Normally, I don’t bother to review really disappointing restaurants, but Crawfish Shack Seafood (4337 Buford Hwy, 404-329-1610, crawfishshackseafood.com) is a place I have raved about like few others since it opened in 2008. Anthony Bourdain and the New York Times loved it too. But, in three visits with friends in the last year or so, we have watched it decline to something that by last week made us feel like characters in a cartoon.
The downward slide is unusual only in its extent. In my 30 years of writing about restaurants, I’ve always maintained that any review should be considered a report of a moment in time. A change of owners, chefs, and service staff can quickly reverse a restaurant’s quality. But, trust me, I’ve rarely seen anything like this.
First is the ambiance. This is what we principally noticed on our second visit. The restaurant has become grimy. Don’t drape your ceilings with nets and never clean them. Ditto for the concrete floor, the walls and even the counter where you order. It’s all about grease and constant frying.
Second and foremost is the service. Now, it frequently happens that you can’t get precisely what you want. The owners of this restaurant have been fanatical about serving in-season, high-quality fish and shellfish. The shortage was worse than usual the second visit. But the third was outrageous.
I had decided on a plate of fried crawfish. “We don’t sell a plate of fried crawfish, only boiled.” Whatever. The online menu says otherwise. Anyway, I wasn’t in the mood to tear heads off the tiny creatures, even though the Cajun-spiced boil here has always been spectacular. Then she said I could have the fried crawfish if I ordered the $28 “fried-tastic platter” or a po’ boy. So I said I’ll have the po’ boy. “We’re out of bread.” Then I decided I’d have the soft shell crab plate. “We don’t have any of those either.” Just give me the damn fried shrimp.
It gets weirder. My friend Brian ordered that super-size “fried-tastic platter.” When it came to the table, it was presented as two thrown-together baskets instead of a platter.
There was indeed a huge mound of the allowed fried crawfish. It was supposed to have a soft-shell crab, so he had to substitute an additional piece of fish. About a third of the way into the meal, a server came to the table and deposited a soft-shell crab on the table. “We found one,” he said. It seriously looked like someone had stepped on it.
Brian dug in and instantly reeled. “It’s rancid!” he yelled. I took a forkful and literally spit it out. I seriously do not remember ever tasting anything so bad. Beware of “found” crabs.
The third disappointment: Even the food that was palatable was only moderately tasty. I was surprised how thick the batter on much of it was. Those coveted crawfish were like nuggets of deep fried flour, period. The big deal here has always been that the owner is Vietnamese-American. Asian cultures are famous for knowing how to fry seafood without overwhelming the taste with overly thick batter. On the other hand, Southern fish-camp aficionados might prefer it this way.
Perhaps this was all a fluke, but the restaurant – all community tables – was nearly empty. It has always been packed in the past. Maybe it will improve. Please visit and let me know. I’m not taking on that task.
Cliff Bostock is a longtime dining critic and psychotherapist turned life coach. www.cliffbostock.com.