Where you can take your army to dine on Spanish seafood dishes Restaurant: Crew's Quarters may miss some of the finer points of Spanish cuisine, but many of the dishes are good, and the service is friendly.

March 02, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

When we drew up to the gravel parking lot of Crew's Quarters, which was filled with pickup trucks, my friends looked at me in astonishment. I had told them we were going to a Spanish restaurant in Essex. The rambling structure with the "Crab House" sign on it did not look promising.

But the chef, Jose Villanueva, is Spanish; and while there is something for everyone on the menu, including steamed crabs in season, his forte is food like shrimp in garlic sauce and paella.

If Crew's Quarters doesn't look like a Spanish restaurant from the parking lot, it looks even less like one once you're inside the dining room. If I'd had to guess, I would have said it was a moderately priced Greek eatery, with its white and aqua color scheme and pictures of sunny island villages on the walls. (One of the owners is a native of Greece.)

The large room is cheerful and family-friendly, in spite of the bar in the next room. By that I mean there's plastic on the tables and plenty on the menu that would appeal to kids, from the fried mozzarella sticks to the open-face turkey platter.

Villanueva's specialties are seafood dishes, and we tried lots of them.

What our meal lacked in subtlety, it made up for with quantity. Six wonderful poached oysters on the half shell were piled high with crab meat and imperial sauce. Three would have been a meal for most people, and this was an appetizer!

A mountain of saffron rice and creamy lobster sauce had an abundance of orange roughy, clams, shrimp and mussels -- all very fresh, although the mussels were gritty. This is Villanueva's version of paella. Not bad, but I missed the usual mix of sausage and vegetables with the seafood.

Fat shrimp swimming in a rich, garlicky sauce were praiseworthy; and the black bean soup is as good as you'll find anywhere. Veal "Crew's Quarters" wasn't the finest veal I've ever had, but it was decent enough, and the dish included enough shrimp, mushrooms and creamy, sherry-sparked sauce to feed an army.

Once we ventured past the chef's specialties we ran into a bit of trouble. Greek-style green beans cooked to a fare-thee-well with a bit of tomato were hardly haute cuisine, but more problematic was an ice-cream scoop of mashed potatoes covered in brown gravy. And a house salad of iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes is inexcusable these days, when much more interesting ingredients are available at any supermarket.

Our biggest mistake, though, was the "Tropical Orange Roughy," supposedly in a lemon butter sauce with pineapple and bananas. The generous amount of fillet was fresh and nicely cooked, but it was topped with rings of canned pineapple and black olives, and surrounded with fried bananas. The lemon butter sauce tasted as if it had been made from thickened canned pineapple juice.

Still, the excellent service and Crew's Quarters' own fruity sangria kept us from feeling too grumpy about the dishes that didn't work. And complimentary flan for dessert made our check even more reasonable than it already was.

Crew's Quarters

Where: 534 Riverside Drive, Essex

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$5.25; entrees, $7.95-$14.95. MC, V

Call: (410) 780-3928

Pub Date: 3/024/97

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