Patio umbrellas and plastic outdoor tables tipped us off from the start that the Columbia Crab House & Raw Bar is a no-frills kind of place.
There's not much decor, save the red-tile mosaic of fish in the white-tile wall, some hanging plants and the television in the corner. There's not much room, either, for more than six tables and a long counter.
We didn't mind a bit, though, because all the seafood we tried was fresh, hot and delicious.
Owners Tom Johnson and Jim Orem opened the restaurant in May, with a short menu that focuses on seafood and sandwiches.
For starters, we tried the spiced shrimp, which were plump and fresh, steamed with a splash of vinegar and dusted with crab spice. If you've had garlic shrimp made with lots of oil and found them too greasy, you'll love them here. They were served simply in a light broth and covered with lots of chopped garlic. That same light touch also carried over to the steamed mussels. Perfectly cooked in a light sauce with wine and garlic, the mussels were small and tender.
It was a very impressive first round from such an unassuming place.
We delayed putting in our order for crabs because the kitchen was down to the last dozen - a mix of small and medium sizes - and a new delivery was expected momentarily. Our hunger got the best of us, though, and we ordered the last dozen five minutes before the truck pulled up.
Our waitress had told us when we sat down that the crabs take 25 minutes. In fact, on the phone, we were told we could place our order ahead of time, so it would be ready when we got there. Make no mistake - these crabs are steamed to order, and they're steamed well. Covered in a rock salt and spice blend, ours were all hot and dry. In other words, none got trapped at the bottom of the pot. That often results in a mushy, wet mess that's not fit to feed to a Chesapeake Bay retriever.
Sometimes, steamed hard shells are the only card a crab house can play. Not so here. The fried oysters tasted as if they had been shucked, breaded and cooked before the oyster liquor dried on the chef's hands. A spicy crab cake was full of huge lumps of crab and so little filler it barely held together.
We're not Philadelphia cheese steak experts, but the restaurant's rendition tasted authentic to us - a pleasing blend of thinly sliced meat, melted cheese and grilled onions on a soft hoagie roll. Fries were crisp and sprinkled with crab spice. The lightly dressed cole slaw was homemade, with celery seed and confetti bits of carrots and peppers.
What you won't find at Columbia Crab House are desserts, beer, wine or particularly smooth service. That didn't really matter to us, and if you're a crab lover, it probably won't matter to you.
Columbia Crab House & Raw Bar
6476 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa and Discover
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$12.95; entrees, $3.75-$11.95; crabs, $15-$39 a dozen
Pub Date: 9/04/97