Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dinner @ Crustacean

One of my dining companions has been wanting to go to Crustacean to get "An's Famous Garlic Noodles" for year.  Since I started the dining club, I think he has suggested it at least once a week.  After last night's dinner at The House, we were left still craving garlic noodles, as their version wasn't that great.  Crustacean is also known for their roast crab, and I'm always craving crab.  And to complete the picture, their third most popular dish is their Baked Alaska.  Which, if you read my posts regularly, you know how I feel about meringue.  It was time to finally go to Crustacean!

Crustacean has been open since 1991, and is the sister restaurant to Thanh Long, which has been open since 1971.  This is ages in restaurant years, so they must be doing something right! As mentioned, their noodles are famous, as are their roasted crabs.  They are apparently prepared in a separate secret kitchen that only family members are allowed in, with a recipe stored in a vault.  Or something like that.  Hype?  Yes!

The restaurant is fairly fancy, with cloth tablecloths and napkins and nice place settings.  More formal and stuffy feeling than I was expecting.  It was a somewhat strange contrast to the outside location, located within a mall, in an ugly concrete building.  It is an even stranger contrast when they bring you plastic bibs and paper napkins to handle the mess you'll soon be making.  I'm glad that they acknowledged the reality of eating crabs :)

We had done our research prior to arrival, so we knew that even though the menu was extensive, there were only a few things we should order.  Pretty much every single review I read said that the appetizers, while they all sounded awesome, were totally forgettable.  As was every other main dish, besides the noodles and crabs.  And all desserts besides the baked alaska.  Thus, that was our order (with a few more things thrown in, see below).

The food was all good, but obviously, very, very heavy.  All butter.  So much butter.  You certainly need to be in the mood for this type of food in order to enjoy it.  See photos below for detailed reviews of the dishes.

The astute reader may be thinking, "But Julie, you went to get seafood on a Monday night?  What were you thinking?  Of course it won't be great!"  Back when crab season started, I called around to all of the places that featured crab to find out if they were serving local Dungeness.  I found out that Crustacean never serves fresh local Dungeness, they always use frozen crab (and frozen shrimp), so the fact that it was Monday didn't really matter at all.  Keep this in mind if you want seafood on a Monday sometime!

The service was ok.  Food came ridiculously fast ... less than 10 minutes after ordering.  As every single table in the place was ordering these dishes, they clearly just prepare tons of them and are ready to pump them out rapid fire.  An unfortunate consequence of this is that the food came before our champagne, which our dining club drink expert had picked out to go with our shellfish.  While I appreciate the food coming quickly in some ways, it would have been nice to have had some time to settle in, have a few sips of champagne, etc before digging into the crab.  Because once the crab arrived, time was ticking!  It takes time and effort to extract the crab meat, but it most delicious when hot, so it is a fight against the clock to get the meat out before it cools down.  No time for relaxing or conversing!  Another service weakness was that our bottle of champagne apparently ran out, and the waitress didn't mention this to us, nor ask if we wanted more.  I noticed my dining companions had empty glasses and inquired, and then she told us it was gone.  Otherwise, service was fine, with bowls for shells being replaced as they got filled up, extra paper napkins brought out when needed, etc.

As much work as it is, I really do enjoy the experience of cracking a crab and extracting the meat.  There is something really fun about having to work for your food, and really getting down and dirty (and dirty I got ... my part of the table was totally covered in sauce by the time I was done, as were my hands, arms, etc.  Luckily, they brought us wet towels at the end of the meal to clean up!)  Even if I wasn't in love with the food, the whole experience was quite enjoyable!

This isn't a cuisine that I'm crazy about, so it isn't high on my return list, but I'd go back if in the mood for this sort of food.  I'd also like to check out their sister restaurant to compare as well, and go back to PPQ Dungeness Island, which I went to several years ago for crab and garlic noodles.  Mostly though, this just left me wishing it was January again, so I could go get the roasted crab at Camino.  Now THAT is some good roast crab!

My dining buddies, showing off their bibs.
I had to appreciate the bibs.  They come around and offer not only to give you bibs, but to tie them on for you.  Service!
The Roast Crab: butter, garlic, and spices.  AQ - $39.50.
The famous roasted crab.  As you can tell, there was a lot of butter here!  If you just wanted buttery crab, there was no reason to add more sauce, as it was completely infused with butter already.  I'm not really sure how they managed to get so much butter inside!  Unfortunately, I didn't get much garlic flavor when I just ate the crab this way and the crab itself wasn't that flavorful, (or perhaps the flavor was just masked by the butter), so I didn't find this all that enjoyable.  However, there was a ton of the sauce on the plate, and it had a nice strong garlic flavor, so dipping the crab as you extracted it into the sauce was the way to go.  Of course, that just made it buttery-er.  The sauce was pretty delicious, and I can imagine dipping bread in it would have been fantastic.

