Some shanty. The skeleton is shanty, maybe -- rough board on the walls, a pitched barn roof and front doors like something out of the Old West, but niftier. Otherwise, the restaurant is hardly "shanty," but full of amusing paraphernalia. There was a stuffed aviator in a flying machine over the headwaitress' desk, and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" sleigh. There were booth dividers partly made of what looked like Victorian heating duct grates, some leaded stained glass from a New York Masonic temple and from Pittsburgh houses, a 12-foot bar made of solid walnut taken from a mansion in Philadelphia, old light fixtures, mirrors and etched glass.
Maybe it's an antiques-barn sort of shanty. In any case, our eyes had plenty to play with while we ate crab meat and exclaimed over our food. "Looks glurpy," we said, at first, about the soup du jour. "But it's not really bad at all," we said shortly after. "In fact, it's really pretty good." That was the way of the evening, except nothing much else looked glurpy.
The Crab Shanty's a casual place. Jeans. Sweaters. Kids welcome, though hardly any present. A woman near us set her baby in front of her on the table, propped in one of those plastic baby carriers. She ate and smiled at the child.
Probably she was eating crab -- cream of crab soup ($2.50) or Maryland crab soup ($1.95); crab cakes, broiled or fried ($14.75); crab lump imperial ($17.50); crab Newburg ($13.50); crab sauteed in butter ($15.50); or crab au gratin ($13.50). Or she had shrimp -- shrimp cocktail ($6.75); broiled shrimp ($16.50); crab-stuffed shrimp ($15.50); shrimp with garlic ($15.95); breaded, deep-fried shrimp ($9.95); or tempura-fried shrimp ($10.95). Or scallops, oysters, clams, beef, chicken or veal. The Crab Shanty does them all.
And does a very good job at them, in a simple, straightforward, American-cooking way. The soup du jour, for example, an inexpensive seafood bisque ($1.95), looked unpropitiously woolly in the bowl, like a heavy bechamel. In reality, it had excellent seafood flavors and the pleasant, grainy texture of pureed fish in thickened broth.
We also ordered an appetizer of oysters Rockefeller ($6.95). For reasons that remained ultimately obscure to us, we received instead, and were charged for, an entree of baked, stuffed oysters ($15.50). How could we complain (though perhaps we should have) when they were so delicious? There were five immense, juicy, immaculately fresh oysters, and they came in the shells they were born in, a refinement that can't be taken for granted. (Some restaurants serve shucked oysters in recycled shells.) Over the top was a snowy mound of perfectly fresh lump crab meat, and over that, hollandaise. A bit too much? Not when everything is as prime as it was at the Crab Shanty.
Two of our main courses made use of the restaurant's expertise with crab. We liked our order of crab cakes ($14.75) because they were all crab, and crab so sweet, we wondered aloud whether there'd been recourse to a pinch of sugar for emphasis. But no, we tasted pure crab, with a bit of egg and oil, and paprika --ed over the top. A stuffed rock fish was just as impressive. The fish couldn't have been more fresh, and was perfectly cooked -- heated through but not dry, done but not too done. The crab stuffing, meanwhile, had the virtues of all the beautiful lump crab we'd been tasting through the evening.
To go with our fish dishes, we drank a likable Mondavi fume blanc, reasonable at $16.95.
We also chose a special of the day, roast prime rib ($19.95), to see how diners with a passion for meat manage. We received a tremendous slice of high-quality beef, weighing something between 12 ounces and a pound. Our only quibble, but it's a significant one, was that, though we'd asked for it medium rare, it was served medium well-done, without any quivering pinkness.
Accompanying vegetables, two per entree, were simple but well prepared. A stuffed baked potato emphasized potato, not butter, applesauce contained fresh apple slices, still with an edge to them, and coleslaw was creamy and sweet. A crisp, green garden salad came dressed with a smart, spare application of a pleasing blue cheese cream.
Sweets were bargains. Creme caramel ($2.75) had the firm richness of the real thing, and was bathed in a classic caramelized-sugar syrup. Raisins dotted the very bread bread pudding ($2.25), sauced, like the somewhat more ordinary apple dumpling ($2.75), with a light creme anglaise.
There were no sophisticated sauces; nothing exhibited complex cooking skills. So? We ate very well, thanks to the Crab Shanty's uncomplicated presentation of high-quality fresh ingredients. *
Next: Bangkok Oriental
Crab Shanty, 3410 Plumtree Drive, Ellicott City, 465-9660
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays to 11 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards