San Diego Spotlight : New Gaslamp Crab House Fails Chesapeake Standards

If you happen to have moved to San Diego from Washington--or from Baltimore, or from anywhere in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay--there is one thing you probably will miss and mourn from time to time.

You won't miss congressmen, to be sure, since they inhabit the lower social regions in Washington (senators are another story), nor will you look fondly East to Julys and Augusts that offer unrelenting heat waves saturated with 100% humidity.

But you will certainly miss the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, a creature forbidding in its appearance and less than beguiling in its own eating habits, yet so wonderful to consume that rituals have risen around it. Steamed crab feasts are a summer habit--sometimes given around a back-yard pool, which gradually develops a slick of melted butter as bathing suit-clad eaters dive in to wash off--and the devotees of fried soft-shell crabs are legion. Neighbors debate the virtues of crab imperial made with cream versus that made with mayonnaise, and if you opt for cream you probably have more highly developed culinary sensibilities, although a preference for mayonnaise is more likely to establish your local pedigree. The king of all dishes is the crab cake, only slightly adulterated with other ingredients and scooped up bite by bite, by local preference, with saltines.

The folk who live near enough the Chesapeake to enjoy this crab in abundance take it pretty much straight, although crab soups are not disdained.

All this is by way of saying that a purported Chesapeake Bay-style crab house by the name of Johnny M's 801 has opened in the Gaslamp Quarter and that a recent meal that included the Big Four Dishes mentioned above fell far short of full satisfaction.

The eatery at 4th Avenue and F Street occupies the former Golden Lion, a Gaslamp pioneer that paid more attention to the bar than the kitchen and never really caught on. Johnny M's 801 (an amalgamation of the name of restaurant partner John Martin and the address, 801 4th) also pays a good deal of attention to the bar; the smallish dining room in back seems to have been tacked on as a secondary thought.

Members of the Gordon family, which for several generations have operated Gordon's seafood houses in Baltimore and other Bay locations, are involved in the operation, a fact they may not want bruited too widely back in Baltimore. An announcement sent out before the restaurant's opening in May promised both fresh seafood flown in daily and a truly mouthwatering selection of dishes.

The menu does offer all the big deals and many of the little ones, beginning with crab cakes, as a sandwich on either crackers or roll, or as a platter. These are also available as an appetizer of miniature crab balls, served with a mustard-horseradish sauce of some potency that somewhat alleviates the absence of truly fresh, briny, inviting flavor. The cakes, more than generously portioned, were less crisp and delicate than desired, and very, very yellow, which suggested that the "artful" seasoning specified by the menu consisted largely of turmeric.

Baltimore is, and long has been, the spice importing and distributing capital of the country, a fact that turns up regularly in local cooking, especially via the Old Bay brand seasoning mix always used in crab boils, steamed shrimp and other dishes. The menu claims the use of the Gordon Family's "traditional secret spices," at least an approximation of Old Bay, which flavor the decidedly tasty shrimp that guests peel and dip in a good, hot cocktail sauce. Although very basic, the shrimp--served as an appetizer and offered by weight so that the table can share--were one of the more successful offerings.

The full-scale crab boil was avoided, although a single specimen included on a mixed seafood plate was sampled and found good. Available in orders of three, six or 12 and priced by size (from $7 for three regular crabs to $50 for a dozen "whale" specimens), the crabs do make a feast, and a messy, rollicking one at that. The ritual begins when the table is covered with brown paper and mallets are handed round, along with piles of paper napkins. Johnny M's correctly dumps the crabs on the table and lets guests pile in; picking out the meat is time-consuming and dangerous to your clothes, but quite rewarding.

Soft-shell crabs are available fried or sauteed. A guest who requested the sauteed version received specimens that had been cooked to a dark, dark brown and appeared to have been flattened in the process; the delicately nutty flavor offered by this unique food was lost. The crab imperial, here made according to the tenets of the mayonnaise school, again was lavishly portioned and baked attractively in a scallop shell, but was also a little watery and very dull in its seasoning.

French fries are pretty much de rigueur with this sort of cooking, and the fries at Johnny M's seemed the frozen, precut version, too briefly immersed in deep fat. Fresh, crisp french fries are easy to make, so why not offer them instead? The cole slaw was creamy enough but so far from fresh that a first taste was the only one desired. A pleasure in the side dish department were the sugar-topped muffins, a holdover from old-fashioned cookery, that joined the questionable French bread in the basket.

Johnny M's 801

801 4th Ave., San Diego

233-1131

Lunch and dinner Monday through

Saturday, closed Sunday

Entrees vary considerably in price, from

$5 sandwiches to stuffed shrimp at

$15.50

Credit cards accepted

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