Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
City Crab
Gramercy, NYC
Review by Diana, Wraith6, MMMKid, AryBro, OhGrrl

There is something we've all learned in life ... if you want excellent seafood, you have to go to a shack-like place, preferably near the sea. It would be good if the cooks were not high-falutin' and there are no professional waiters, per se, but harried staff who run around trying to get lemons for the drinks, as a good contrast to the fried coatings on the fish and shellfish. That's if you like that sort of thing, of course. As for me, I have high expectations for fresh seafood, simply cooked, and served fast. Those things tend to be fulfilled in family-owned and locally run shacks.

City Crab is not a shack, physically or spiritually. It's more a midtown men's club with lots of highly polished wood and brass, mezzanine levels and waiters in black and blue. There is a beautiful copper-surfaced bar with seafood displayed on ice and a well-stocked bar where one can get just about anything one wishes to drink. It's the "big sister" restaurant of Duke's, a door or two east of here. But unlike Duke's, which has really beautiful waitresses, this place had ... well, not beautiful waiters or waitresses. One chunky waitress was absolutely distracting with her pasty legs and ill-fitting mini-skirt; it must be noted that she would have been a fine specimen of humanity if not for the legs ... Our waiter was big, ugly and friendly. Thankfully, no one was overly perfumed so we had no other distractions from the food.

I'd always wanted to try this place. I would pass it in cabs or on the bus as I commuted to mid- or down-town on Park Avenue South for clients, work, school, dates ... it seemed charming. Maybe I just crave seafood a lot. I love the stuff, despite allergies and other reasons I shouldn't be eating as much as I want ... And it's located in a former bank and has a nice neon sign above the door.

The menu is pricy, but if you're careful, you can get away without too much damage to the wallet. The night some Hutties spent at Duke's turned out to be a Trivia night and they won a $100 gift certificate to this place. So the ones who could manage to get away from work came here, before the thing ran out. By the way, there is a new "policy" regarding gift certificates going around — this one was good for a year, after which a $5 per month "administrative fee" would be applied! WTF?? Read the fine print! And don't let the bastards get away with it — that goes for ALL gift certificates. What are you saving them for??? Just spend 'em! Fast!

The food was okay — unfortunately. I tried to select a mix of things to "test" against stuff I'd had before at other places and times. I'd seen reviews stating this place was a Maryland crabshack at heart ... despite the big sculpture of a crabbie suspended over the front door, it certainly didn't look like any Maryland crabshack I'd ever been in ... I totally disagree with the assessment, by the way. Menu-wise, this place is less a crabshack and more a diner. For one, too many selections, including things for non-fish-eaters. For another, the food seemed to be cooked for people who didn't like or were timid about ocean critters. Nothing TASTED much like the fish and it all looked more like steakhouse fare, but not as good.

For example, the gumbo had the richness of a long-cooked roux, was served with the de rigeur scoop of rice off to the side ... but it needed salt or an artfully manipulated mirepoix or something. It was rich, but relatively bland. How did they manage to do that??? The lettuce wedge salad had good ingredients — including decent beefsteak tomatoes (in February), but for some reason the vinaigrette didn't really taste like much ... actually, the two of us who ordered it felt like we had to eat it because it was vegetable matter and to get it done quickly. That's not good.

The lobster bisque was actually very good and very classical — it tasted like it was made with pulverized, roasted lobster shells, then poached/steeped for the broth; wonder if a powder for such a flavoring has been developed? Places often use powders to start or augment their soups, or even as the whole soup. It had the almost "dirty" flavor notes of rocks and shells and was evocatively "marine" tasting. The desserts were good, in a steakhouse sort of way. Rice pudding was not mushy, nor was it chewy. The raisins were not overbloated and they used the less cloying white ones. The Oreo ice cream cake is better than any cheesecake. But the mint garnish didn't taste like mint?? And the little ice cream scoop of whipped cream was kind of aesthetically weird, looking more like a hard fat alien thing.

The seafood was cooked in unexpected manners. The chef didn't present a dish so much as let you pick your ingredient, then your method of cooking. I think I would have liked them to go one better and let ME cook the damned thing. You know, we're sounding kind of grumpy about this place, but to be fair and truthful, the ingredients were fresh and priced fairly. The food here was way better than you can expect in most places around the world. It just wasn't ... I dunno ... it wasn't great.

The blackened catfish was drowned under the good shoestring fries. The monkfish special was succulent and tasty, but the waiter did not point out any of the specials so I missed them completely. The Hawaiian tuna was so-so ... not as tender as I'd imagined it to be, and it was too "precious." The oysters were fresh — not that nasty weird flavor they can have if frozen — but seemed to be cooked indifferently in the Oysters Rockefeller, which was NOT oysters rockefeller. The crabcakes were well formed, which means they were pulverized into a paste before forming and panbaking — tasty enough, I suppose ... but no heart.

But you know, some of the others around the table didn't seem to have a problem with their food. I think I'm a seafood snob and maybe I expect the cook to know more or better ... or something. Though the prices here did not rival those of Le Bernardin, the food didn't either and I've come to appreciate that restaurant's Eric Ripert a whole lot more. The things people find important about seafood were done more-or-less okay here and it should have been perfect. That problem? Uninspired executive chef, probably. Or too much "concept" and not enough "talent"?

Another example of lack of inspiration or comprehension ... they offered sushi. Now, sushi requires adept handling of the fish and ingredients. Did no one tell City Crab that just because they sell seafood, it doesn't necessarily qualify them to serve sushi? Okay, I was too scared to try it, but I am willing to bet it would not have been a good idea.

The bill was not unreasonable — without the gift certificate, it would have come out to $70 per person, including wine. Oh, do be careful when the bill comes out; usually places will automatically put a gratuity on the check if there is a party of 6 or more. We were 5, but they still stuck the 15% extra on. Joke's on them, because standard tip in Manhattan restaurants of this quality is 20%, so we saved a bit. But it was irksome to calculate the tip then find that it already had been included ... we understand that waitstaff might get stiffed a tip now and again, and perhaps these placed adapted this tactic to ensure the gratuity is paid. We'd heard many nightmarish tales of foreign travelers and their "deliberate ignorance" about tipping, and being that this place is near some hotels popular with Euros, perhaps it was inevitable that this place would follow European traditions about tipping. But it wasn't thrilling to discover after the calculation was done, and we're Americans ... well no, we're New Yorkers. That's kind of different.

It's a good place if you're unsure of seafood or if you are on an important date. But if you're a seafood snob, better to re-think what "seafood shack" means to you.

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