Two Crabs Houses, One Name -- Take Your Pick

DINING OUT

August 08, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Gunning's Seafood Restaurant, 7304 Parkway Drive, Hanover, (410) 712-9404. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: platters, $8-$23.

Gunning's Crab House, 3901 S. Hanover St., Brooklyn, (410) 354-0085. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for dinner only. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: platters, $7-$22.75. Spicy steamed crabs and fried green pepper rings drenched in powdered sugar. Only in Baltimore.

Well, not exactly. With the opening of Gunning's in Hanover earlier this year, the area has two crab houses that specialize in that remarkable combination of vegetable and fried dough. And two places that claim to steam their crabs from the same family recipe. Two places, in fact, named Gunning's.

Leo Devine, who also owns carryouts and a catering business, bought the original Gunning's on South Hanover Street at a foreclosure auction. He reopened it recently under the same name and with much the same menu. Eddie Gunning Jr., the son of the former owner of the original Gunning's, has opened Gunning's Seafood Restaurant off Dorsey Road in Hanover.

Are you still with me?

Both claim to have the recipes that made the original Gunning's one of Baltimore's legendary crab houses.

But which one is the real Gunning's? Which one is the closest to the Gunning's I remember -- the place that was my favorite crab house ever since I moved to Baltimore?

One sweltering July weekend I decided to find out.

On Friday night we headed for the Gunning's owned by Eddie Jr. It's a huge, spanking-new place -- not a lot in the way of atmosphere but filled with friendly people eating steamed crabs and corn on the cob.

Crabs came in four sizes: $27, $30, $40 and $45 a dozen. That last is the perfect size for people who want to pick crabs with a minimum of work. Just the right amount of seasoning clung to these huge beauties, and they had been steamed so recently they were still too hot to handle. Gunning's in Hanover gets A plus for its hard shells.

As for those fabled green pepper rings, they were just as I remembered. Dipping an innocent vegetable in a thick batter and deep-fat frying it, then smothering it in powdered sugar, is really a dreadful thing to do. But it's so outrageous you've got to love them. This is Baltimore, hon. (Or in this case, Hanover.)

Crab fluff, a house specialty, is one of the best versions of this Eastern Shore oddity I've encountered. The crab cake mixture, with big lumps of back fin, was encased in a crisp, almost grease-free batter that kept the interior moist.

You'd do best not to stray too far from these specialties. Stuffed broiled shrimp were overcooked, as was grilled chicken ordered by the non-seafood eater among us. Cream of crab soup was more of a solid than a liquid, and the Maryland crab soup didn't have much crab in it.

Vegetables are something of an afterthought here, although each table gets its own large salad bowl to keep you happy until dinner comes. But the corn on the cob looked so old it should never have been served, and nothing had been done to jazz up the canned green beans. Good potato salad, though.

Save some room for warm, old-fashioned peach cobbler or a huge, misshapen but good chocolate eclair, both made on the premises.

A couple of days later we headed for Gunning's Brooklyn. For atmosphere, it's hard to beat this one. You walk into a dark bar; the small, wood-paneled dining room with red checked tablecloths is to your right and, yes, there's a crab garden. If you want to take out-of-towners to a crab house as a sort of historic site, this is the place.

Crabs were $20 and $28 a dozen; the jumbos at $36 were gone by the time we got there. Now I've never met a crab I didn't like; these were no exception, and the new owner may very well have the original recipe -- I couldn't tell any difference in the seasonings. But what I did notice is that Gunning's Brooklyn uses more of it, so these are crabs for those who want lots of fire. Also, I like to pick crabs with a small knife (usually plastic these days) to get every morsel. Gunning's Brooklyn didn't have them.

As for the green pepper rings, Gunning's does what any sane cook would do with fried green pepper rings: leave off the powdered sugar. But you can't mess with tradition. (The waitress was very nice when we sent them back to the kitchen to be doused. She probably gets that request all the time.)

Gunning's has "olde fashion," back fin and jumbo lump crab cakes. That last the kitchen broils without asking, and it's a great crab cake -- if a bit pricey at $10.95. The corn on the cob seemed freshly picked, and as a sign of the gourmet aspirations of the kitchen, the canned green beans came with mushrooms and pimento.

Soft-shell crabs, though, simply didn't have a good flavor. And a cup of crab soup, which had a claw hung fetchingly over the edge, arrived at room temperature and included a large, unappetizing cube of stew beef.

Here, too, you can end with homemade eclairs and homemade peach cobblers, although I liked the ones at the other Gunning's better. I liked the crabs a bit better, too, but not enough better to give up the cozy dining room of the original site. Hey, these are two nice restaurants -- believe it or not, there is room for two crab houses that serve deep-fried green pepper rings.

Next: Cochini

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