The rain fell in frosty sheets, painting outfits onto the nubile young bodies on Chestnut Street, as I waited to get inside Mad River. Nautica cologne hung in the air (not mine), and roofies jingled like Tic Tacs in leather-jacket pockets (also not mine). I was 21 or 22, too young to know better.
That was the one night I spent in Mad River, the early-aughts paradise of the newly legal Big Five collegiates. I passed the time counting down the excruciating minutes until my buddies were too blacked out to notice my shady exit into the moist and smoky night, never to return.
But a couple weeks ago I found myself back on Mad River’s doorstep. Only now the address houses mariner-chic Craft & Claw, specializing in crabs of a different sort.
The below-decks bathrooms still smell like industrial-strength bleach (and, beneath it, puke), but all other vestiges of Mad River have been boarded up like windows in a hurricane, hidden behind so much rugged reclaimed wood that the cavernous two-story space looks like a Portlandia parody. More wood coats the floors, an upgrade from spent wads of Winterfresh and butterscotch schnapps, and a 16-stool bar spouts more than Miller and Coors. Order the house Manhattan (conceived with Woodford Reserve and Carpano Antica) and grab a seat near the dewy newlyweds or the scarf-swaddled Ritz moviegoers or the party of 10 celebrating grandma’s 75th birthday and you’ll realize that you are definitely not in Mad River anymore.
“Mad River ran its course,” says Max Tucker, who owns Craft & Claw, Sansom Street’s Ladder 15 and Bond Street Social in Baltimore with bros-in-arms Mike Mastellone and John Durkin. “We wanted to make a change in Old City, so we decided to go for a restaurant ... in a more mature setting.”
Think of Craft & Claw as an upscaled Chickie’s & Pete’s, where the fries are steak instead of crab (not to mention battered in Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout and served with ancho ketchup and tartar sauce studded with chopped house pickles). The beastly Dungen-ess crab clusters luxuriate in an Asian-ish shellfish broth charged with ginger, chile and scallion. Behind the stove is a veteran of Ninth Street’s Anastasi Sea-food, Nick Fabian, a 28-year-old native New Jerseyan who’s got more talent than most of his self-trained brethren. He got into the seafood biz from the back end, through a college roommate who happened to be working at Anastasi. “I wound up there for eight years on and off,” Fabian says, “doing everything from butchering fish to the counter to the chef.”
Fabian’s comfort around underseas critters showed in tender mussels, their concave navy shells cradling a rich, hoppy broth of shellfish stock — this house brew, made primarily of lobster shells, factors into many of the dishes at Craft & Claw — and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA rife with arame, a sweet, black Japanese kelp. Ask for extra of the fluffy garlic-Parmesan bread to dunk; it’s baked in-house by Andrew Anastasi, who’s worked at Cochon and Le Bec between shifts at the family fish store.
A couple of requisite non-seafood items share the menu, including amazing mozzarella sticks dusted in Old Bay and crusted in some secret, crackly breading. But crabs are the main attraction. You’ll find the crustaceans in mac ’n’ cheese — enough with that already, America — and wasabi aioli-ed tempura, formed into cakes for sliders and blended into bisque as pink as coral and as thick as cement. Smoked paprika oil and fuzzy young fennel tops seemed like smart garnishes for the soup, but the puree swallowed them up. In lieu of unruly but flavor-rich whole crabs, Fabian simmers lump meat in his marinara for a sterilized, oversweet take on South Philly-style crabs and macaroni that would horrify my grandparents.
One of nature’s naturally delicious gifts to man, crabs don’t need all that hullabaloo, and Craft & Claw’s shellmates are best when simply steamed. Fabian imports legs from the three typical cold-water breeds: the aforementioned Dungeness, knotty and dense with a dark-meat quality I love; long, ladylike Alaskan snows; and their regal king cousins with spiny limbs as thick as broom handles. The spicy ginger broth worked well with the Dungeness, while the kings, which fetch about $30 a pound ($20 on “Eat Like a King” Thursdays), needed little more than drawn butter to bring out their innate sweetness.
Excavating the shells takes time, but that’s what the well-stocked beer list is for. And it wasn’t like our talkative, brew-savvy server was trying to rush us out. Early on this Saturday night, only about a quarter of Craft & Claw’s 78-seat dining room was full. Which made the hostess’s query all the more irritating when I arrived: “Would you mind waiting for the rest of your party at the bar?”
I laughed, surveying the dining room. “Seriously?”
She cocked her head like a confused shih tzu. I shook mine and headed for my temporary prison, an impressive run of wood and subway tile and plasmas, to drink a 90 Minute for 10 minutes. It wasn’t the hostess’s fault. Sending pending guests to the bar is probably the company policy, designed, at worst, to bilk a few extra bucks from customers and, at best, to manage table turnover on busy nights. And I’m happy to oblige — on busy nights.
Here’s hoping that policy becomes warranted soon. Tucker and Co. made a mature, respectable move turning a lucrative den of sin and white zin into a smart establishment worth patronizing, and Fabian has the talent to keep things afloat. Support them and their worthy cause, the undoucheing of Old City, one block at a time.
CRAFT & CLAW | 126 Chestnut St., 267-886-9266, craftandclaw.com. Dinner served Mon.-Wed., 5-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 3-10 p.m. Appetizers, $7.50-$15; entrees, $10-$30; desserts, $7.