Dances With Crabs

Crustacean Restaurant
1475 Polk (at California), 776-2722. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Parking in garage at California; Served by the 1, 19, and 42 bus lines, and the California cable car. Some sections of the restaurant are wheelchair-accessible; make reservations to ensure seating.

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.)

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