I love raw bar. Set before me plates of bivalves and crustaceans and I am a happy person. The first restaurant I worked at in the United States, Bart’s Wharf in Portland, OR, was a master of raw bar. Huge platters of raw and steamed seafood, most fresh from the Oregon coast, flowed freely. I was never a real fan of bay shrimp but the chef would make me a sandwich for dinner made with fresh bay shrimp. The taste was amazing. Sadly, I’ve never been able to recreate that simple sandwich. It was a shame the restaurant didn’t survive. Run by Bart’s kids it became stuck in a timewarp with teal vinyl booths and some of the original waitresses still there from the opening in the early 1950’s. They should have been there for the renaissance of the upscale lobster-steakhouse in the 1990’s but didn’t make it.
True raw bar has gone out of style to an extent and the number of places to find it has dwindled. In RVA the choices are limited. There’s some offerings at Bookbinder’s but I know way to much about the inner workings of that place to ever eat there again. If I want chicken instead of turtle in my overpriced Snapper Soup I’ll order chicken soup…. (maybe, someday, I’ll write a bit about my experiences there). There’s Morton’s and a couple of other upscale eateries but there it is more of an afterthought and not true raw bar where you order plate after plate.
Nope, in Richmond there are only two real choices (I am sure after writing this I will get a few more suggestions….). First would be Can-Can. Bathtub full of ice, shucked and prepared in view of the customer with the added bonus of much better sauces than your standard cocktail sauce. Best eaten at the bar with a martini but don’t forget to fill your pockets with pebbles to get a bartenders attention….
The other place would be The Hard Shell, the restaurant that took the wind out of the sails of Awful Arthur’s in the Bottom. I’ve been going to The Hard Shell since it opened. When it first opened it had great food, good drinks, and really good raw bar. For years it was my go-to place, showing up at least once a month. Now, not so much. With all the great new places that have opened up in the past 7 or 8 years we might make it once or twice a year and rarely is it mentioned when we’re talking about where we want to eat tonight. Sunday night we needed a place to celebrate a bit. M had become a newly minted Privacy Expert and had the certification to prove it. With gas poking a hole in our dining budget we decided to hit The Hard Shell and indulge in their All You Can Eat crab-fest.
We had hit their Sunday special in the past but I usually didn’t do the All You Can Eat special. I’m a fan of Snow Crab (especially when it’s 1/2 price) but the crab on the All You Can Eat was some sort of crab (sorry I’ve forgotten the exact type) that had paper thin skin and unsatisfying meat. Basically the little old lady of crabs. At some point, however, it seems they changed it to my favoured Snow Crab. So, off we went.
It was very packed when we arrived so we sat at the bar to wait for a table. A few observations… The bar was dirty. The staff all looked like they were thinking ‘I can’t believe I couldn’t dump this shift’. I actually saw a customer raise her hand and snap for a server. I think I could hear the snapped at server’s eyes rolling… It was a collision of fine dining meets cheapskate hell. We got lucky, they decided to open the banquet room and we got a table in fully air conditioned bliss away from the hoi poloi.
To start we had a few apps. M ordered the Lobster Dip. A ramican of soupy dip surrounded by chips with a presentation by TGI-Fridays. The level of peppers in the watery dip rendered the addition of the lobster moot.
I ordered a dozen steamed clams and a half pound of crawfish. Presentation was again less than inspired and while the little necks were acceptable the crawfish was sub-standard. Maybe I ordered out of season but many had recently molted and the shells were mushy while on others the meat was dark not light and sweet. I didn’t finish them.
For an entree M had the Steak & Lobster. Petite filet and a smallish lobster tail. Due to her current condition she had to order the steak medium (she still eats it MR at home when we know the source – Belmont Butchery – and are sure of proper storage and preparation). At that temp the steak was small and disappointing. She declared no more steaks in restaurants until after the baby arrives. The small tail seemed fine, although M said it was a bit gritty like it hadn’t been rinsed well, until I got the bill. The dish is listed at ‘market price’ (I know, we should have asked) and I really think that for $40 the tail should have been a little more substantial.
While she ate I gorged on the All You Can Eat Snow Crab. Nearly 4 pounds of the tasty things. The last plate they brought out had a distinctly overpowering brine smell that brought my gluttony to a screeching halt. The support service for my feast was lacking. Not enough lemons, forgetting butter, no extra napkins. I actually had to ask for a shell cracker since he hadn’t brought one out and when he did it had rust marks on it.
The service was mediocre but I have a hard time really blaming the waiter. It is very hard to switch gears from fine dining to turn and burn especially when a lot of people who hit ‘All You Can Eat’s’ are terrible tippers. The kitchen was also collapsing and you could hear servers arguing over ownership of plates in the window. His service wasn’t the best but I still tipped at 20%, albeit pre-tax for a change.
They made what I can only describe as an akward and not well thought out change in the bathrooms. Paper towels have been removed to be replaced with air dryers. The placement was bad unless they intended it to be triggered and blow on your back while your washing your hands and while the lack of towels makes it hard to clean a toddler they seem to have forgotten what they serve. A lot of their dishes are steamed sea food and involve dipping said seafood in butter. Add alcohol to the mix and you’ve got messes. In my case a well buttered goatee. After washing the butter out I really don’t want to stick my face in a hot air dryer, a towel will do just fine.
I think The Hard Shell is due for an overhaul. The raw bar at Can-Can seems much more fresh and exciting. Their menu looks the same as it did in 90’s, quality is down, presentation perfunctory, and service is slip-shod. I think it may be time to look for a new place for my snow crab fix.