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Sit Back and Make a Delicious Mess at Seafood Shake in Cleveland Heights

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It doesn't take an investigative journalist to blow the lid off the recent trend in seafood-in-a-bag restaurants. In the past two years, Cleveland has welcomed three spots devoted to the concept: Boiling Seafood Crawfish, Boiler 65 and Seafood Shake. But we hardly are alone in that arena. Boiling Seafood, which launched just two years ago on Lee Road, already has opened a second location in Columbus. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In the past few months alone, diners welcomed places like The Boiling in Indianapolis, Storming Crab in Clarksville, Tennessee, Rockin' Crawfish in Duluth, Georgia, and Mad Seafood Boiler in Madison, Wisconsin. Those shiny new spots joined more established brands like the Boiling Crab and Hot N Juicy Crawfish, which combine to operate some 20 different locations across the nation.

I offer the above merely to support my argument that these places, regardless of how foreign they might seem, are wildly enjoyable ... when done right. The interesting thing about these restaurants is the uniformity from place to place. They are nearly identical with respect to formula and menu. The only variables are price, service, setting and quality of seafood.

Of the three that currently exist in Cleveland, the award for best setting has to go to Seafood Shake, which opened three months ago on Coventry Road. In my eyes, "best setting" doesn't mean most extravagant, but rather most suitable for the concept. Owner Hangchun Zheng spared little expense when transforming the old rambling Winking Lizard space into a kitschy, colorful, casual fish shack that seems custom built for the purpose at hand. And that purpose is tearing into saucy, spicy seafood with your bare hands.

For all its appeal, this is anything but graceful dining. That's why I love the cloistered booths and cozy nooks formed by tall bench backs and low-slung faux awnings. Messes are easily disappeared thanks to shellacked tables, vinyl cushions and glossy concrete floors. Each and every table gets its own securely mounted paper towel dispenser, a seemingly trivial detail only to those who have never been elbow-deep in a bag of soppy seafood. Tables are topped with lengths of crisp white paper and bibs; gloves and wet-naps are made available to all who want them.

Our server could not have done a better job walking us through the unfamiliar (to most) process. For the main event, diners select the seafood of their choice, either individually by the pound or as part of a combination. Sauce choices come next, followed by heat levels. When we asked the staffer to describe the differences between the Shake sauce and Ma La, she explained them as best she could. Better still, when she dropped off our drinks, she also delivered samples of each without so much as a request on our part.

Another detail that sets this unfortunately named restaurant apart from its kin is the wall of fish tanks that contain, at least during our visit, living specimens of Maine lobster, king crab, Dungeness crab and even shrimp. It was precisely those tanks that induced me, for the first time, to go the route of live lobster instead of my usual: a seafood combo. Sold by the pound ($27 per lb.), the lobsters range in size from 1-pound chicks to 3-pound beasts. Servers ask for your size preference and report back with the actual weight before cooking, another nice touch.

In addition to the live seafood, other options sold by the pound include lobster tails, snow crab legs, crawfish, clams and mussels. Most diners go the route of the combos, which range in price from $23 on up to $150. The Beginner ($23) is a bounty of head-on shrimp, mussels, crawfish, clams, corn and potato. The seafood was fresh, plump and flavorful. The whole lobster ($40) arrived spilt and cracked in all the right places, making it easy to eat. That Ma La sauce was flavorful and aggressively spiced, not unlike what you would find on a plate of Szechuan hot pot. Other sauce options include garlic, Cajun and lemon-pepper. Everything but the Ma La can be ordered mild to incendiary.

Starters like raw and fried oysters, fried shrimp and crispy calamari are probably better suited as meal replacements for diners who don't want to bother with the mess than as appetizers, given the size of most entrees. Order the New England clam chowder ($5.50), a creamy bisque with clams, potatoes and real fish stock flavor, but skip the crawfish etouffee ($7), which had an odd gloss and texture from the thickener.

Seafood Shake — a reference to the spice-application method and not seafood smoothies — has a decent draft and bottled beer list, a surprisingly well-made cocktail selection, and even good quality white wines by the glass, including prosecco and an off-dry riesling, both of which pair nicely with spicy seafood.

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