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RESTAURANT REVIEW CRAB HOUSE & ROTISSERIE : Sea Legs : Whether it’s Dungeness or Louis you crave, this place has it in comfortable surroundings. There’s good chicken too.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

According to the venerable “Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” the best way to learn about eating crab is to go to a Baltimore crab house and ask for instructions from the waiter. But if a trip to Baltimore fails to materialize, you can get a pretty good introduction to shellfish at the Crab House & Rotisserie in Camarillo.

With its hearty green plants, polished wood, white linen and butcher paper on the table tops, the restaurant manages an ambience that is both festive and accommodating. A family with young children can be as comfortable here as a party of unmarried celebrants.

A long, decorative bar is topped with ice-filled glass cases that hold raw oysters. Be sure to try them with the zesty mustard horseradish sauce. And note that the Crab House, which also calls itself a tavern, offers 10 kinds of imported vodka and 20 premium beers, including Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter. The bar also concocts fantasy ice cream and liqueur drinks.

Some of the best food on the menu comes in appetizer form. The spicy, succulent Anaheim chile, stuffed with Dungeness crab and goat cheese, served on a bed of salsa ($6.50) was a splendid combination. So was baked goat cheese with garlic ($3.95), the cheese melted on toast and the garlic roasted in the bulb until only sweetness remained and it was soft enough to spread.

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Boston clam chowder was a small bowl of pure comfort food--thick, buttery, hot, and smooth, with no distractions save for little chews of clam. A bowl of steamed clams (at a dollar a pop) was also satisfying.

While the name Crab House & Rotisserie may conjure up the odd image of crabs being roasted on a spit, the rotisserie here is strictly for the birds--chickens, that is. These vary from a very basic chicken that relies on this cooking technique for its moist appeal, to a garlic chicken that will make garlic lovers think they’ve gone to heaven. The only chicken that gave me pause was the Jamaican jerked chicken, which someone may have confused with jerky, as it was salty enough to take backpacking.

I was surprised not to find a crab Louis on the menu, but they do offer a small wedge of iceberg lettuce as one of their salads. They also make a strong vinaigrette of cucumber, tomato and oregano salad and an excellent coleslaw--creamy and sweet, just the kind that belongs in a fish restaurant.

In its attempt to please its public, the Crab House serves a number of all-you-can-eat specials, and offers all kinds of combinations--lobster and crab; ribs and chicken; chicken and crab; steak and lobster. A mixed grill of steak, chicken and lobster ($15.95) came with mounds of pleasing pan-fried potatoes and included a respectable showing from all three meats.

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Of the three kinds of crab served here, they seem to run out of the Dungeness the quickest. I got a taste of it in the crab cakes, which were chewy with crab meat--also spicy, greasy and sinfully delicious.

I’m not sure why anyone would want the snow crab. Coaxing the flesh out of its amazingly delicate legs is a Sisyphean task, and the meat tends to absorb too much salt. However, the Alaskan king crab legs were among the sweetest, most tender shellfish I’ve ever enjoyed and they practically slid out of the shell on their own. A couple of these legs, sprawled across a large plate, not only provided a small feast but a sense of awe at what comes out of the sea.

Lobster, fresh from Maine, was cooked to order, sweet and tasty.

Desserts such as macadamia nut mud pie are for sharing--even with the next table. Our tower of chocolate brownie, ice cream and hot fudge slumped under the weight of its castle of whipped cream. Sturdy bread pudding was more sedate, hot and homemade, with cinnamon and raisins and a sweet, warm sauce. I don’t think we would have enjoyed them quite as much in Baltimore, either.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Crab House & Rotisserie, 350 N. Lantana, Camarillo (805) 987-4979. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday 1-9 p.m. Full bar. Visa, MasterCard, American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$80.


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