Claw & Order: Red & Gold Boil Brings Crustacean Elation to the East Village
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
Hang around the city's best raw bars and, like an oyster-swilling conspiracy theorist, you'll start to see a pattern emerge. Chefs in this town have a whole heap of fun with seafood presentations, piling intact sea creatures and intricate marine compositions on top of crushed ice for remarkable tower displays, shells occasionally iridescent, exoskeletons contorted into Museum of Natural History diorama-worthy poses. Good seafood warrants such fanfare. So it was delightfully refreshing and near-comic relief when our server at Red & Gold Boil (30 St. Marks Place, 212-510-7380) handed over a small wooden tray bearing two petite Atlantic deep-sea red crab claws clamped onto a lemon wedge like the shrimp-cocktail-hand scene from Beetlejuice. The crab's mitts join its legs next to a thimble of sweet cocktail sauce that, fine, could use a hit of horseradish. It may not provide the thrills and chills of a grand plateau de mer, but at $7, the modest offering satisfies.
Brothers and longtime seafood wholesalers Larry and Thomas Yu opened this quirky seafood shack on St. Marks Place, where an anthropomorphic cartoon crab gleefully announces its suicidal desire to be consumed from a sign above the storefront, looking like a peripheral character from SpongeBob SquarePants. Red & Gold Boil is the duo's first restaurant, following 20 years spent running the Atlantic Red Crab Company, which manages four crab boats (including the Hannah Boden, of Deadliest Catch fame). It opened at the tail end of August, the color-coded name referencing the two species of deep-sea crab (Atlantic red and Florida gold) that anchor the short menu. The Yus wear many hats, but don't look for them in the kitchen. "There is no chef," according to the manager, who explains that a kitchen team executes the owners' recipes.
Florida stone crabs find their way into a rib-sticking chowder chock-full of potatoes, corn, and carrots and finished with a mound of sweet crab meat. East Village residents clearly took notice: On the chilly nights when I dined, Red & Gold Boil's soups (a thick lobster bisque with an entire intact lobster tail joins the chowder) were in high demand, cauldrons billowing steam and displayed along a ledge in the partially open kitchen. While bulbous, craggy crab-and-conch-stuffed baby bell peppers won't win any beauty contests, their savory fillings shine through crunchy, deep-fried exteriors, while the peppers are rendered sweet and soft from cooking. They're also the best thing to come out of the kitchen's fryers, which mangled an order of waffle fries on one of my excursions, only to crisp up greaseless battered calamari and soft-shell crabs the next.
Seafood boils have a rich history in many coastal towns, with preparations and accompaniments varying according to local preference. Here the mix is Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic, with the starring shellfish of your choice joined by juicy shrimp, clams or mussels, sliced calamari, stubby corncob halves, and skin-on potatoes boiled together in a pot and ladled into plastic bags delivered steaming hot to the table. The mélange of ingredients meld with a boost from your choice of Old Bay, lemon-pepper, or garlic-butter seasonings. Red crab boils start at $35 for two, the larger gold at $45. Maine lobster costs a cool $40. A daily happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. cuts the boil prices in half -- a steal for early birds.
A boil is best judged on quality of catch, and Red & Gold's close ties to its purveyors translates to supremely fresh offerings. Of the two crab options, the goldens yield more meat. Their brininess works best with Maryland's unofficial spice blend -- save the other two seasonings for the red. Whatever you choose, you'll welcome the restaurant's restraint when you crack the shells of your dinner: A light hand with the spices allows the flavor of the seafood to pervade. Purists may opt for a "naked" boil, wherein the shellfish cooks solely in its own juices and is served with drawn butter and hot sauce on the side.
Things tend to get messy quick when you're essentially eating stew from a bag, but the sloppy dining protocol only seems to encourage diners to dig in, abetted by napkins, shell-tackling utensils aplenty, and, yes, plastic bibs and gloves. While the seafood's fresh, the décor feels ripped straight from suburbia, with faux cobblestones creeping up the walls and along the ceiling of the boxy dining room. Stick to the brief selection of beers, which include popular Southeast Asian brews Tiger and Chang (from Singapore and Thailand, respectively) over an even smaller wine stock. Those who come equipped with a sweet tooth must make other after-dinner plans: Desserts do not exist here.
This being St. Marks Place, there's no lack of foot traffic, and as a result Red & Gold Boil's clientele varies wildly. One evening an elderly couple took refuge from the elements, consumed a lobster boil and escaped into the night, to be replaced by two fashionable kids with piercings and sleeve tattoos whom I later spotted taking a postprandial detour to one of the street's many head shops. As for me, when it comes to tools of the trade, I'll take the crab cracker over a tricked-out vaporizer every time.
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