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words Chris Zacharia
It’s true: where you live says something about who you are. Crab Tavern sits on Broadgate Circle, a kind of corporate whirlpool beside Liverpool St station. Filled with high-end chains and ‘concepts’, it radiates return-on-investment.
Each restaurant here is like a contestant on The Apprentice, adamantly trying to convince you of their credibility. You can almost see the outline of the business strategy, almost hear the spirit of Boris Johnson mumbling about innovation.
The very idea of placing a complex of posh chain restaurants in the heart of the city, next to the skyscrapers which disgorge overworked executives into the street, is a stroke of mercenary genius. The suits will inevitably come here. They will populate it with their business brunches and late-afternoon meetings and birthday drinks and coffee breaks and quick bites and welcome lunches. Champagne will flow. Business cards will be exchanged. Deals will be done, bonuses gone, plates cleaned. Broadgate Circle, an elaborate bird-bath for businessmen, makes sense. And in a part of town where you’re more likely to find a pie chart rather than an actual pie, all food vendors should be encouraged, chain or not.
Crab Tavern is the only independent restaurant in the circle. You want them to win. Inspired by US-style surf shacks, there’s an easygoing informality extending from their chatty menu (“Best legs in town!”) to the graffiti-style cartoon crabs leering from the walls. Seafood can go in two wildly different directions, and Crab Tavern have decided to drop the pretence and have some fun. This is the smart-aleck kid taking on the squares. Or it would be, if the restaurant wasn’t predicated on a summer-house-in-the-Hamptons, bougie Cape Cod-style vibe.
How will Crab Tavern survive? By charging £39 for crab legs, that’s how. Despite the youthful vibe, there’s an undeniable costliness to the menu. It’s been written with the city boys in mind. Still, good seafood is worth shelling out for. And as central London is not exactly coastal, you have to allow for additional costs.
Intelligently, they’ve created enough incarnations of crab to justify the name, without jettisoning the rest of the catch. Marquee-name shellfish make welcome cameos across the menu. Nonetheless crab is the undeniable star here, available to order in pretty much every kind of guise you could want. But on questions of provenance, the menu is unforthcoming; there’s little information about the crab meat. A missed opportunity, considering that the UK is the largest producer of crab meat in Europe. Some attention from specialist crab restaurants would help to win some of the limelight from lobster.
We share the Crab Taster starter, a platter of all-things crab related. At £10 per person, it’s a good introduction to Crab Tavern’s crustacean anthology. Crab comes in various states of undress. There’s crab tartare on toast, citrusy and rejuvenating; there’s a delightfully sweet crab sub, with a decent brioche bun; and chunks of king crab on a baby gem baby lettuce leaf. All three work nicely, without doing anything particularly groundbreaking (and with good seafood, you don’t need to). The only disappointment comes in the form of deep-fried soft-shell crab. The batter is all wrong, being neither crunchy nor light and dusty. It clasps the crab meat unconvincingly, coming apart far too easily.
West Coast Clam Chowder (£7.50) promises a lot, but lacks the richness of a good chowder. It’s too much like a regular seafood broth, with no sign of the butteryness which usually defines the dish. Bacon lardons add a bit of bite but never really ingratiate themselves with the stock. The chowder at the otherwise-average Lobster Shack in Wandsworth is both better and cheaper.
With the mains expanding on the same themes as the starters, there’s a risk that Crab Tavern will run out of ideas. Yet the mains hold their own, and our interest. The Best Legs in Town (£39) actually live up to both their name and their eye-popping price tag. Each long, spindly leg yields succulent meat both well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. Despite all the creativity on offer, this is the best way to enjoy that subtly sweet flavour for which crab meat is rightly prized. They’re as excellent with the herb mayonnaise as they are with the garlic butter. Whether you have them hot or cold, be sure to use the apron provided. It’s a messy business.
Meanwhile, West Coast Bucket Boil (£35 per person, minimum two people) lingers between ‘ok’ and ‘good’ without ever really convincing. It’s a medley of hulking crab claws, fistfuls of mussels, lots of lobster, finished with sweetcorn and, ingeniously, lengths of merguez sausage. There’s much to enjoy here, but somehow it lacks a unifying flavour, a loose alliance of ingredients yet to be genuinely integrated. More concerningly, the seafood doesn’t taste especially fresh. A watery crab gravy, reminiscent of brine, is best left aside.
The trouble with anchoring your restaurant around a single ingredient is that you risk having to cook dishes which are too culturally diverse to be prepared by a single kitchen. So it is with Crab Tavern; their Goan Crab & Cod Curry (£17) is sadly underpowered, crying out for the true fragrance of south Indian flavours. They’ve made the effort – there’s coconut rice and chapati – but the sauce is just too one-note to successfully pull off the flavours of a proper curry. I can’t think of too many curry houses who’ll charge you £17 either.
The New England vibe makes more sense when it comes to dessert. A whole host of Anglo-American treats is crowned by an excellent Brownie Stack (£6.50), its accompanying salted caramel ice cream, saltier than you’d expect, a fitting final salute to the sea.
And overall, that’s the trouble with Crab Tavern. It’s good, wholesome seafood, but priced far above its station. If you’re a banker working nearby, that’s fine. If not, it becomes a different matter. And yet it would still be my first choice if I were to find myself hungry and lost in the amphitheatre of Broadgate Circle. Which, at some point, I probably will.
For more on Crab Tavern see crabtavern.co.uk
words Chris Zacharia