A mixed catch
The highly franchisable Crab Shack could be the next Cobb & Co. But don’t let that put you off, writes David Burton – the chowder is glorious.
Housed in its rickety old wooden warehouse on Queens Wharf, The Crab Shack really does seem an apparition from a fishing village on Cape Cod, just as its owners intend.
Inside, battered steel chairs, lanterns, ropes, crab pots and a wall of randomly distressed timber slather on the Americana shack theme still thicker. The place always had “franchise” written all over it so, unsurprisingly, Auckland now has a Crab Shack too.
On the face of it, the menu might create an impression of this nascent chain as the Cobb & Co for our times: shrimp cocktail, hot wings, corn chip platters and tacos (made with wheat flour, no doubt for cost-cutting but also so as not to threaten nursery palates with masa).
Naturally there’s a burger section. While the fish in our Welly Burger was remarkably fresh and the remoulade honest, there’s not a lot to say about the other components – the lettuce, tomato, cheese, and especially not the deeply average bun.
After the bun came a pair of bread rolls as all-american as the New England clam chowder they accompanied. In other words, they had the consistency of cotton wool.
But with the chowder itself came redemption. Expecting the usual gluggy, floury, overbearing smoked fish flavour you get at 1001 Kiwi cafes, I gave this relatively thin broth a sceptical stir before experiencing an epiphany – the potent flavour rush of the essence of clams, softened with cream, with whole clams as the sole garnish. Utterly glorious.
A second justification for the Crab Shack’s existence is its 500g scoop of live clams ($15), fresh in from Cloudy Bay. Paying a dollar extra means you get a mixed scoop and can set up your own comparative tasting.
There are three species: the aristocratic tuatua and two others so new to us all, they have no traditional Maori names.
Tuatua won, of course. Its exclusive diet of chlorophyll had infused the flesh with the flavour of oysters fed on asparagus.
The round moonshell was lovely and pretty and contrary to my expectations – the shellfish inside was almost as large as a Bluff oyster. This size compared favourably with the aptly named diamond shells (which are favoured by chefs on account of their supposedly superior meat-to-shell ratio).
At the bottom of the enamel bowl, the juices from the clams were let down beautifully with cream, wine, garlic and a background of gently rising warmth from chilli.
So far, so good. But our pot of crabs, formerly the Crab Shack signature dish, was a major disappointment. When The Crab Shack first opened in 2013, a kilogram pot of sautéed crab cost $25. Now you get half a kilo and the price has doubled to $50. Just to skew the equation still further, the quality of the crab itself has dipped. Now it’s imported crab which, having been frozen, has lost most of its flavour and succulence. Previously, the Shack brought us our native, sustainably fished paddle crabs – fresh and sweet just like the clams.
The image of this place being relaxed and groovy, the style of service is correspondingly casual, at times bordering on the overly familiar. It’s not “How can I help you?” so much as “What are you guys after?” I might just get used to a waiter addressing me as “matey”, if only he didn’t have to be reminded to bring me my wine: “Oh yeah – sorry!” In line with the down-homey style, the Shack has two cheap wines on tap – a pinot noir and a remarkably fruity sauvignon blanc, perfect with the seafood here.
THE CRAB SHACK
5 Queens Wharf Ph: (04) 916 4250 Fully licensed Open 7 days, 11.30am-9.30pm Price range of mains: $25-$50 Cost: $105 for two (excluding wine)