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    Monday, October 03, 2022

    The Shaking Crab experience

    I thought of a hilarious if very dark cartoon the other day by the brilliant Gahan Wilson, whose purview was the macabre. In it, two hunters are in a snowy meadow. Behind them are separate patches of blood spread back across the horizon, as though, at each splotch, some poor creature had met its demise.

    Front and center, proudly spattered with blood and with his shotgun at port arms, a burly guy with a maniac’s expression of lust and glee stares at the gore-soaked snow in front of him, presumably at his latest four-pawed victim (mercifully off-panel). Behind this fellow is his hunting partner, with a look of admiration and perhaps jealousy on his face, and he’s saying, “Congratulations, Baer. I think you’ve wiped out the species.”

    Why was I reminded of this ghastly (but funny) drawing?

    Well, my wife Eileen and our friend Kristy and I had just eaten lunch at the Shaking Crab franchise restaurant in New London. Indeed, I’d just tried one of their Mini Boil options, the Shore Combo ($45), which features a lobster tail and a cluster of snow crab along with a half-order of corn and boiled new potatoes.

    And, as we were leaving I’m not making this up a Washington Post article popped up on Eileen’s phone with a story headlined “Alaska’s snow crabs have disappeared. Where they went is a mystery.”

    WAIT!

    In a fashion somewhat analogous to Wilson’s hunter-in-the-snow had I just eaten the last snow crab cluster on earth?!

    What a horrible feeling.

    Puzzling experience

    On the other hand, the whole Shaking Crab experience was puzzling. Our server worked hard and was charming, but it seemed on both my visits that the restaurant was understaffed which is a reality in society today. We’re patient and understand these things.

    The Crab’s is a simple enough concept. The restaurant is a privately owned franchise from a national chain of high-end seafood places that’s still designed to be a Big Fun in one of those Buffalo Wild Wings or Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville experiences. Located in the longtime Outback Steakhouse space, Shaking Crab specializes in Cajun- or Low Country-style seafood boils, other fried and grilled seafood options and surf and turf and the atmosphere (sorta) reflects that.

    You walk into a hostess/waiting area featuring a giant fake crab hanging overhead like some briny-deep Halloween decoration. To the left is a “Lost in Space” style robot only it looks like a cute crab. Turns out, “robot servers” help deliver food to customers, but it’s anticlimactic.

    A bar ringed by booth seating is the core of the layout with an outer perimeter dining area of tables and booths next to exterior windows. Décor is heavily nautical in tones of aqua with polished wood accents, with nets full of shells and sea creatures. Yachting signal flags hang from the ceiling. Behind the bar is a big screen showing a rolling montage of beach scenes from resorts across the globe the sorts of places I’ll never visit unless one of them has an “All-Inclusive” price tag.

    It's all properly atmospheric except for the loud electronica pumping through the restaurant’s speakers. It’s like Deadmau5 stopped by to get a coconut shrimp to-go order and forgot to turn off his sound system. At other times over my two visits a solo lunch outing, as well the music shut off abruptly, leaving a heavy silence in which to contemplate the food. Then BLAST! back would come a deep house tune with a “Running Up That Hill” sample. It seemed almost like an exercise to test a convict’s sanity.

    Oh, yes, there’s food

    To start, I tried the gumbo ($8). The roux was light peanut butter colored and very thin but loaded with vegetables, bay shrimp and sausage. It had a nice kick to it and a familiar flavor from my time in the south, but all the ingredients (except the tiny shrimp) were ground to a similar texture and consistency. It was hard to differentiate one time from another and there was just an overall singularity to the whole thing.

    We also shared an order of fried pickles ($7) which, for reasons not yet comprehended, utilized sweet bread and butter pickles. Huh?! Pass on that.

    Now. Are you familiar with a Cajun or Low Country seafood boil? Ideally, large quantities (and various combinations) of crab, shrimp, mussels, clams crawfish, lobster are boiled in highly seasoned water along with corn, new potatoes and often sausage then dumped en masse on a huge table covered with layers of newspaper to soak it all up. Melted butter, hot sauce, some bibs and more paper towel rolls than Donald Trump could throw at an entire hurricane-ravaged island nation are typically all you need.

    In this tradition, the variety of boil options at Shaking Crab is extensive. There are customized options (market price) in which the diner chooses the types of seafood heavy on crab, of course, with Blue, Rock, Dungeness and King crabs also available and it all comes with add-ons and sauce/spice specifications.

    But there is where the similarity ends. My Shore Combo was an odd presentation. The lobster tail, crab legs cluster, small half-cob of corn and two potatoes all room temperature were in two large, see-through plastic bags, one inside another for leakage protection, and floating in a large pool of melted butter. I received a large plastic bib, which I affixed, and two plastic gloves and the process was to dip my hands into the open bags and extract food items like a “Hurt Locker” demolition expert dismantling an IED.

    This is because just dumping the entire boil onto the paper-covered tabletop would have resulted in a raging river of butter something theretofore I’d only have considered in a positive context swirling into my dining companions’ territory; as neither of them were “boiling,” so to speak, that would have been not great.

    Once extracted from the tall butter-bag, each item could then be attacked individually. Glancing around the room, I verified other customers were in the same situation and so at that point, food could be consumed. After finishing a crab or a lobster hunk, it was back into the bag for more extraction. For the record, and despite the serving temperature, the lobster and crab WERE sweet, but … too much awkward work.

    More food

    Kristy tried a softshell crab sandwich ($18, with tasty onion rings and tangy coleslaw). The crab itself was good but, to quote Kristy, “(the whole thing) felt less like a fully thought-out sandwich creation than a stack of items. It came on a roll with lettuce and tomato (no sauce of any kind, but a sweet tartar sauce was supplied in a small container). The pieces of fried crab kept falling out of the sandwich, so I succumbed to taking the roll off and eating everything separately with a fork.”

    Eileen’s black bean burger ($16) was, she said, “Yes, I ordered a black bean burger at a seafood place. And I appreciate that they have something to offer vegetarians who accompany their non-veg friends. But it arrived tepid, topped with tomato slices and some iceberg lettuce. It was like something you'd get from the teenagers managing the grill at a public pool.” She did like her Cajun fries.

    I’ll point out that, on my solo visit, my fried shrimp basket ($16) found on the Starters menu but easily qualifying as a meal was very tasty. Eight medium-to-large, delicately fried shrimp tails and heads off had a fun crunch and pop, and the Cajun fries were a nice counterpart. The tray came with eight (!) small sauce containers one for each crustacean, perhaps? Seemed like a lot of work to figure it all out, so I just used the juice from my lemon wedge and was perfectly happy.

    I think there are probably some positive experiences to be had at Shaking Crab if you catch a full staff and have three or folks willing to go all-in on a shared boil experience. In that context, jumbo trays are available ($98-$119). Or maybe try an a la carte approach and pick from starters, soups, salads or sides, grilled entrees or surf and turf ($18-$65).

    If nothing else, I’ll probably try it again if only to ensure that I wasn’t the Last Human to ever eat snow crab.

    SHAKING CRAB

    305 N. Frontage Road, New London

    (860) 574-9031, www.shakingcrabct.com

    Cuisine: Cajun- and Low Country-style seafood boils, grilled seafood, sandwiches

    Atmosphere: Cheerfully nautical; odd preponderance for loud electronica soundtrack

    Service: Seems understaffed but those on the job work hard and make it fun

    Prices: Expensive

    Hours: 3-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

    Wheelchair access: Wide passageways

    Credit cards: Yes

    Reservations: Yes for large parties

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