House of Crabs
An American-style eat house with bibs, shell crackers, surgical gloves and literal heaps of shellfish.
It's half cluttered milk bar, half absurdist paper mache Beetlejuice-inspired nightmare, and it's all waiting for you in the Norfolk Hotel's rafters. Drink'n'Dine — the group behind Santa Barbara, Queenies and the Carrington — recommit themselves to the American dream with this Louisiana crab shack fuelled by cocktails, beer and the boil.
Saturday night during the opening weeks of House of Crabs and the stairs up from the Norfolk (they are in the middle of the main bar, so there is no need for skulking around the edges looking for the entrance) are already perilous; there is a line, and the impatient quickly turn into obstacles as they boulder back downstairs.
If you have not noticed the giant crab on the wall by this stage, chances are you are in the wrong bar — it is huge, hilarious and earmarked for mascot status. Try not to focus on the fairy lights and take a second to inspect the cutlery box: crab claw crackers, crab forks and gloves — remember the gloves.
Okay, a drink. Their cocktail list is on the simple side with most options just adding something fruity to classics already on high rotation around Sydney. The Backyard Julep ($16), a mint julep with some apricot brandy and blackberry jam was jarringly low on booze and sipped itself away in next to no time. As with the Alabama Slammer ($16), a sloe gin and So Co (Southern Comfort) shake-up that ended up tasting like a sloe berry Frosty Fruit — not that there is anything wrong with that — but we opted for Pistonhead lager cans ($6.50) next. And a few times after that. This new Swedish offering is no award winner, but it does a good job of being refreshing, smoothly carbonated and low on hops; a definite any (wo)man's tipple and an easy match for the array of flavours on offer.
Jamie Thomas, Drink'n'Dine's executive chef, has put together a simple and fast-paced menu. We kicked off with the ultimate palate cleanser — some Buffalo cucumber ($5), which is pretty much just cucumber and blue cheese with a smack of peanuts — before a brioche-soft Redfern prawn roll ($9), and a deliciously balanced BBQ octopus taco ($6). The only disappointment in the entree section was the crab balls ($15). Made with blackbean and chorizo, these little buggers were simply a little too close to mush, but the Old Bay mayo was banging.
Now, onto the boil: the general idea here is a market list of molluscs and shellfish with your choice of sauces arranged from hot to mild (Cajun, Mexican, oriental and lemon and pepper) — handing over the pairing to the chef we were presented with two bags of seafood. This is the polariser. The seafood is served up in aquarium/Chinese restaurant live tank inspection plastic bags, and when you add the sauce of your choice, there is a distinct CSI evidence feel to the presentation.
Oh, which reminds me: it is time to remember those gloves. We didn't and ended up getting very familiar with some Cajun-sauced Queensland prawns ($25/500g) and blue swimmer crab ($28/500g) in oriental sauce. The quality of the prawns was bordering on magnificent — firm, sweet and huge, these little critters were a song with the well-matched spicy Cajun sauce. And, while the oriental sauce did not get me to wax lyrical like the Cajun, the boil effect made this one of my most satisfying crab experiences — simply because I could get a proper mouthful.
This is a good spot, like all of Drink'n'Dine's little eating joints around town, but once you're off the street you could be in any one of them, so if you do not like the others this will not be the one that turns it all around for you. Casual birthdays, six-month anniversaries and awkwardly messy first dates will be aplenty in the new restaurant. Though it won't have a monopoly on them, as the team, led by GM Jacqui Owen (spotted whipping the service staff into shape), prepare for their next American eatery at the infamous Oxford Tavern.