It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...
With apologies to Charles Dickens, my two recent experiences at The Saucy Crab were at such extreme variance with one another that I might well be justified in titling the review “A Tale of Two Restaurants.”
The worst of times came first, on a Saturday night. We arrived around 7 p.m. without reservations, and the evening got off to a promising start when we were escorted to the last available table for two. Our server greeted us promptly with a warm smile and a complimentary bowl of Cajun-spiced popcorn.
After that, things went downhill fast.
Or slowly, I should say. The bucket of steamed blue crabs we’d ordered first took nearly 40 minutes to arrive. Fortunately, as we were waiting we’d also ordered the Saucy Crab combo for two to follow. We were able to stave off hunger with the appetizer platter that comes with combo platters: hush puppies, fries (thick-cut French and sweet potato, both quite good) and slaw (creamy and sweet, with a careless puddle of dressing pooled in the bottom of the bowl).
The crabs were just okay – fresh enough but on the small side and watery, as if they’d spent a little too much time in the steamer. Oddly, given the restaurant’s name and the fact that the Saucy Crab’s logo is a cartoon of a jaunty blue crab in a chef’s hat, that particular species is not listed on the regular menu. Our server explained that blue crabs are delivered weekly, and are offered as a special as long as they last.
The regular menu does list three other crab options: Dungeness, snow and Alaskan king. As it happens, snow crab legs are one of the items in the Saucy Crab combo we’d ordered. They were the highlight of that combo, in fact, which also included head-on shrimp (egregiously overcooked), crawfish, black mussels, corn on the cob, potatoes and small, surprisingly bland links of kielbasa.
The whole shebang is steamed in a large plastic bag with the sauce of your choice (hence the “Saucy”) – Cajun, lemon-garlic, pineapple-teriyaki or Old Bay. The food is served in the the steaming bag, along with a bucket for shells. By the time our bucket was full, we had been sitting there for nearly two hours.
The best of times came a few days later, on a weeknight. This time, the dining room – whose crab shack motif is expressed with a colorful hodgepodge of beer bottle chandeliers, picnic tables covered with butcher paper, and nautical bric-a-brac (against a backdrop of rock walls that are a vestige of the building’s original incarnation as a Macaroni Grill) – was nearly empty.
We took a pass on the combo options (the Saucy Crab combo is one of four), which we’d found results in smaller shellfish being overcooked at the expense of the larger. Instead, we ordered from the selection of items that are steamed separately – again in plastic bags, tossed with your choice of sauce.
Steamed shrimp – we opted for peeled and deveined this time – were cooked just right. They were so good, in fact, that I’d have preferred them with Old Bay rather than the lemon-garlic sauce we ordered. I understand that the sauces are popular, though, so we’ll chalk it up to personal preference.
Happily, we did order the Dungeness crab steamed with Old Bay. The result was (again, with apologies to Mr. Dickens) a far, far better thing than I’d ever eaten before at the Saucy Crab.
Until the fried oysters arrived. For a place that specializes in steamed seafood, I’ve got to say the kitchen has got the fryer down cold.
Service was, as it had been the first time, welcoming and eager to please. But this time around, our waitress didn’t have to apologize repeatedly for the delays. Start to finish, our meal clocked in at just over an hour.
Afterward, manager Justin Taylor (who had also stopped by our table that first night to apologize) gave a plausible explanation for our delay-plagued first visit. Turns out we’d dined at the Saucy Crab on a weekend that was hit with a perfect storm of local homecomings.
It’s somewhat understandable that the management of a restaurant that didn’t exist last year (it opened in March near South Square shopping center) didn’t anticipate the resulting deluge of large parties. Still, you’d think owner Charles Tirada – a veteran restaurateur who owns ShabaShabu in Raleigh (and has operated two previous restaurants at this location) – would know to be prepared. I’m betting – you might even say I have great expectations – that he will be next year.