Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hit and miss at Crustacean Restaurant

Crustacean Euro Asian Cuisine on Urbanspoon Crustacean was one of the restaurants recommended to me for my 2015-April trip to San Francisco by friends who used to live in San Francisco. I'm always up for interesting eats, so the mystique of their having a "Secret Kitchen" where family recipes are prepared away from the prying eyes of "outsider" staff intrigued me. That, plus people raving about their garlic noodles. And Crustacean sounded like such an old family restaurant that I didn't think it merely a marketing gimmick. Certainly the one staff person I chanced to run into on my way up the stairs confirmed the Secret Kitchen protocol did in fact exist.

First impressions of the place were good. The maître d' gave polished, professional service and was patient with noob questions. The restaurant is elevated over the street, giving you views of the city. The dining area is also tiered, so even if you are not sitting at a window, there's still the possibility of good views. The dim room of dark colours offered a nice retreat from the bright sun outside if you are dining early in the evening.

My reservation was for 5:30 PM and one of the first ones in the restaurant that Sunday evening. They are apparently supremely busy come sundown (the timing of which is therefore influenced by Daylight Savings Time adjustments). That, and if there is a convention in town.

The basic Roast Crab is one of the restaurant's original (and now Secret Kitchen) recipes; the Tamarind Crab and Drunken Crabs were added later. The "extra time" required for the crustacean recipes from the Secret Kitchen was estimated by the server to be just about 15 minutes more, though one should expect it to be even longer once the restaurant gets busy later in the evening starting around 7 PM.

As is my wont, I arrived early. The restaurant was basically empty. The protocol apparently was that I could wait seated at the bar, or I could wait in the lobby; either way, they would seat me once 2-3 persons had arrived. (Why?) Anyway, I complied, though eventually they did seat me alone. Of course during this time I did not idle, but perused the menu.

Once at the table, I started with a drink. They had non-alcoholic ginger beer. It was disaster (how can a restaurant mess up a bottled drink?). Once my friends arrived and our first appetizer orders showed up, they still hadn't redeemed themselves from a FAIL.

