Cafe Reviews

Schlock Lobster

Fresh fish cut daily, reads the menu at The Cracked Crab. Note the word choice: cut, not caught, daily, although our gracious server assures us that the bounty of lobster, shrimp, salmon, scallops, mussels and more arrives bright and shiny every morning.

Putting too fine a point on semantics? Hardly. When we're paying $30 for Alaskan king crab legs, those gams had better be walking no later than the evening before they appear as an entree. Yet if the seafood at The Cracked Crab hasn't done time in the freezer, may I be forever condemned to eating my every seafood meal at Red Lobster.

The Cracked Crab is a heartbreaker. The six-month-old seafood shop is charming, so small-town cozy that a single visit compels one dining companion to contact a real estate agent, put her Paradise Valley home up for sale and make plans to relocate to Cave Creek. It's impossible not to be smitten by the quaintness of the place, with its rough gravelly surrounds overlooking untamed desert, an old-fashioned feed store and shops hawking cowboy antiques. Rugged adobe walls cradle a courtyard, centered with a fireplace decorated with whimsical carvings of a baby vulture, bumblebee, red robin and quail. A gorgeous patio takes center stage, set with a bubbling fountain, boxed trees with little white lights and flowers. Antique lamps sway above the tables.

Inside is just as appealing, split between a comfortable bar and a dining room flanked by French doors and dressed with green-checkered tablecloths. A trip upstairs finds a penthouse patio that invites even the dustiest cowboy to sit a while and kick back a cold one.

But then the meals arrive and the fantasy fades: this Crab isn't all it's cracked up to be. While it's clear that the kitchen crew knows its business, it's been given inferior product to work with. Dishes range from so-so to downright sub-par. One thing is consistent, though -- everything is completely lacking in creativity.

Avocado stuffed with shrimp, crab, cream cheese and sour cream. Fried oysters or fried shrimp paired with salad and choice of potato. Yawn. While there's nothing wrong with such classic cuisine, when it's not even done well it's too obvious as to why it's gone out of style. Especially when the chain-quality food commands top dollar, as it does here.

Charging $26.95 for a combo plate of snow crab legs and filet mignon may not be highway robbery, but when the quality of product is so average, the cost is offensive. Alaskan snow crab is cherished for its sweet, delicate flavor, snowy-white meat and tender texture, but not so here. Spiny legs are spindly, and too much work to eat. We have to request the proper tools to dismantle the crustaceans, and dedicated cracking renders meager dry strings of meat. It hardly helps that the crab fork has tines bent into obscure angles. And while a dainty filet has been expertly grilled medium-rare, the meat is chewy and flavorless. Salt and pepper are suddenly our best friends, in an effort to revive the beef and bring out any spirit in the side of watery boiled red potato chunks, even to jump-start drawn butter, which tastes like melted margarine. Wedges of lemon have gone dry, barely releasing a few spits of citrus when squeezed. Substituting Alaskan king crab legs in the combo sets us back another $4.50. Save the money and skip it.

Another visit finds drawn butter off-flavored, ruining the already dehydrated lobster tail. And a seafood house specializing in lobster without a live lobster tank? The whole Maine lobster, the menu boasts, brings us "the tail, the head, the whole thing" -- all except quality crustacean.

Cave Creek supplies escargot to top restaurants such as Mary Elaine's and Christopher's. But Cracked Crab apparently shops outside of its own zip code. Six rubbery snail bodies are submerged in a one-, no, non-dimensional butter slick that may have once seen the shadow of a garlic bulb but nothing more.

I love the idea of the Cracked Crab Special Combo, taking the agony out of choosing by uniting three daily fish specials. Of the offerings, this plate shows the most potential -- competently grilled (blackened is offered, too) swordfish, salmon and mahi mahi that are well seasoned and moist. But again it features low-grade fish. Another entree of walleye, plucked from the Great Lakes, fares better after a rendezvous with the deep fryer.

The crab cakes are ridiculous. As an appetizer or entree, the dish brings unfortunate patties heavy on filling and sliced carrot, with no discernable seafood flavor. Pre-fab? Probably, and humiliated with a wimpy white glop that purports to be shrimp sauce.

Cracked Crab's specialty is a classic boil for two, the feast brimming with one whole lobster, a whole Dungeness crab, snow crab legs, mussels, clams, corn on the cob and red-skin potatoes. But where are the lapel-grabbing spices that make a boil a boil? Wake me when this one's over. Or don't, if it's to serve up mushy scallops, pan- or deep-fried. These waterlogged victims lie listless and bleak on the plate.

The same scallops simply take up space in an uninspired pasta entree. Al dente noodles are a pleasing mix of linguini and spinach fettuccine, but the scallops have been soaked of all flavor, and a white wine sauce is little more than a greasy pool of melted butter. Artichoke hearts are metallic and bitter; the most enjoyable aspect is juicy chopped tomato. The vegetables find a better life on another evening, supporting a dish topped this time with grilled chicken breast and Parmesan. There's a hint of garlic and lemon in the white wine sauce tonight, too, but how many ways does this kitchen need to send out dull? And how many times do we need to discuss whether pasta entrees include a potato side dish? Note to server after several discussions: no.

Which is too bad, because The Cracked Crab's garlic mashed potatoes are good. Creamy and studded with chopped scallion, they show such flair it's almost possible to forgive another side: cafeteria-quality steamed carrot, cauliflower and broccoli.

The Cracked Crab is a heartbreaker because, as in most doomed relationships, it shows its prettiest side first, and it's a captivating one. It lures us in with its embraceable setting, and teases us with fabulous oven-hot loaves of honey wheat bread and whipped butter.

Several appetizers flutter their eyelashes effectively, too: "Bob's" pan-fried shrimp are tasty, butterflied beauties done up in butter and garlic to be dipped in a trio of sauces (an orange-colored horseradish rates) and splayed atop a slab of gently toasted French bread. Stuffed mushrooms are addictive, too, gorging six fat fungi with dollops of butter, cream cheese and bay shrimp. Oysters Rockefeller also are worthy tablemates, crowning six critters on the half-shell with a cheesy crest of spinach and breadcrumbs. Slurp-worthy, they are. Another starter of mussels shows some star power thanks to a splash of zesty marinara.

A house salad has good intentions -- it's at no extra charge, after all -- but has been sitting out too long. The lettuce is dry and wilted, bogging down an otherwise cheerful toss of shredded carrot, purple cabbage, cherry tomato, cucumber, radish and croutons. Dressings need to be rethought: the ranch is thin and watery, and what's supposed to be balsamic vinaigrette is a thick syrup that tastes simply beige.

The full menu is available all day, if sucking down oyster shooters (doused in vodka and Bloody Mary mix) at 2 p.m. is your deal. The chef also sends out some typical lunch sandwiches, including po' boys, fish, fried shrimp and chicken sandwiches, along with burgers.

Great, fresh seafood, even in the middle of old town Cave Creek, shouldn't be so tough to pull off. With its tightly focused menu, The Cracked Crab has chosen to do one thing. Now let's see them do it right.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet