When Capt. Crab's opened a couple of years ago, it was a remarkable operation, an excellent if limited seafood restaurant that looked just like a fast-food place and had the low prices to match. In March the disguise came off: Capt. Crab's moved to more spacious quarters nearby, with the usual seafood restaurant decor. And the menu was expanded to include fresh fish, lobster, a few beef dishes and even a couple of seafood pastas.
The new ambiance is very pleasant, with tile floors, nautical bric-a-brac and a blackboard listing the day's fish specials. As might be expected, the prices have gone up somewhat, although they're still far from exorbitant. The food is a mixed bag -- many of the items on the original small menu are as terrific as before, and some of the new offerings are admirable, too. Others seem to range from ordinary to poor.
The Maryland blue crabs remain top-notch, fresh and meaty, available with either the traditional Old Bay seasoning or, better yet, with a peppery garlic flavor. The crab cakes are excellent -- loosely packed, well flavored, free of excess binder and lightly fried so there's no oil penetration. (The only improvement would be if they were made entirely from lump meat.)
One of the best openers here is the conch salad, which, with its tomato-based broth and crunchy cold diced vegetables, resembles a good gazpacho. The bits of conch are fresh-tasting and tender, the flavor is mildly hot, and the whole thing makes for a delightful summer refresher. But avoid the regular salads, made with tired head lettuce and gloppy dressings.
The clam chowder is a model of generosity, served in a big cup that is replete with clam and potato and nicely flavored. But be warned that it's thicker than most gravies. The tomato-based crab soup doesn't have a lot of crab, but it's well flavored and very pleasant.
Judging from the very fresh, beautifully broiled salmon, Capt. Crab's is a good place for fish -- and for wonderful fried oysters, barely cooked and barely enclosed in a very thin, delicate batter.
But the fried clams, although fresh and juicy, are a letdown, with a thick armor of oily, dark brown batter. The fried shrimp are another step down, dry and encased in a similarly heavy batter. Sauteed soft-shell crabs were fresh little beauties, but they were overcooked and swamped in butter.
Side dishes? Don't pass up the parsleyed potatoes, tender little red-skinned gems. (They're better than the seasoned rice, which is overdosed with herbs.) For dessert, aim for the exceptionally good key lime pie, made in-house. It isn't too sweet, it isn't fake green, and it really tastes like lime.