After several disappointing experiences, some of which I've recounted here, I confess: I'm giving up. I no longer expect food to comfort me. I don't believe ultra-rich ice cream will soothe me. I can't see how mashed potatoes will magically make everything all right. Hamburgers the size of my head? Big plates of steaming spaghetti? Bah-humbug.
I've found a new way to take solace, and it's not through deep-fried justified junk. It's through aggression. When the act of filling my belly is no longer enough, crushing my food to bits is the perfect stress release.
To that end, the Rustic Inn Crabhouse is a remedy for the times. This landmark restaurant began in 1955 as a canal-side saloon, serving steamed crabs and piles of linguine. Along the way, the kitchen experimented with a secret family recipe and began poaching the crabs in a garlic bath, and the house specialty -- "World Famous Garlic Crabs" -- was born. Today's customers pull up plastic seats at tables covered with newspapers, pick up the wooden mallets that serve as utensils, and order buckets of these signature babies for a culinary smash-and-grab. Hence the relaxation technique inherent in the dining method. Lost your job? Thwack! Scared of anthrax? Thwack! Tired of living/eating/breathing slogans like "Attack on America" and "America under Attack"? Thwack, thwack, thwack!
Of course, during prime hours the noise can be as deafening as the skies over Afghanistan; this is not the place you want to be if you're prone to aurally induced migraines. Neat freaks should also beware: Even if you don't order the crabs, someone from your party or even a patron from another table is bound to splatter you with garlic-butter, lemon, or crab-marinara sauce. And if you're trying to make it to a movie after dinner, forget it: The whole blue crabs tend to be smaller than the average hand, and a dedicated diner can take hours to suck each little savory morsel from every piece of decimated shell.
Like the times, the restaurant has changed in some ways, becoming more big business than family business. For one thing, the weathered eatery has grown to accommodate waiting hordes of hopeful crab-crunchers -- navigating your way through the cocktail lounge, dining room, barge, and dock can inspire you to belt out, "Hello, Cleveland!" in a This Is Spinal Tap moment. For another, the World Famous Garlic Crabs, along with the name of the restaurant, its motto, and appellations of other dishes such as "Our Famous Reef raft" (oysters, scallops, shrimp, and fish of the day), have all been trademarked. A Website enables you to order crabs on-line. As for the telephone system, it's become fully automated -- if you can force yourself to hang on the receiver for long enough, you'll eventually be instructed to do something like push 1 for hours, 2 for directions, and so on. Even the name of the street on which the restaurant is located, Anglers Avenue, is relatively new, having been changed from Ravenswood Road only a few years ago.
But if you can find it, the inn experience remains roundly satisfying. Fish still jump out of the water as if hoping to perform for a soup cracker or two. Soft drinks are served in bottomless plasticware, and the staff still hands out Wet Naps and plastic bibs the way restaurateurs glad-hand menus on Ocean Drive or Lincoln Road. And with crab baskets hanging from the ceiling and the floor creaking underfoot, the eatery is charming if you compare it to, say, an electricity-challenged lodge in the Peruvian Amazon. The very lack of upgraded décor suggests just how much it has remained true to its South Florida roots, even down to the fried alligator and frog legs on the menu. The clientele gratefully reciprocates this loyalty.
Because the recipes have been in circulation for almost 50 years without alteration, the only inconsistencies you'll probably see will be in the availability and size of the crabs. Indeed, the eatery has a disclaimer on the menu these days, citing blue crab shortages all the way up the coast to Maryland that have resulted in limited supplies -- i.e., the restaurant might run out of crabs on any given night. Fortunately, they were in stock when we visited (deliberately off-hours to work around a sinus infection that couldn't withstand a barrage of mallets). We found our blue crabs a bit small, but they were unquestionably fresh, and the garlic flavor was right on the mark -- obvious enough to make Dracula think twice but not so much that it overwhelmed the delicate crabmeat. For heartier portions and larger meat extractions, order the "World Famous Golden Garlic Crabs." Prepared in the same method, the golden crabs offer bigger extremities and come in clusters of legs rather than whole.
One of the best ways to enjoy either the garlic or golden crabs is as a combination, perhaps with half a stuffed lobster, a New York strip steak, or a rack of barbecued ribs. If you find getting your hands dirty to be truly distasteful, try the crabmeat-stuffed shrimp. While the six jumbo shrimp do arrive nestled in the shells, they're plumped up with stuffing and can easily be removed with forks and knives. Maryland-style crabcakes, another dinner option, feature a pair of hefty disks without a ton of filler, just moist crab that has been pinched together with seasonings and lightly fried.
To answer the inherent question, the inn does supply carnivores with some meat choices, and fish fanatics fulfill fantasies with a variety of fillets -- dolphin, grouper, snapper, swordfish, salmon, pompano, tuna, or flounder -- grilled or broiled with onion-butter sauce. Shellfish lovers might be intrigued by appetizers like the "Super Combination Clams," a somewhat meager grouping of stuffed and oreganata clams (the restaurant had run out of both casino clams and oysters Rockefeller, both of which were also supposed to be included on the plate). Given the slightly gritty texture of the clams on the half shell, I preferred them in the Manhattan-style chowder, which, like the conch chowder, had a distinct bacon flavor. Overall, I favor the light, fluffy conch fritters or the tender conch salad (marinated nuggets of conch tossed with chopped peppers, celery, and onions) to begin a meal. Along with a bloody Mary, they evoke the taste of the Keys almost as much as does the sun setting over the water.
Like the clams, the mostly Cal-Ital wine list, stocked with familiarly priced standards, may not be all it appears to be. The inn had run out of the Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc we'd wanted, though we managed with a Chateau St. Michelle Horse Haven Sauvignon Blanc for $27.95. Then again, the Rustic Inn Crabhouse is not the restaurant for discovering a limited release of a boutique vintage. Rather, it's the place to seriously indulge in a rich wedge of peanut-butter pie for dessert -- or maybe a slice of the homemade carrot cake layered with cream-cheese frosting. In the end, a meal here is not only about smashing crabs; it's about crushing scales.
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