light yet bold dressing and fresh spring onions rounded out the dish perfectly.
Another assertive green, kale, was literally massaged into — not submission, exactly, but a much more tender presence on the plate. Simply garnished with tiny cubes of feta and miniature croutons, this salad outshone kale's bitter reputation in a citrusy dressing which was tart but not puckery.
Escarole made another appearance in an entrée of lamb ravioli with sautéed escarole and herb pesto. Here, the aromatic mingling of various herbs and greens bloomed in the heat of a cooked pasta dish. The ravioli were tender and stuffed with supple, savory shredded lamb: a perfect combination for late spring heading into summer.
The aforementioned sausages were each excellent, their seasonings perfectly suited to their respective meats and their casings bursting with rich juices. Accompaniments of lentils and fermented bok choy and ramps were well chosen for their ability to stand up to the meat, but the intensity of the plate as a whole was a touch palate-wearying; a mild weisswurst could have replaced one of the stronger sausages and we wouldn't have minded.
Believe us that we're not judging when we say that the dessert options were straightforward; we hope never to see the day when we turn up our nose at a chocolate truffle cake. Legume's was excellent, rich with distilled cocoa flavor the way such a cake should be. More in keeping with the summery night we visited was lemon-verbena panna cotta, with a texture like softened ice cream, a perfumed flavor that was never cloying and the pleasing addition of a crisp little shortbread on top.
A lesser endeavor might have gotten lost in translation from neighborhood bistro to urbane restaurant. It was gratifying to see that Legume still excels at everything it always has, and that it has been able to add new delights, such as clever cocktails and refined service, with aplomb.