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Shell Game 

As our critic finally consummates her love affair with softshell crab, SHELL SHUCKED delivers its gentle riff on seafood fare.

Something clicked between softshell crab and me this season. We never had a rocky relationship exactly, but it was weak, built upon layers of doubt and guilt. I ate softshells to be professional and to be cool, but I questioned the integrity of tearing a crab from its native environment at its most vulnerable, at the precise moment when its entire existence balances on the thin hope of becoming strong again. It seemed to be the ultimate case of kicking a friend -- the lovely blue crab -- when he's down, and mulling this over with each bite sullied the usually majestic view from the top of the food chain.

Someone who can accept the dubious ethics of foie gras production and veal consumption, not to mention pluots and seedless watermelon, will eventually get over her softshell crab hang-ups, too. And get over them I did this season, thanks in part to some robust, pan-fried specimens at Dick & Jenny's and Lulu's in the Garden, the former paired with a tropical coconut-mango sauce and the latter set over creamed spring vegetables. These days the order glides off my tongue -- softshell. It's so easy on the ear, such a pretty almost-alliteration, a fated conjunction. It begs to be rolled around in the mouth, the word and the crab.

Which is how I came to order the faultless fried softshell crab at Shell Shucked, twice, first stuck between buttered halves of toasted po-boy bread and then adrift in a bowl of seafood and okra gumbo. In both cases, a darkly tanned sesame seed batter reinforced the crab's paper-thin armor. Browned during frying, the seeds added a broad, nutty dimension to both preparations. In peak season at the time, the sandwich softshells were so meaty that pearls of crabmeat popped out from between the bread with each bite. While the gumbo presentation was as awkward as it sounds, the crab ballooned with the gumbo broth so that eating its various appendages was something like bursting into Chinese soup dumplings.

These two dishes -- one a fine model of a local standard, the other an unfamiliar arrangement of familiar ingredients, both thoughtfully executed -- encapsulate Shell Shucked's motives and strengths. This is a seat-yourself, regional seafood restaurant whose menu doesn't contain a single exotic word but whose kitchen is nonetheless full of small surprises. Louisianians long ago conquered the mundanity of boiled shrimp by tossing bay, pepper, clove and lemon into the pot. Shell Shucked's kitchen augments the smart tradition by sprinkling additional seasoning refreshed with celery seed over the hot shrimp and by serving them with a punchy cocktail sauce.

Proprietor Kelly Hotard, who also owns the nearby Basil Leaf restaurant with her husband, is a New Orleans native and says she designed the menu according to "whatever I would have had for dinner tonight."

One of her most successful would-be dinners is an herb-charged crabmeat salad set with sliced avocado upon a simple mound of greens. In another, buttery garlic sauce laps at a payload of crab claws. The personal touch and forethought is palpable in both dishes. All salads are treated to a crisp, herb-embedded tortilla bowl that challenges all the stale tortilla bowls around town; rather than rifling the crab claws with minced garlic, a frequent amateur move, cooks saute them with the subdued savor of roasted garlic.

At six solid months in business, Shell Shucked isn't as busy as it should be given its active Carrollton neighborhood. Why? I have had some stinky mussels here, and the snarl of too much Worcestershire overwhelmed one barbecue shrimp lunch special. I also find the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette too caustic for lettuce, and the desserts are only factory-fresh. I suspect, though, that some diners just can't reconcile the lofty entree prices and the casual atmosphere in spite of the generally high food quality -- when you're paying $18.95 for a bowl of gumbo, you expect to choose your wine by the vintner and the year, not by the varietal. (Note that you can fill up on most of the menu for less than $15; po-boys and hearty appetizers cost a fraction of that.)

The look of the place, though sweet, also intimates a bargain. Underwater murals engulf the dining room in colors that would inspire an 8-year-old to remodel his bedroom. Now hung with blue holiday lights, the low ceiling creates a heavy, basement-like feel; you can understand why the owners of Lebanon Cafe moved from here into the bright space next door. None of which counterbalances the promise of Shell Shucked's seafood. Firm, tart fried green tomatoes trill beneath a unique, vaguely Asian-tasting, crawfish and mushroom cream sauce. Orange and gooey crawfish bread satisfies a junk-food craving better than cheese fries, with the added bonus of those sweet, fleshy tails. Fine-dining seafood destinations such as GW Fins and RioMar, and sushi bars galore, have stretched in recent years to show the dining public what other cultures do right with seafood. Shell Shucked proves that there's also a niche in this town for casual, localized riffing.

click to enlarge The softshell crab po-boy is one of two delightful - softshell offerings at the 6-month-old SHELL SHUCKED - in the Carrollton neighborhood. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The softshell crab po-boy is one of two delightful softshell offerings at the 6-month-old SHELL SHUCKED in the Carrollton neighborhood.
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