Overall this was good, but just not really my thing.  Too much butter for my taste and you really didn't get to taste the crab much at all.

At some level, I was comparing this to the roast crab I had at Camino in January.  Camino roasts the crab over an open fire, seasons it with some herbs, and it is absolutely fantastic.  They only serve it during local crab season, so the crab is fresh and absolutely delicious, and the more simple preparation really allows you to taste the sweet crab meat.  The open fire also imparts a fantastic roast smokiness to the crab, which this one was lacking.  It could easily have been steamed.
Royal Tiger Prawns: butterflied and charbroiled, served with An's Garlic noodles.
You can order just a side of the famous garlic noodles, or you can get them topped with some grilled prawns.  From my extensive research, I saw that while most people just ordered the noodles, repeat customers recommended getting the ones with the prawns to enjoy the grilled prawns as well.

The noodles were well cooked and loaded up with the garlic butter sauce.  It seemed like it was probably the same sauce, or at least very similar to, the sauce from the roast crab.  Buttery, oily, and garlicky.  This was good enough, but I think just not really my thing.  I'm not that big into noodles, and this just felt heavy and greasy.

I'm glad we added on the prawns.  While they weren't anything amazing, they did have a really nice grilled, smokey flavor, that I found lacking from the crab.  They were pretty butter covered as well though, which I could have done without, particularly as everything else was so heavy.
Tamarind Crab: Whole roasted crab in a sweet and sour sauce of tomatoes, fresh dill, Vietnamese chili, tamarind, fresh herbs, and cognac.   $39.50.
This was the dish of the evening for me.  Even though the garlic and butter roast crab is what they are known for, I'd dug pretty deeply into reviews, and found that people who were really into crab recommended the tamarind version as well.  I'm very glad I had read that, as I would have never ordered this otherwise.  And I'm glad my dining companions let me just order this, even though it wasn't the signature item.

This version felt much lighter.  The sauce was a tomato based sweet and sour sauce.  If you just ate a piece of the crab without adding extra sauce, it was particularly light and just had a lovely tomato and herb flavor.  While you still couldn't taste the crab itself much at all, I really liked these flavors, so didn't mind.  If you loaded it up with extra sauce, you really lost the crab in it, but it was amazingly sweet and delicious.  I loved this sauce, and either dipped every piece of crab meat I extracted into it, or even extracted a bunch and then spooned tons of extra sauce on top of it.  It made me wish I had some rice or something else to soak up more sauce with.  That said, it was pretty sweet and thick, sort of like a glaze, and so if you don't like sweet sauces, this certainly wouldn't be for you.
Baked alaska: Chocolate cake, caramel ice cream, chocolate mousse, meringue, with bananas foster.  $9.50.
I knew what I was getting into from reading reviews, but this description is just all lies!  Baked alaska with bananas foster?  Um no.

The "baked alaska" was a chocolate cake layer, with a thick caramel ice cream layer, with a thin chocolate mousse layer, and some toasted meringue on top.  As the meringue was just a topping, and wasn't warm at all, it was pretty clear that this was never baked.  That said, it was the soft form of meringue that I love, so I'm glad it was done this way.

This dish combined was better than the individual components on their own.  I'm pretty sure this whole thing just came out of the freezer.  The chocolate cake was really dry and flavorless.  Not very good at all.  The caramel ice cream had strange icy chunks throughout, wasn't creamy, and didn't have much caramel flavor.  Also, not very good.  The mousse wasn't light and fluffy, just a layer of chocolate pudding, and was too thin to really taste.  The meringue was soft and fluffy, but way too sweet, much more like a marshmallow.  That all said, if you got a bite with all of the components together, it was fairly satisfying and certainly sweet.

The "bananas foster" was just some sliced banana with caramel sauce.  The bananas were not cooked, were not caramelized, not flambĂ©ed.  There was no rum.  Meh to plain sliced bananas.  I liked the caramel sauce.

Overall, nothing really noteworthy here, but the dessert lover in me was somewhat satisfied, and I do love my meringue :)
Fried banana a la mode.  $8.50.
My dining companions wanted another dessert.  This was the only other one that people had really recommended.  I thought it was pretty bad.

There was way, way too much batter on the banana.  You couldn't really taste the banana at all, just lots of fried batter.  The shell wasn't very crispy and because the batter layer was so thick, it was really soggy.  And it tasted just like old oil.

The ice cream was just vanilla ice cream, not creamy, not very vanilla flavored, just plain ice cream.  About as generic as you can get.

The only thing I enjoyed about this was the fact that it was warm, and I love desserts that have a warm component contrasting with cold ice cream (a warm fruit crisp/crumble/cobler/pie with ice cream ... sooo good!)

Sadness, as this could have been really good, had the ice cream been better, the batter been better, and perhaps with some chocolate sauce and whipped cream too ...
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