1321 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 424-2722 Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Thursday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:30 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Most dinner appetizers $2 to $4, entrees $10 to $14. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $21 to $28 per person.
THE PEOPLE WHO RUN this place are more than restaurateurs. They're apparently social scientists as well, cleverly tracking (and profiting by) the changing tastes of the baby-boom generation. A decade ago, when the boomers were still worried about acne and what to wear to the prom, this restaurant was an adolescent's paradise known as G.D. Graffiti's, famous for ear-shattering noise and an amusement park setting in which waiters dressed as gangsters carried menus in black violin cases.
Times change. The boomers-turned-yuppies are worried about variable-rate mortgages and cholesterol now. And Graffiti's, metamorphosing in lock step with its customers, has changed into -- what else? -- a spiffy, mesquite-grilling seafood restaurant with a catchy name: Crab Louie's. It's a very handsome butterfly -- spacious, gently pretty, with a soft, sunny feeling abetted by light colors and lots of flowers. (Unfortunately, despite the generously spaced tables, the noise level on a busy night can be fatiguingly high -- those echoes from Graffiti's just won't be silenced.)
What restaurants say about themselves can generally be dismissed as puffery, but the motto at Crab Louie's -- "honest seafood" -- is an accurate characterization. You won't find unusual or terribly complex dishes here, but you can expect top-notch raw materials across the board and an unusual attention to detail with the ancillary items: appetizers, soups, breads, relishes, desserts. The dishes that succeed -- and they're in the majority -- capitalize on the freshness and quality of the seafood and don't gussy it up much. Those that fail are too bland or else suffer from the too-much-of-a-good- thing syndrome (if a little smokiness or topping or cheese is good, then a lot must be better).
Crab Louie's may have the most beautiful raw bar around, cleverly situated so you have to pass it on your way in. Even more clever is the raw bar's ordering system. You select as much or as little as you want (no raised eyebrows if you ask for a single oyster or a couple of shrimp) and take it back to your table on a silver tray. Meanwhile, it's automatically added to your tab. Offerings include flawless steamed shrimp (more succulent than the hot spiced shrimp on the menu), delicate hard-smoked salmon, silky scallop and salmon ceviches, excellent clams and oysters. The regular menu offers six varieties of baked oysters, skillfully done but piled so high with topping you can scarcely find the oyster underneath. Better to stick with raw or steamed, at half the price.
When we review a seafood restaurant we generally flip a coin over the chowder: The loser has to eat it. That's because most restaurants think chowder is a white-flour gravy flavored with a hint of seafood. But at Crab Louie's the loser was the winner. The seafood chowder was marvelous -- real cream, no thickeners, packed with shrimp, fish, crab meat and vegetables, flavored with bay leaf, herbs, lightly cooked bacon and what tasted like a bit of grated cheese. The clam and crab chowders are on a par, although the latter may be too heavily sherried for some tastes.
In addition to the extensive standard menu, there are daily specials that often include saut,eed shellfish dishes and seafood pastas. Don't pass them by. We've had beautiful shrimp and crab in lemon-cashew butter, and an excellent fettuccine dish with shrimp, bay scallops and crab meat in a simple, fresh-tasting tomato sauce. Delightful. The few fried dishes are flawlessly done, with the sourdough shrimp rivaling tempura for lightness.
What about the old mid-Atlantic standby dishes? Norfolk- style items have the usual virtue (simplicity) and the usual vice (too much butter). Crab imperial and crab cakes come close to being winners, with top-notch crab and a minimum of filler and binder. But they're somehow devoid of zip -- one longs for lemon, mustard, worcestershire sauce, something. A similar pitfall exists with the seafood au gratin, in which beautiful shrimp, scallops and crab are allowed to die of boredom in a flat-tasting sauce, buried under enough melted cheese to make a pizza. A better choice is deviled crab, the good crab meat in this case moistened with a bit of cream, flavored with diced green pepper and brought alive with black pepper.
Grilling thick, fresh slabs of swordfish, tuna, salmon and
bluefish over mesquite is a wonderful
idea, but at Crab
Louie's the grill
seems to run amok
most of the time.
More often than not
we found the grilled
fish sooty and dry, as
though it had been
sitting directly in the flame, and on some occasions the mesquite flavor was unpleasantly overpowering. There are also a couple of fish dishes saut,eed in butter, but -- possibly because they continue to cook on the hot serving skillet -- they've been a bit overdone. By far the best bet in the fish department is the flawlessly executed blackened redfish, its crackly skin permeated with pepper and spices, its flesh firm, moist and flavorful.
There's plenty of attention to detail here and it shows in the accompaniments: lovely steamed vegetables; good, crunchy cole slaw (far better than the insipid salad); impressive kidney bean and corn relishes; and house-baked "breads" that are sweet as desserts but hard to resist nonetheless.
Speaking of dessert, save room. They're made on the premises and are generally very good. Look especially for the commendably fluffy bread pudding; the tart, flavorful key lemon pie; the especially airy angel food cake; the light, nutty carrot cake; and the deep-flavored chocolate cheesecake, dense yet not gummy. But be warned about the fudge-bourbon cake, whose texture may remind you of caulking.
In just a few months, Crab Louie's has proved itself an impressive place, with impressive potential. If they improve their weekend service (another good reason to go early or to go on a weeknight), upgrade the mundane wine list and tame the mesquite grill, this could be a real star among suburban restaurants.