When is a crab shack not a crab shack? Well, maybe when it's a rather elegant, well-lit, spacious, and comfortable restaurant whose regular menu offers just two dishes featuring crab (neither requiring the use of mallets), and whose most successful dishes include lightly cooked Arctic char sided with Brussels sprouts and bacon, and grilled squid served with shell beans and salsa verde.
In fact, the most delicious things we tried over two meals at the somewhat misleadingly named Nettie's Crab Shack were the smashing (in more ways than one) cocktails: the Boston Swizzle ("bourbon, lemon, frost," $7), a juleplike drink served in an icy silver tumbler; the Deadliest Catch ("2 rums, booze, juice," $9), what Trader Vic's tropical cocktails would taste like made with fresh inspiration and fresh ingredients; the tall and intriguingly peppery Louisiana Lemonade ("Peppar vodka, lemon, spice," $7); and the grown-up Apple Cobbler, served in a spice-rimmed martini glass with tiny ice floes ("rum, pie, calvados," $8). Wit was apparent in the terse but still jokey three-word descriptions, whose insinuating allure was more than matched by the results in the glass. How did we resist the Man Up ("gin, chartreuse, cojones," $8)?
The same humor and allure were evident in the one-page brown-paper menu. Up top, we found dishes that could be starters, main courses, or sides (crab cakes, rosemary shoestring potatoes, steamers, mussels) listed under "lightly salted," a couple of soups headed "off the kettle," two salads and two vegetable sides "from the garden," five fish dishes "off the boat," three meaty ones that "can't get on the boat" (burger, barbecued brisket on a bun, roasted chicken), and desserts labeled "cherry on top." A smaller, pale-blue menu offered ten dishes we thought were the "daily specials" mentioned in passing on the bigger menu, but a closer perusal revealed that all but two were duplicates of dishes listed on the regular menu.
There was a lot to ponder as we sipped our delicious drinks, relaxing on the striped banquette in the front room of Nettie's, whose windows overlook its patio on Union. It would be an exceedingly pleasant place to lunch or brunch on a warm sunny day. Most recently the space was the late, lamented Palmetto, whose owners quickly folded after losing their talented chef, who took with him his excellent roasted bluefoot chicken. The deep room still has its long, inviting bar backed by an impressive array of bottles, and its big window onto the kitchen, but it's been freshened with creamy paint, vaguely nautical light fixtures, wooden chairs painted in pale pastel shades, and an avoidance of beach shack kitsch.
Less disarming was the inexplicable-to-us disappearance of the dish we intended to order tonight, the lobster roll still prominently in evidence on Nettie's Web site. "Oh, we only had that for about a week and a half," our server told us. "But we have the Dungeness crab roll — people love it." We love Dungeness crab, too, whose local official season has yet to start (you can get it year-round, despite its supposed seasonality). But crab is not lobster, and we'd recently read several stories about how a reduced demand for expensive lobster had lowered its price (not unlike that of a less luxurious commodity, gasoline).
Nettie's "the crab cakes" ($11) were among the smallest we'd ever seen, like dollhouse pancakes dabbed with infinitesimal touches of lemon mayo, smooth in texture rather than chunky. They weren't among the tastiest we'd had, either. Much better was the generous serving of fat steamed mussels showered with chunks of Fatted Calf chorizo ($15). Among the three of us, I was the only one enchanted with the little oval casserole of jalapeño spoonbread, topped with a bright purée of tomatoes and Gypsy peppers ($7); my two companions, unfamiliar with spoonbread (a soufflé-like version of cornbread), were unpersuaded. They paid more attention to the excellent country bread, served with good fresh butter.
Our mains included the delicate chunk of salmon-colored Arctic char ($18) referred to above, in a subtle egg sauce, sided with new potatoes as well as Brussels sprouts, bacon, and onions. We also enjoyed the aforementioned tasty and tender grilled squid, perched atop a sophisticated stew of shell beans flavored with minced onions, carrots, and plenty of parsley ($19). The warm Dungeness crab roll ($25) was less successful: The salty, moist, and butter-drenched crab caused the bun to fall apart almost immediately, and even with all three of us pitching in, we weren't compelled to finish it.
Our sweets were cute and diminutive: two lady apples dipped in caramel, one adorned with chopped nuts ($3); and a custard cupful of pale, creamy butterscotch pudding ($5) topped with even paler whipped cream.
As we left, we were surprised to see a grilled half crab with drawn butter ($20) listed on a blackboard by the hostess stand; it hadn't made it onto the short menu of what we thought were the specials, nor was it mentioned by our server. Maybe that's why "look around!" is written under "daily specials" on the big menu.
Nettie's seems even less shacky in the bright light of day, filled with ladies who lunch, but then co-owners Annette Yang and Brian Leitner were among Gordon Drysdale's opening crew at Gordon's House of Fine Eats, another upscale place with a downscale name that pioneered the jokey menu featuring dishes both high and low. Yang, who also worked at Foreign Cinema, Jack Falstaff, and Spruce, frequently greets guests with warm hugs. Leitner's credits include five years at Chez Panisse, which inform not just his cooking style but his sourcing of ingredients.
For lunch, we tried the New England clam chowder ($7), a creditable, creamy version with melting diced potatoes and chunks of smoky bacon, and a pail of "steamers" ($15) served with melted butter. They're in quotes because, though they're an excellent version of small, sweet clams steamed with aromatics including crescents of celery and parsley, they're not what New Englanders (and us) consider steamers, which are also called longnecks, softshell clams, or Ipswich clams, and have a very specific taste and texture. These, we were told, were Manila clams from Washington state. Call them steamed clams and you'll get no argument from us. We'd order them again.
Again slightly misnamed, the fish and chips ($16) were three pieces of succulent white-fleshed fish, steaming under a layer of crunchy batter and sided by wedges of roasted, not fried, potatoes (further confusion: The "chips" that come with crab cakes and other dishes are housemade potato chips). The prawn and arugula salad ($15) came with five rather small, nicely cooked tail-on shrimps spaced around the salad, which also contained sliced cucumber, frisée, dabs of Green Goddess dressing, and, as if to make up for the paucity of shellfish, a small toast topped with a generous gob of salmon salad. Feeling obliged to try something from the nonpiscine area of the menu, we ordered a barbecue brisket sandwich ($11), which came with the housemade chips on a big glossy bakery bun, but we found its sauce way too sweet.
Not way too sweet was the seductive chocolate Guinness bread pudding ($7), which came to the table under a mantle of bubbling caramel sauce. One of us savored it between sips of an excellent double espresso, the other with coffee elegantly served in a French press pot. There were certain advantages to dining in a fish house that was not quite a crab shack.