Ginger Beer ($6)
  • Tasted weak. The reason is probably because at least 2/3rds of my glass was ice cubes.
  • I paid $4 for ice and $2 for maybe a 1/3rd of a glass of ginger beer that didn't taste anywhere as good as the four-pack I bought from Trader Joe's that cost less than $6.
  • Crustacean is a "fancy restaurant" and a popular one. I get that. I've eaten at even more posh or pretentious restaurants in Vancouver. But this much ice is disgusting for $6. FAIL.
Shrimp Toast ($11.25 for three pieces)
  • Three slices of baguette, topped with pink, rubbery shrimp cake.
  • Tastes like shrimp -- I should hope so!
  • Tough, rubbery texture on the shrimp cake.
  • Nothing special to the taste, nothing novel in the presentation. I was curious to see how they could possibly justify charging someone $11.25 for toast and they failed miserably. Right out of the gate, Crustacean had two strikes against them.
Garlic Noodles ($10.95)
  • Fortunately an OK amount of noodles, and very garlicky as advertised.
  • Completely unadorned -- like serving us a bowl of rice to go with our food. Probably meant to be used just that way.
  • Not so interesting that people need to rave about it, but price for portion is fine. If you add that you are in a popular restaurant, then price comes in lower than expected.
Roast Crab ("quoted price", for us it was $48.95)
  • Looked like a baked crab sitting in a pool of oil sprinkled liberally with pepper.
    • I thought maybe the flavour here was in the oil (roasted with the crab?). I mixed some of the garlic noodles in that oil. Nope. Now my garlic noodles just tasted oily.
  • After cracking open the leathery shell, the crab meat tasted like crab.
  • I even licked the shell for any flavour that might be crusted on (e.g., in the matter you would definitely lollipop the shell of a Singapore Style Chili Crab). Nope, no flavour to be savoured here.
  • Total waste of time (and money). Just get a crab from the market and steam it yourself and use whatever condiments you like.
  • This is strike three. but Crustacean does have some saving graces, so read on!
[Buddha] Roll ($7.95)
  • One of the vegetarian choices on the menu. If you're vegetarian, first of all you're in the wrong place dining at a seafood restaurant. If you are still there, choose something else than this.
  • Definitely use the provided sauce as it's rather on the bland side without.
Skewer Beef ($10.95)
  • Finally something really decent tasting. If I remember correctly this was two skewers with wide but flat beef.
  • Slightly sweet seasoning, grilled very nicely to have some of that delicious grilled flavour.
  • Comes with token salad.
  • Price might feel steep at $10.95 but taste makes up for it.
Shrimp Fried Rice ($8)
  • Good Chinese-restaurant portion for money. As far as fried rice dishes go, taste is good.
  • Rice looks colourful with the many ingredients, but I counted exactly 5 shrimp (unless one of my friends was fast on the draw and had stolen a shrimp already).
    • Incidentally, there were five of us (three adults, two kids). Coincidence?
Halibut ($31.95)
  • Wow was this expensive. Felt possibly overpriced, but it was definitely tasty, so it's hard to complain.
  • If you are not looking closely, your initial impression might be that the slab of halibut is huge! But half the plate is mashed potato and almost all of it is hidden under tasty sauce with slices of mushroom.
  • Halibut appeared to have been done nicely - moist and tender, easily forked apart.
  • Incidentally, the mashed potato was really decent. And it had a good smooth and creamy texture.
Baked Alaska ($8.50) (picture from Yelp)
  • Didn't look like any Baked Alaska I was familiar with, but the components were there: Flamed meringue on top of ice cream.
  • Hard to go wrong with this dessert. Price is okay.
Chocolate Lava Cake ($8.50)
  • While I was secretly taking notes, I didn't see how this turned out when cut -- i.e., whether hot chocolate "lava" came oozing out. But it was definitely not overbaked into dryness on the inside, which can sometimes happen with lava cakes.
  • Deeply chocolatey and delicious like a fudge-style brownie. Of the desserts, my personal favourite choice. Price is good for what you get after giving bonus points for taste.
Crème brûlée ($8.50)
  • Standard issue wide and deep-dish crème brûlée, Nothing special here but nothing wrong either.
  • I didn't get to carefully inspect the caramelized top but didn't taste anything wrong or burnt with it either.
$172.75 for three adults and two under-age-10 kids. $195.38 after tax and 4% SF Employee Mandate. $220 after tip makes it $55 per person if you count our party as "four" adults.

Despite a really lousy start with the $6 for ice with a splash of ginger beer plus a couple of dish duds, Crustacean would still get a passing score because:
  • Prices for many items are actually good.
    • Low, in fact, considering that typically super-busy/super-popular restaurants start raising prices to trim out low-end diners and thereby reserve their seats for spendier clientele.
    • Your average underpaid peon can walk in here (go early to avoid the crowd!) and get a decent meal at a price comparable to a boring restaurant -- For $8 you can get a plate of fried rice bigger than just about any diner breakfast main charging $10.
    • A great way to get a filling meal at a reasonable price is to share rice or garlic noodles and a main with a friend -- i.e., treat Crustacean like any other family style / for sharing Chinese restaurant and go with several people.
  • Items are hit and miss, but there are good items on the menu.
    • Most things will probably come in between okay and good. Accept that there will be some duds. Therefore, do your research for the mains, especially when they are over $20. Ask friends who've personally eaten there for specific recommendations.
    • Do not just go with the hype and order Secret Kitchen stuff.
BEFORE the end of the meal -- BEFORE we had even finished dessert -- I got the bill. WTH?

Yeah, I know that we probably did give the impression we probably weren't going to order anything else as we were pretty full, but to get the bill even before we finished eating?
The reservation was for 5:30 PM and the bill printed at 6:30 PM. The restaurant probably wasn't even half full. Were they in such a rush to see us finished eating and out of there?
I had a similar experience at Bette's Oceanview Diner, but nowhere near as pre-emptive and aggressive. Sorry, points off here.

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