Friday, 24 February 2017
CLAW at the Sun & 13 Cantons, Soho
What a versatile little animal the crab is, able to carry the centrepiece of a £100 fruit-de-mer at the poshest joints in town, fill out a Chinatown seafood dish for a few quid, and perform a thousand different feats in-between, buttery white meat in a salad, brown meat to provide an earthy seafood tang to a curry; bisques, broths, parfaits and pasta, there's almost nowhere it can't go. And I'll happily wolf down all of it.
So the idea of a specialist crab restaurant (at least one that doesn't require a 2nd mortage - Beast I'm looking at you) is long overdue, and to this particular crab enthusiast, extremely exciting. CLAW is, like so many of the most dynamic new restaurants, a former streetfood operation, often seen at festivals up and down the country, that have "gone popup" and taken over the dining room at Sun & 13 Cantons vacated by the wonderful Darjeeling Express (soon themselves to go permanent in Kingly Court). This building has been home to some really good stuff over the years, acting as a king of halfway house between a van at a festival and a proper restaurant with rates and regulations and Tripadvisor to worry about. If you can make it here, as Frank Sinatra never said, you can make it anywhere. Or at least figure out if there's a local audience for whatever it is you're doing.
First signs I wasn't quite going to get what I wanted out of Claw came with the arrival of the menu. For a place calling itself "CLAW", with a tagline "It's all about the crab", am I entitled to expect more than just three crab dishes out of 13 items? The website bemoans the fact Britain exports 80% of its crab, and yes it would be great to see a few more of them ending up on tables in this country. But then why serve soft-shelled crab, presumably frozen and flown in from abroad? How does that fit in with this philosophy?
So with no sign on the Soho menu (just one menu between two, perhaps there was a shortage of paper as well as crab) of their "famous" crab burger, or crab sandwich, or crab fries or any of the other dishes on their website gallery, we were forced to start with the cracked claws with "lime butter". Decent fresh crab, cooked accurately but overwhelmed by the pong of garlic and desperately needing a wedge of lemon or lime to cut through the grease, it was at least crab, and looked the part.
Soft-shelled crab was, like they sadly so often are, just a vehicle for batter and cooking oil, having little to no seafood flavour and not particularly fun to eat. We did eat it, because we were hungry and we'd come to a crab restaurant for some crab, dammit, but it was hardly worth the journey. The kimchi was nice though.
Chicken wings, ordered more out of hope than expectation, were sweet and sickly, the kind of thing you'd get anywhere these days with the word "dirty" or "smoke" somewhere in its name. With a heavy heart I noticed the wingtips had been left on.
Crab mac & cheese was the highlight of the dinner, and by highlight I mean the only bit I'd order again. Brown crab meat, I assume, had been used to fill out a good gooey cheese mixture and there was an attractive crust of cheddar on top.
I didn't try the beetroot, because I don't much like beetroot, but my friend noted only that they'd left the hairy stalks on the top and they were "like eating pipe cleaners". Perhaps this, and the wingtips left on the chicken wings could be seen as charming traits of an amateur cook, but to me it just feels like laziness.
The bill came to £50 with no booze, and although we are talking about two (and a half) dishes of proper fresh crab which isn't, and should never be, a budget food, it still seems like a lot for a very uneven dinner, especially with places like Wright Bros just around the corner. And yes, perhaps if they hadn't called themselves CLAW or gone on about famous crab burgers and crab fries on their website I wouldn't have turned up expecting all these things, but that's hardly my fault. "It's all about the crab"? If only.