Feeling Crabby

The shrimp-and-crab tacos and fried baby artichokes appear on the menu, but the lunch and dinner specials get the most play.

When I think of crab, I think of a few things: astrology (symbol of Cancer), cartoon characters (Mr. Krab of SpongeBob Squarepants, Sebastian of the Little Mermaid) and some nervousness when I’m in the ocean thinking about about claws pinching my feet.

More than anything, though, I like how they taste. When I lived in Maryland I searched the National Harbor until I had tried all forms of it, from fine dining establishments that offered purist crab patties (just the meat) to fried cakes on a sandwich with fries. When I lived in Maine I worked at a lobster, crab and fish market, and “checked quality” constantly.

Monterey might not be known specifically for crab, but it does enjoy a good seafood reputation and a productive Dungeness fishery. Tourist-magnet Fisherman’s Wharf is a fitting place for visitors (and opportunistic locals) to experience it. A healthy handful of seafood-themed restaurants inhabit the colorful strip alongside candy stores and postcard shops, including new Crab House Seafood Grill, which occupies the former Isabella’s and Nino’s Wharfside.

On a sunny weekday lunch, the ocean sparkled from our window table as boats swayed in the distance. The scene was quiet with a few other midday guests, and some oldies on low volume in the background. Service was prompt and friendly, and we seemed to be at the right place for a relaxing afternoon.

We started with six oysters on the halfshell ($12.95). Fresh with the vaguest hint of salt, we gulped them down happily with the lemon, horseradish and cocktail sauces to complement.

Next came the creamy clam chowder thick with chunks of potato ($5.95/cup). Chowder is a longtime love of mine, and theirs, much like the oysters, did the job – no more, no less. On any given evening walking down Fisherman’s Wharf, you will be offered chowder samples from each restaurant, and they taste pretty much the same, Crab House included.

Moving on, we were there to sample the title-bout event: crab. My companion, an avid seafood-lover who knows his way around a crustacean, led the way on cracking. Unfortunately, the server (and menu) didn’t mention the half-crab lunch special ($19.95), so we ordered the whole Dunegrass crab (market price, which ended up being $46.95). For the price, I’d expect the crab to be a little bigger, but it came average sized if not smaller.

Delivered only slightly cracked, some work went into getting the goods. Watching an experienced crustacean-eater made it look easy as he gracefully pulled out whole pieces of supple, delicate meat. When I tried, it broke all over my hands and I ended up a mess, so this is my warning for those whose fingers aren’t skilled: Crab House crab makes you work for the reward. Once you retrieve the tender salty meat and add butter, it’s worth the effort.

As for sides, the rice was skillfully cooked and the green beans crunchy, but they were bland and didn’t stand out as an attraction.

On a later evening visit, the dining room livened up with a few out-of-towners and families, and the moonlit harbor offered a nice view all around. Foodwise, I decided that the best way to appreciate Crab House would be to order one of my childhood favorites that’s almost always good: fish and chips. Seems simple enough to get right consistently, but places will surprise you. The menu describes Crab House’s cod ($15.95) as moist and fried to perfection. I would say it was over-fried, leaving the thin fillet almost dry (and certainly not moist).

There was a small disagreement on the fries: My friend enjoyed the crispy, airy crunch and said they were “perfect,” but to me there was nothing resembling a potato – they seemed empty, like snappy bites of hardened oil. At least there was no debate on the coleslaw, which was lifeless, flavorless and seemed to be old as heck. I couldn’t actually believe they were even serving it.

Some people might say “we’re not here for the sides,” but I firmly disagree. Coleslaw is the side I’ll always opt for – a fresh, crunchy meal-enhancer – so to me bad coleslaw completed an already questionable plate.

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While Crab House has some tempting recipes I haven’t tried, like the salmon and crab Wellington with sundried tomatoes in puff pastry ($21.95), and the crab and shrimp mac and cheese ($19.95), it’s going to be tough motivating to bring myself back.

The first time I left Crab House, I was lightly sticker-shocked. The second time I left, I was shaking my head.

Tourists will still go, and the kitchen might get away with mediocrity. In the end it all comes down to expectations. Don’t go to a tourist landmark and expect the best of Monterey. Better options, with locals’ discounts and located steps away, do eaters right.

And regardless of location, if you have it on the menu, I do expect a decent coleslaw.

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