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Big Catch for Seafood Lovers

This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.

Until now Princeton lacked a raw bar. (For all the

non-seafood eating folks from Kansas, a raw bar is not a topless bar,

it’s where you can buy uncooked mussels, clams, and — most important

— oysters on the half shell.)

If you are from oyster country (Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for instance)

you can down a dozen or two dozen of the slippery delicacies at a

clip. But until now, your choices were to dine at a fancy restaurant

and order oysters on the half shell as an appetizer. Or go to a seafood

market, wait for the oysters to be shucked, pay only a little less

than restaurant prices, take them home in a little plastic bucket,

and eat them at the kitchen table. Or risk stabbing yourself in the

palm and shuck them yourself.

Oyster lovers — prepare your gullets, because by the end of the

summer Princeton will boast not one but three raw bars. This spring

Jack Morrison, owner of Nassau Street Seafood, is opening a retail

eatery next door, the Blue Point Grill, at Nassau and Pine.

This summer a Houston-based firm will open an 8,400-foot "Joe’s

Crab Shack" on Route 1 just south of Quakerbridge Mall. Commuters

may have already noted the "Eat at Joe’s" sign, which has

been up for months.

And this fall, a Detroit-based restaurant chain is fitting out a "Big

Fish Seafood Bistro" in 7,500 square feet at MarketFair, across

from Restoration Hardware.

The Blue Point Grill aims to draw on Nassau Street Seafood’s loyal

customer base and be open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday. It can

seat 24 people inside the former pizzeria and another two dozen can

dine outside in tables along the four storefronts across from Wild

Oats grocery. It will be a BYOB but the store can sell LaFollette

wines and two liquor stores are a few steps away. Diners will be able

to use the Nassau Street Seafood parking lot.

Though the chef (Daniel Dunham) is a Culinary Institute of America

graduate, this will be an unpretentious neighborhood spot, decorated

with an antique sailfish trophy and a ship’s figurehead. Entrees from

$14 to $19 will range from fish and chips to New York strip steak

but will emphasize good grilled fish, a raw bar with daily oyster

specials, chowders, pasta, and homey vegetables such as stewed tomatoes

and corn on the cob.

Steve Murray, the manager, was a business administration

major at Rider who started working for Nassau Street Seafood when

he graduated in 1991. To ease the transition from fishmonger to restaurant

manager he sought advice from chefs who are clients of the fish store:

Brian Brodowski of Acacia on Route 206 in Lawrenceville and Bobby

Trigg of the Ferry House on Witherspoon Street. "Bobby Trigg has

been instrumental in helping us get this thing set up," says Murray.

"He allowed me to work there for a week, as training."

"We want a nice at-home relaxed feeling," says Murray. "A

good chunk of our menu will be based on good fish, dipped in a little

bit of marinade, and thrown right on the grill. It will be an enjoyable,

lively place to be."

The Big Fish Seafood Bistro at MarketFair will be the 19th restaurant

for the Detroit-based C.A. Muer Corp., and its first in New Jersey.

The company’s story has a certain poignancy: It was founded by Charlie

Muer, grandson of a restaurateur and an avid racing sailor. His 42-foot

Freedom, the "Charley Crab," had a giant crab logo on her

sail. But Muer, his wife, Betty, and another couple were lost at sea

off the coast of Florida in the "storm of the century" six

years ago. The Muer’s youngest child was 19 then, and the company

was sold to Chase Capital Partners.

The firm continues to expand while harkening back to Muer’s "quality

and value" emphasis. According to Ronald J. Hoffman, the public

relations representative, Muer sourced his fish purchases from a high

school buddy who left Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to set up a wholesaling

company in Boston. "During the course of the year we purchase

60 or more species of fresh fish for a total of 500,000 pounds,"

says Hoffman. "Every one of the fish we buy is `top of the catch,’

which means that all of the fish we serve was caught on the last day

the boat was out to sea."

In Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania, the restaurants are

known, variously, as Charley’s Crab, Chuck Muer’s, Chuck Muer’s Merriwether,

Chuck & Harold’s Cafe, Pals, River Crab, and Big Fish Too. In a converted

railway station in Pittsburgh and also in Ann Arbor, it has establishments

named Gandy Dancer. Engine House # 5 is in a former fire station in

Columbus, Ohio. Some are upscale and some fall into the "either

way" category of "casual elegant" as does Big Fish.

MarketFair’s Big Fish will be similar to its bistros in Conshohocken

and Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, with an exotic and dramatic decor

— undersea murals, glass mosaic tiles, porthole wall cut-outs,

wrought iron fish sculptures, and fish-art upholstered chairs. Seafood

entrees at "mid-range" prices (probably $13 to $14 average)

will include Jambalaya, Maryland crab cakes, cedar planked salmon,

and braised lamb shanks, plus salads, sandwiches — and the raw

bar.

Joe’s Crab Shack offers families with children an outdoor patio with

play equipment, even if the view does look out on the busy highway,

not a waterfront. The landowner, John Simone, of John Simone Realty

in Ewing, bought the 8,400 square foot building from former Ground

Round proprietor Bill Meyers and has rented the 230-chair restaurant

to Houston-based Landry’s Development on a 20-year-lease.

"They completely gutted it and renovated it," says Simone.

The place is all fixed up, ready to go, occupancy permits signed,

waiting for the "opening team" to move in and put up the "For

Hire" signs. "The parent company is opening eight other restaurants

around the country," says Simone, "and they just haven’t gotten

here yet."

Landry’s Seafood Restaurants, which trades as LDRY on

Nasdaq, has 147 company-owned restaurants in 27 states, including

76 crab shacks plus other places named Landry’s (in expansive Gulf

coast-style), The Crab House (with an East Coast nautical motif),

and the upscale Willie G’s. A Joe’s Crab Shack is deliberately tacky

looking, like an old fish camp, with newspaper-covered tables and

hardshell crab mallets, plus memorial walls to John Wayne and Elvis.

Diners can chow down on seafood platters under $10 plus mesquite grilled

dinners from $9 to $15 and a crab feast at market prices.

It won’t be a quiet place: "You may have to dodge a conga line

or move aside as the wait-staff jumps up on chairs to lead patrons

in the Macarena," promises a press release. "Welcome to relaxation,

Joe’s style." Of the three restaurants, this is the only one with

a liquor license.

To net such a good national tenant was very good news for Simone,

and the transformation of a "red meat place" (the Ground Round)

to a "fish place" is good news for seafood eaters. But Joe’s

Crab Shack is not the first area crab place, nor is the Big Fish Seafood

Bistro the first marine-based restaurant for MarketFair.

Lobster lovers will remember that Henry Gross, the clothing retailer,

built an elaborate lobster tank at MarketFair and called it the Lobster

Pound. It closed in 1990. Crab lovers will recall the Hardshell Cafe,

which failed to make a go of it, closing in 1998 at Trenton’s Roebling

Center, perhaps a victim of the location. Now the Rusty Scupper, in

town for 25 years, and the Red Lobster are Princeton’s seafood places.

Does Princeton have enough oyster eaters to keep shuckers busy in

three raw bars? Or will the trend to heart-healthy fish eating be

sufficient to support all three new restaurants? If they can adapt

to local tastes, the answer is probably yes. For instance, landlord

Simone won’t patronize the raw bar, but will opt for seafood Trenton-style:

"Any kind of fish over linguini," says Simone, "I will

eat any kind of seafood as long as there is pasta under it."

— Barbara Fox


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