Keeping abreast of Boston restaurant fads can be a full-time job. Maybe you missed Brothers Crawfish in Dorchester, which debuted eight years ago as the area’s first Vietnamese-Cajun seafood boil restaurant. But the string of similar openings in the past two years (including Holly Crab, Loui Loui and Shaking Crab) is harder to ignore. Inevitably, someone had to take this idea, glam it up a bit and drop it into one of our higher-rent neighborhoods. Thus arrives Bootleg Special to a South End space that is quite chic by the modest standards of its category, offering a fun, messy style of dining with vivid Cajun and Creole flavors—but only an occasional Southeast Asian accent.
The heart of the menu is the seafood boil, a small mountain of shellfish (some combination of shrimp, clams, mussels, crawfish, lobster and Alaskan king crab legs) boiled in savory broth and then spicily sauced and bulked out with starches (corn on the cob, potatoes, pasta and/or rice) and a few slices of andouille. At humbler joints, these goodies are presented in a plastic bag; here you get a porcelain serving bowl. But the eating is the same: You get to hand-crack, peel, extract and suck your way through a dripping pile of bivalves and crustaceans.
We first went with the Bootleg Special boil ($79), a 1.25-pound lobster and a half-pound each of shrimp, crawfish, mussels and clams, plus corn, spuds and sausage. The three sauce options include Bootleg (boasting a garlicky, pretty ferociously chili-hot Cajun spice blend, and the most interesting of the bunch), Moonshine (a gentler white wine and shallot mix) and coconut-curry/basil (rather like a Thai yellow curry). Touted as serving two to three, I’d call this a meal for four with an app or two. It’s fun eating, though the crawfish are so small that laborious cracking yields only a wee bite of meat and head juices; I’ll skip these in the future until they source larger specimens. You can also customize a bowl with up to three seafoods ($16-$21/pound, market prices for lobster and king crab legs) plus andouille and starches ($4-$6).
If plastic-bib-worthy dining isn’t your thing, there are plenty of Louisiana-inflected smaller plates: ribs on Coke ($12), crisp and fatty baby backs in a syrupy cola glaze; nicely fiery and crisp Bootleg Special chicken wings ($12); two generous ears of Mexican-style easy street corn ($10), helpfully sliced into smaller wheels; a big skillet of garlicky Brussels sprouts and cauliflower ($8); a mild version of seafood étouffée ($16) with clams, mussels and shrimp in a Creole-trinity (onions, celery, bell pepper) sauce on white rice; garlic noodles ($8) with a neatly fiery-sweet-garlicky sauce; and the #12 GOAT salad ($8), which rises not to Brady-esque heights but is a respectable mesclun/goat cheese salad dotted with candied pecans and roasted beets, carrots and parsnips. We also sampled oysters ($20/six) from the short raw bar menu with good mignonette and mild pineapple/habanero salsa—though knowing the specific provenance of the Martha’s Vineyard oysters would be helpful. There are also simple, generous po’boys ($16) consisting of a good sub roll, some slaw and a pile of skillfully deep-fried oysters, catfish, shrimp or clams drizzled with chipotle aioli, plus a hefty side of excellent shoestring fries.
Desserts include a heap of large-ish, steaming, fluffy beignets ($7) that can be gussied up further with ice cream and syrupy toppings, as in the boozy bananas Foster ($11), which compensated for lack of tableside flambéing with a staggering portion size. Your inner sugar freak will also respond giddily to a vanilla ice cream/Abita root beer float ($8).
The beer list features six drafts ($7-$9/pint, $28-$36/pitcher) and 21 packaged options ($4-$10) running the gamut from geeky micros to grandpa’s lawnmower pilsners. The 26-deep wine list is serviceable and decently priced ($9-$15/glass, $30-$90/bottle, most under $40), though cocktails suffer a bit from the limitations of a cordial license. For example, the Sazerac ($12) is made with sugary apple whiskey instead of rye or cognac, and the Bootleg Hurricane ($12) relies on artificial-tasting flavored rums and pomegranate liqueur instead of straight rums and fruit juices for its tropical oomph. It helps to prefer sweeter drinks here.
The space carves 80 dining-room seats, 18 bar seats and an open kitchen out of a former doggy day care. It boasts oodles of French Quarter speakeasy ambiance, with its towering ceiling, exposed rafters, wildly colored street-art paintings, neon nudie-club sign, burlesque posters, bordello-wallpaper stenciling, crystal chandeliers and dangling Edison bulbs. Three projection TVs quietly display sports and ancient MTV music videos over a hilarious, occasionally painfully loud ’80s and early-’90s soundtrack—it’s been a while since I heard E.U.’s “Da Butt.” Service in the bar and dining room amiably and casually hits its marks amid the dimly lit din. Against this atmospheric backdrop, Bootleg Special deals enough deliciousness to justify its comparatively pricey take on an originally bare-bones concept. How much you enjoy its hands-on slurpfest partly depends on your level of fastidiousness at the table: It’s best to leave your fawn suede jacket at home. And given the size of the house specialty and many plates here, you’ll want to bring friends. ◆
Bootleg Special boil with Bootleg sauce
Ribs on Coke
Bootleg Special wings
Easy street corn
Fried oyster po’ boy
Beignets bananas Foster
Bootleg Special, 400 Tremont St., Boston (617-451-1800) bootlegspecial.com; Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials; Hours: Sun.-Wed., 4-11 pm, Thu.-Sat., 4 pm-1 am; Parking: Metered street spaces