Adding cuisine to menu of merchandise

Restaurant: Crabby Dick's has gone from selling things to selling food, with very mixed results. SUNDAY GOURMET

July 30, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

You bought the T-shirt. You loved the crab-shaped mug. Now eat in the Fells Point restaurant, a spin-off of the Crabby Dick's retail stores.

And what a strange restaurant it is. It's as if a bunch of really nice guys decided to open a crab house on a lark. You can't help but enjoy yourself, but keep your expectations for the food low.

Crabby Dick's The Restaurant is located in the spot where any number of seafood eateries have come and gone. Something Fishy, Foster's and Captain Louie's spring to mind. The small, cheerful rooms with their nautical theme have bright new paint, but they basically look the same. Why the new owners think another seafood place will succeed when so many have failed, I haven't a clue. I do think they're smart to make it a crab house. At least that should draw the tourists.

On a Wednesday night, margaritas on the rocks were $3, and very fine margaritas they were. Our crabs were steamed to order (although our waiter told us they aren't when things get busy on the weekends).

They were strange steamed crabs, though. The seasoning -- not Old Bay, but with a zing all its own -- seemed to have been sprinkled on top after they were cooked. That was fine with me; I liked the way the sweet flavor of the crab came through when the spices weren't an integral part of the meat. But I can see how a diehard traditionalist might be appalled.

I'd go back to Crabby Dick's for margaritas and crabs. For dessert I'd get the refreshing fruit plate with pineapple, strawberries, melon and orange slices. And I'd be happy.

Venture further at your own risk.

Beyond crabs, the menu is pretty limited, and wisely so. When you ask your waiter exactly what the seafood au gratin special consists of, and he tells you he thinks it's seafood with an au gratin sauce, you know you're better off ordering the fried hard crab.

People who aren't Marylanders may have trouble grasping the concept of this delicacy. The cook picks the meat out of a steamed crab, fills the cavity with a crab cake, dips the whole thing, shell and all, in a thick batter and deep-fat fries it. It's a monument to dough, grease and -- almost incidentally -- crab meat. Nothing like it.

I have to admit that Crabby Dick's has pretty good crab cakes, too, with nice big lumps of crab, a moderate amount of filler and pleasant seasonings. Order them with the fresh-tasting coleslaw on the side.

Then things got dicey. One of us just couldn't resist the seafood au gratin, which turned out to be a mix of shellfish in au gratin sauce. At least it was some kind of sauce, the same sauce that was on the Punch Da Train -- more about that in a minute -- but not anything I could readily identify. For some reason, the whole thing was stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread.

To understand about the Punch Da Train you have to know that the whole menu is written in (how shall I put this delicately?) a regional dialect: "Now don't ya all fergit we got the biggest juiciest crabs in town -- fresh out of da Chesapeake."

Anyway, Punch Da Train is stuffed flounder by any other name, topped with crab meat and shrimp and what the waiter called a secret sauce. Not terrible, just kind of goopy. The broccoli that came with it was terrible, cooked till gray. The corn on the cob was overcooked too.

The rest of our meal never reached the heights of our crabs and crab cakes. The crab ball appetizer, which you'd think would be the same mixture, isn't nearly as good. The crab balls are, however, heavily garnished with carrot and celery sticks and cantaloupe slices.

It would be wise to give the clams casino a skip as well. We had a hard time finding the tiny things under their thick coat of seasoned breadcrumbs.

Oh well, there's always that excellent fruit plate for dessert. And for chocoholics, a giant brownie with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. For that matter, there's even pecan pie with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Go for it.

CRABBY DICK'S

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 606 S. Broadway

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$9.95; main courses, $9.95-$18.95

Call: 410-327-7900

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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