Restaurant Review - The full Monty
Getting stoned on crab claws at Buckhead's Florida outpost
The popularity of stone crab claws dates from the Florida boom of the 1920s. First served by fishmonger Joe Weiss in a pioneer seafood shack in Miami Beach, the delectable claw meat has since attained legendary status. Boiled, cracked and served hot or cold with mustard-spiked mayonnaise, drawn butter, hashed brown potatoes and a set of picks and pliers, the sweet, lobster-like claws are generally ranked with Key lime pie, guava jelly and fresh orange juice as among the Sunshine State's most distinctive treats.
Still operated by the founding family, Weiss' famous restaurant, Joe's Stone Crab, is the oldest eatery in the city, though now a much grander affair. When I was a kid growing up in Miami Beach, my dad sometimes took me there. The Mackle family bonding sessions were only partially successful. Dad would ostentatiously avoid guzzling alcohol, at least in front of me. I'd push the envelope by ordering exotica such as creamed spinach with extra garlic. Nonetheless, I did come away with a lifelong taste for stone crab claws and all the trimmings. I'm far from alone.
The mottled brown-red crabs themselves, which are found in coastal waters from the Carolinas to the Gulf of Mexico, aren't generally eaten. Seasonally available, the fist-size crabs are captured in traps. The larger of two black-tipped claws is snapped off and surviving crabs are returned to the water. This allows an animal to regenerate another claw while feeding and defending itself with the remaining pincer.
Once available primarily at Joe's, at dockside markets in Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island and at a carry-out shop in Miami International Airport's main terminal, stone crab claws are now shipped all over the country. Joe's Stone Crab even operates a branch in Chicago. Numerous imitators have popped up.
One such, Monty's Stone Crab Seafood Restaurant, began as a generic seafood house three decades ago in laid-back Coconut Grove, Miami's Buckhead counterpart. After cloning itself five times in south and central Florida, Monty's opened its first out-of-state unit in a former Bennigan's in the Shops Around Lenox stripmall last February. Since opening — and since my first visit last spring — the executive chef has been replaced and the menu tweaked. Though not unusual in a new operation, this suggests that further changes may yet occur.
My initial impression of the place — plastic palm trees and canvas awnings fighting a stiff, March breeze off the parking lot — was softened by the welcoming expanse of serious bar, the solid steakhouse-with-model-sailboats decor and the reassuring presence of manager Rob Jackson, a veteran of Fritti, Pricci and other top-tier spots.
Jackson and his waiters supply bibs to protect shirts and neckties — prying the meat from the shells can get messy — as well as a short course in crustaceans for neophytes. Monty's claws come from Mexico at this time of year, they explain. To protect breeding crabs from poachers, Florida prohibits harvesting during the summer months. Mexican fisheries evidently labor under no such restrictions. The claws are cooked on the dock, then iced and flown to Atlanta. Cracked just before serving, they are served cold with Joe's-style mustard-mayonnaise and lemon. Drawn butter is an option.
Though the crabs I sampled at Monty's in March were relatively rubbery and unappealing, a set of medium-sized claws served to me last week were fine — the meat sweet, the texture firm but tender. My one reservation concerns a faint but distinct fishiness that clung to my fingers after handling the shells. I've never noticed this when dining at Joe's.
Like most luxury foods, stone crab claws are not cheap. Last week, four medium-sized claws cost $15 as an appetizer. Dinner portions consist of eight medium claws ($29), five large ($39) or four jumbos ($49). Monty's does not currently serve lunch. Colossal claws, seldom available, go for $59 a pair. Prices can fluctuate. Jackson doesn't bother to list them on the menu.
Hashed brown potatoes, the traditional side, are well prepared ($6 per platter) as is the creamed garlic spinach ($4). A first-rate Caesar salad, with or without anchovies, is properly short on dressing, long on satisfaction ($7).
Florida bouillabaisse, a novelty, is neither a classic bouillabaisse nor distinctly Floridian. Still, for those resolute folks who must consume something besides crab claws, the combination of saffron-laced, tomato-based broth, shellfish, squid, shrimp, boneless fish and French bread smeared with garlicky, peppery rouille is hearty and appealing ($27). Chef Chris Watson says he uses mahi, sea bass, snapper, sometimes even salmon — whatever's plentiful that will stand up to the thick, flavorful stock.
Roast conch stew with coconut rum and pineapple butter on angel hair pasta has somewhat the same thick, hearty allure, albeit with spicing that tastes Jamaican rather than Mediterranean ($11 as an appetizer). Seared ahi tuna with tostones, wilted kale and a Cuban dressing, an appetizer special, is also dynamite, albeit significantly salty ($11).
If all of this sounds much too heavy and corporate, don't even think about the baked stuffed shrimp, which are weighty bombshells without much punch ($25). Key lime pie is a caloric yawner as well ($5). Though the graham cracker crust and whipped cream are decent enough, the custard is less astringently tart than it should be, a sort of dinner-house version of the dreaded Edwards supermarket pies.
On the whole, I'd rather spend my cholesterol ration on another couple of claws.
Contact Elliott Mackle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-614-2514??