Phone: (09) 972 1599
Rating out of 10: Food: 8, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 8
You have to enjoy the battle regardless of the outcome to make eating crab worthwhile. I have taken part in such messy contests, although my considered opinion is that the struggle is rarely justified. But when you are in an establishment called The Crab Shack, someone has to step up. One of our party tackled the Jonah crab, one of four choices "from the crab pots" as the menu puts it, ranging from $33 to $112.
After the exercise, assisted by a sister when fatigue began to set in, she judged that the calories expended probably outweighed those taken in from the morsels extracted. However, they were declared tasty enough and the lemongrass and chilli tomato sauce enlivened with coriander, spring onion and crispy shallots was praised. And the bout was fun and that is the point of this venture.
It doesn't take itself too seriously. The efforts to turn a characterless lump of a building on Princes Wharf into a Cape Cod shack are risible, with a profusion of fishing pots and buoys hanging from the ceiling and barrel grills at the front of the open kitchen. The large menu, divided into various sections such as Shack Boards, By the Scoop and the Main Event, features dishes such as the Grumpy Chicken and Messy Pig and this jokey air translates into the atmosphere. On our early evening visit on a Monday night the place was hopping.
We were lucky to snare an empty table and it seems likely that on busier nights you could expect a longish wait as this is another of those places with the no-bookings policy so popular with restaurateurs and so inconvenient for customers. We were warmly welcomed and competently looked after, even as we arrived at well spaced intervals.
Our first courses set the tone. The little slice of blackened tuna on a sharp salad of cucumber, lime and coriander was delicious and later judged to be one of the stand-out dishes of the evening. I have long been a fan of Golden Bay clams and my scoop of mixed varieties displayed all the sweet flavour that makes them so good and was well matched with a garlic and chilli sauce that was lively without being overpowering. The crab and crayfish cakes were sound but not sensational and the calamari in the salad was something of a revelation in avoiding any hint of the rubbery character that can make it a gamble.
With our mains selections we strayed from the sea to the land and the Messy Pig pork belly was a good example of this favourite, flavourful but not too fatty. My charcoal-roasted lamb rump was excellent if over-salted and the grilled tuna was delivered exactly as requested and paired with a crab and caper remoulade.
We did, however, agree that several of the dishes had at least one more element than required, as if there wasn't enough confidence in the main ingredient. The pork came with spiced black beans, a salsa, potato hash and what in the dim light appeared to be a helping of the ubiquitous peanut chipotle slaw. Too much.
We had eaten more than generously so it was sharing time for dessert and it came as something of a relief that the salted caramel, characteristically served in a jar, was light and tasty if strangely lacking a caramel element. The panna cotta was standard and a little too solid and I was happy I had settled for an affogato.
We had pigged out and many diners around us were devoted to pricey crab-cracking endeavours but the menu has plenty of options that would allow you to share the entertainment for a fairly modest outlay.
It might not be Cape Cod but walking out with the ferry terminals in the background, our maritime mood was distinctly cheerful.
Our meal: $322 for four entrees, four mains and three desserts. Plus seven glasses of wine and two beers.
Wine list: A decent enough list and reasonably priced by city standards with a good range of beers.
Mostly New Zealand examples but the Delas Rhone viognier went down well and the St Hallett Gamekeepers Barossa shiraz grenache set off the lamb well.
Verdict: A bustling, lively venue showcasing a good range of our enviable seafood. Young in spirit although the music depends on blasts from the past.