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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
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
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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