If I had a mother, and if she'd been in town on May 11, forget brunch -- I'd have taken her to Crustacean for Mother's Day dinner. On the other hand -- maybe not that particular mother. I can hear her now, loud enough in my imagination for the waiter and all nearby tables to overhear: "The place looks nice, I agree it looks nice, but look, look at the prices! For what you're paying for just an appetizer I can get a four-course Early Bird Dinner at a nice fish place in Miami Beach! And they don't even give you a piece of bread on the table here ...." Mom loved shellfish, but she always turned crabby if deprived of clover-leaf rolls to stuff in her purse when she thought no one was looking.
Luckily for Crustacean's staff and patrons, the issue is moot. Mom is gleefully tearing into totally free ectoplasmic lobsters in the sky, so instead I went to Crustacean with my friends Sam and TJ a few nights before the aforementioned holiday.
But Crustacean itself also has a thrifty, dowdy mother still extant. Its parent restaurant is Thanh Long, a Vietnamese crab joint out on Judah near the Great Highway. I've eaten there a few times but not recently. I was disappointed each time at the brevity of the menu and the overcooking of their "famous" roasted crab -- and the interior of the place always reminded me of Bette Davis' most famous line. (And I don't mean, "I have looked into the heart of an artichoke ...") Surely, Satan has delegated the task of creating dispiriting decor to a certain devil, who, after painting the words "See Rock City" on 20,000 Southern barns, came to San Francisco and coated Yuet Lee (both branches), Thanh Long, and numerous other "affordable" Asian eateries with dull-hued but slightly shiny interior wall paint that, whatever its color, always looks sweaty.
Run by the offspring of Thanh Long's owners, the An family, Crustacean is a gilded second-generation heir of the perspiring immigrant. Since my last visit about three years ago, the staff has grown larger, the paint fresher, and the prices higher. The menu seemed longer, as well. The restaurant is on the top floor of the glossy-looking but content-shy Polk Street minimall, and is reached via a glass-walled elevator that briefly allows you to enjoy the lively street scene from an ascendant position. Press the button labeled "6" and it will take you to the third floor, which the menu refers to as the second floor. (Do not expect an explanation of these numeric conundrums.)
Open since 1991 and recently redecorated (although it was plenty gorgeous before), Crustacean is a series of semiopen rooms of various sizes, with a prevalent aqueous humor in the form of murals of fishes against a dreamy light-turquoise background. The tablecloths are tight-grained white linen, the blond-wood chairs are wide and padded. There's even a little bar that allows smoking, bless it, and offers the best of boozes from all over the world. When you sit down at your table, a staffer ties a crisp white bib around your neck so that your own personal decor will escape besmirchment by unsightly freshets of crab juice. It's emphatically a place to take a seafood-eater you want to impress, like a mother (if she is quiet and well-behaved), a date, or even a business client if your budget falls short of the still greater grandeur of, say, Aqua or Yoyo.
The wine list is costly and imposing, with very few bottles under $30. I ordered a lower-priced ($35) choice, the splendid, buttery Alban (Central Coast) Viognier. If Mom had been there she'd have found some way to ask TJ whether I'd become an alcoholic to pay that much for wine. Suds-lover TJ tried the exotic Saigon Beer, found it flavorless, and switched to Amstel Light.
A few nights before, the featurette-idiocy portion of a local TV newscast had covered the restaurant's "family secret" -- the Ans cook in a small section of the kitchen that's walled off from the rest so that none of the paid staff can steal their prized recipes. They hand out completed dishes via a small window which is purportedly kept curtained until each dish is ready. Catching a quick peek at the kitchen after we ate, we espied no stove in the family closet. I can make no comment about its veracity, but the TV squib may have drawn some new customers, as the restaurant was quite crowded for midweek.
Our appetizers began with prawn won tons in a tamarind sauce ($7.55), the won-ton skins delicate, the filling and sauce likeable but elusive. It was a dish you enjoy but forget between bites. The papaya salad with calamari ($6.75) was lightly coated with a gentle vinaigrette touched with a bit of hot pepper and several types of fresh basil, each with a different flavor. The sauteed squid bits had toughened as they always do when they meet up with an acidic liquid, but their marinade was spicy and good. The green-lipped New Zealand mussels in an Asian pesto ($7.95) recalled a failed version of oysters Rockefeller, the much-abused New Orleans classic. The mollusks were baked a bit too long, so they were on the tough side if not yet rubbery, and their heavy dark-green dressing prompted Sam to observe, "With a sauce that strong, I always think they're hiding something." The mussels were in fact sound, and merely mistreated. The thin-sliced, subtle-flavored garlic-bread croutons that arrived with them ($1.50) were good enough that we ordered another plateful to accompany our main courses. (Otherwise, you gets no bread with one meatball, or even with two $28 crabs.)
Like its parent, Crustacean features roast Dungeness crab as its "signature dish." The previous time I ate here I'd found it less overcooked than the same dish at Thanh Long, but nonetheless on the dry side. However, there are two other renditions of crab on the menu -- drunken crab (in a wine sauce) and tamarind crab (in a sweet-and-sour one). When we asked our thoroughly professional waiter which was best, he promptly spouted the official line and recommended the roast. We decided to give it another chance, but also ordered the tamarind version to discover whether dryness of the crustaceans was an endemic or merely dish-specific trait. (Crabs are designated on the menu as "market price," $27.95 each at this visit.) Our roast crab was a huge, handsome specimen, but as before, roasting it had necessarily dried the meat to a degree, and its coarse-salt and pepper dusting intruded on the crab-meat flavor. (After most of it came home in a doggie bag and spent a night in the fridge, the crab's flavor had improved when nibbled cold.) But the tamarind crab proved a superb match of sweet sauce to sweetish seafood. The creature, moist-cooked, had succulent meat, and we ravaged it down to its tiniest claw tips, sucking sauce off our fingertips. The waiter murmured something about turning a fire hose on us to clean us off.
For our third entree (which we ate first, as it was the most delicate) we chose another "signature dish," the royal tiger prawns ("market price" was $25), which has extremely tender grilled jumbo butterflied prawns flavored by a haunting, fishy-sweet Vietnamese marinade. Of the dishes I'd tried at my much-earlier visit, this is the one that lured me most strongly to revisit the restaurant. Unlike the other main dishes, it included an accompaniment, the superb An's garlic noodles, lightly sauced with just enough of the "stinking herb" for pure easygoing pleasure. Unlike the big crabs, the portions of the prawns and the noodles gave each of us a slightly scanty sample (particularly considering that noodles certainly don't stretch a restaurant's budget) and I was glad Mom wasn't there to kvetch, "For what this is costing, can't they give you enough food to make you feel you've eaten something?" (A larger side-dish of the noodles can be had for $7.95. Side dishes of various vegetables are also available, at similar prices.)
When we'd done with the crabs, the wait staff brought us very hot moist towels to clean our hands. The three of us shared an elegant, creamy orange sorbet frozen in a hollow orange shell ($4.50). "When I was six," I mused, emerging from a teaspoon's worth of total immersion, "and we spent the summer in Miami Beach, there was this ice-cream stand that filled the cones with six or seven different flavors; they called it tutti-frutti.
"One of the flavors was an orange sherbet, and this sorbet tastes just like that. But -- was the Miami version this good, or was it just that a child's palate is so inexperienced, everything good tastes better?"
Sam plunged his spoon into the heady, almost perfumed blend, tasted it judiciously, and finally pronounced the enigmatic ruling, "Ah, it's this sorbet -- it doesn't taste like the Miami Beach sherbet, it tastes like the quality of memory itself." For once, my remembered version of Mom had no arguments.