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Legacy Records Looks for History in a Brand New Neighborhood

Legacy Records Looks for History in a Brand New Neighborhood


Real estate developers used to wait for restaurants to illuminate the sidewalks before they’d start investing in a neighborhood. They don’t wait anymore. If there’s no Florent or Schiller’s Liquor Bar around, they simply have one built, synchronizing the opening with the move-in date of the first new apartments.

This is the tactic being used by Hudson Yards, the glass-and-steel mountain range rising above a one-time dining wasteland where soon not just restaurants but an entire “restaurant collection” will flourish, including new projects from David Chang, José Andrés and others, all “curated” by Thomas Keller. And it is the approach taken by Henry Hall, a tower of rental apartments just north of Hudson Yards on West 38th Street. To give the place the atmosphere and the hangout opportunities of a boutique hotel, Henry Hall has turned its first two floors over to a wine shop, a cocktail lounge, a private dining room and a restaurant.

I am telling you all this because that restaurant, Legacy Records, is unusually good and very popular and if somebody invites you there, you should know why you are having dinner down the street from the Javits Convention Center and a stable where Central Park carriage horses go to be hosed down at night. And you will also know why Legacy Records seems eager to suggest that it has local roots — so eager that it has essentially ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture. It’s not a combination that will appeal to everybody.

Like the bar and the wine store, Legacy Records is run by Delicious Hospitality, the company behind Pasquale Jones and Charlie Bird. The menu, as it is in those two restaurants, is essentially Italian, but less rustic and more expensive. This is the first time the group has routinely charged more than $30, and as much as $46, for main courses. (The prices, like the ones at Pasquale Jones but not Charlie Bird, include service.)

I don’t know for sure whether Ryan Hardy, the chef and one of the three partners, has upgraded to better purveyors, but I do know I was taken aback, often, by the quality of the raw ingredients at Legacy Records.

There was the raw sea scallop, so intensely fresh that its slices clung together stickily; Mr. Hardy had dressed it with dots of yogurt, tiny oval basil leaves, toasted almonds and tart little pink cells of finger lime. There was chilled Dungeness crab, a few pristine white chunks under sea urchin foam, to be spooned from a shot glass. And tiles of yellowfin tuna belly, not as fatty as bluefin but very rich all the same, under bits of salted lemon peel and a splash of colatura, the Italian fish sauce.

Again with the main courses, I stopped and wondered: Where did Mr. Hardy find lamb (with snap peas and smoked cream) that tasted as if it had never eaten anything but fresh herbs? How did he find a rib-eye that’s so tender and deeply flavorful without being flabby?

Mr. Hardy has been quick to make the most of what the market says is the first month of spring and the calendar says is the last. Creamy new-crop potatoes deserve a little appreciation before they’re sent off to root cellars, and Mr. Hardy built a fine appetizer around them with leggy broccoli sprouts and melting chunks of fresh mozzarella spiked with anchovy.

Charred snap peas made a tangy salad together with ramps in a peppery buttermilk dressing. But sweet English peas were swallowed up by a too-sharp risotto; seasoned with prosciutto, the rice took on more of the ham’s saltiness than its sweetness.

Legacy Records doesn’t say anything particularly original, but it has a finesse that’s new for this restaurant group. There’s an exceptional plate of grilled pigeon, neatly carved and served with swooshes of nettle purée. It is at least as impressive as the dish that’s becoming a breakout star for the restaurant: a duck breast, its skin rubbed with pepper, chiles, honey and fennel and then roasted until it has a deep, crusty bark that a Texas pitmaster would be proud of.

Ordering wine is an event in itself. Robert Bohr and Grant Reynolds, who are Mr. Hardy’s partners and the resident wine soothsayers, have seen to it that cultists can rub elbows with the Agraparts, Raveneaus and Gajas, while the rest of us will still find a few bottles under $100 from some of the most expensive arable land on earth.

Oddly enough, the wine list makes less of an impression than the ones at Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones, simply because you’d expect an ambitious cellar in a restaurant this expensive.

Then again you might also expect a smart, artful dessert menu; if so, you’re out of luck. There is ice cream with strawberries, a dark chocolate meringue and a selection of gelati, served in a cone; all perfectly pleasant, but there’s more wit and creativity in the excellent cocktail roster administered by Jeff Bell.

I’m sure there are people who are reluctant to go to Legacy Records because of how relentlessly noisy this team’s downtown restaurants are. But they seem to have sent the acoustics to obedience school, because all the sound waves do what they’re told: Conversations stay at their own tables, while the music stays in the background.

Ken Fulk, who designed all the public spaces in the building, covered some wall panels with grasscloth, put glove-soft leather on the tabletops, and found other ways to dampen the noise. Legacy Records certainly doesn’t look like any other restaurant; Mr. Fulk went to extremes, using some motifs from the 1980s — emphatic grids, metallic finishes, whites and country-club greens — that not everybody is ready to see resurrected.

Hanging in the bar is a 2006 photograph by the artist Mickalene Thomas of a black woman with an Afro and a giraffe-print shirt posed in front of albums by Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. It has a counterpart on the second floor, a mural behind the bar based on the Ernie Barnes painting seen on Marvin Gaye’s album “I Want You.” Along with the constant hip-hop and vintage soul soundtrack and the restaurant’s name — taken, we are told, from a recording studio that once stood on this site — Legacy Records tries to present itself as a homage to another era in music.

If Legacy Recording Studios had been used by Mr. Gaye, Mr. Wonder and Ms. Ross, that homage might make sense. But it didn’t. Lasting just from 2001 to 2009, the studio was built for and mostly used by orchestras, Broadway cast recordings and commercials. Legacy Records has taken this shred of history and turned it into a fantasy of black American music.

Exhibited in a museum or gallery, Ms. Thomas’s photo might be taken as a comment on the different postures and personas available to black women. Hanging it next to the counter where pastries and coffee are sold by day strips out some of its meaning; it looks like an attempt to buy a personality for a restaurant that doesn’t have one of its own.

If anyone gets to decide who can use black culture for what purposes, it surely isn’t me. But Legacy Records uses it in a gratuitous and offhanded way that made me uncomfortable. Stevie Wonder will always be cool, but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall.

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