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.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Dine -

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)

Pots of charm: The Crab Shack. PHOTO: KEVIN STENT/STUFF

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