There's no reason to go hungry at the A-1 Crab Haven. The portions are hefty, the courses numerous, the prices reasonable and the selection, especially of seafood and the namesake crab, extensive.
Unfortunately, the food didn't always taste as good as it looked -- or sounded.
But that didn't seem to deter the Saturday night crowd that filled the comfortable dining room of this Essex restaurant. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, especially the folks in the adjacent bar who were carrying on -- loudly -- as Duke beat Kentucky in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Only when the screams became blood-curdling did anyone seem to mind. The A-1 is a pretty relaxed sort of place, with extra-large cocktails and friendly service.
In addition to seafood, the menu offers calves liver, pork chops, several pastas with seafood sauces and prime rib. All dinners are served with a salad, potato, green vegetable and dessert, so there's usually plenty of food on the table.
We started with two soups: crab ($1.50 a cup), of course, and French onion ($1.95).
The traditional Maryland crab soup had a lot of vegetables but not a lot of flavor other than spicy seafood seasoning. The onion soup didn't have much taste, either, once you got past the thick layer of cheese on top. The broth was too thick and brown, as if it had been sitting too long. It is, however, nice to see a small serving of onion soup, which is, for some reason, almost always served by the bowl. Too bad the taste wasn't richer.
For entrees, we stuck with the specialty of the house, ordering broiled crab cakes ($12.95) and crab and Smithfield ham ($14.95). With the entrees came an extremely fresh salad with obviously hand-cut vegetables. My house dressing, pepper Parmesan, was rich and good -- and served on the side, a thoughtful practice. My husband's blue cheese dressing was excellent with just the right amount of blue cheese.
The two broiled crab cakes were large and golden, though far from outstanding. Too much filler diluted the crab flavor.
The crab and ham, traditionally a simple but rich dish, was simple but bland. It had more shredded crab than one normally finds in this dish and the ham lacked its usual pungency, seeming more like Canadian bacon than Smithfield ham.
The accompanying vegetables were better than the entrees, especially the fresh carrots sliced in butter and the fresh broccoli. Both were beautifully crisp, but tender, as they should be. My baked potato was large and delicious; the french fries were OK.
With the meal, we had a choice of ice cream or homemade rice pudding. Other desserts not included in the meal price were chocolate mousse cake and baklava, which were ensconced in a six-foot-tall, lighted case bearing the inscription, "Les Desserts."
We chose the rice pudding, which our waitress said had been made that day. The pudding was creamy and rich with a nice flavor. Although the serving was small, it was enough after a big meal.
The simple pudding, like the uncomplicated salads and vegetables, were the best parts of our dinner. Only when the preparations got involved and the ingredients more expensive did the quality -- and the flavor -- fall off.
With two cocktails, two glasses of the house wine and two coffees, our bill was just over $50. We had a friendly, accommodating waitress. If only, as we've said before, the food had been up to the service.
** A-1 Crab Haven 1600 Old Eastern Ave. Essex 687-6000 Hours: 11 a.m.- 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Reservations: Not usually necessary.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.
Smoking: No separate areas.