191120-food-gourmet

Flavor takes precedence over presentation at the Shaking Crab, where the signature seafood boils are served in plastic bags.

I’ve never been one for lobster bibs. “Hah!,” I’ve always said. “Those are for people who don’t know how to handle a lobster.”

Then again, I’ve never been one for splashing food all over the table, the wall and my dinner partner, either.

Never, that is, until we went to the new Shaking Crab, where messy eating is celebrated.

Shaking Crab is a small franchise chain of seafood restaurants. With other locations in trendy spots like downtown Boston, Cambridge, Manhattan and Providence, a nondescript standalone building in Goffstown, N.H., seems an unusual spot for the first location north of Boston. But there it stands, open just a few months. And a more unusual dining experience you’re not likely to find in New Hampshire.

Mrs. Gourmet and I got to the Shaking Crab around 6:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and were seated immediately. The place isn’t large, seating maybe 50, and it wasn’t half full. That’s not a great sign on a Saturday night, but we chalked it up to word not having gotten out yet.

Our waitress greeted us at the door and led us to our table for two near the front windows, stopping en route to rip a piece of craft paper to cover the table from a big roll near the entrance. She admitted that she was fairly new and was just getting the hang of the menu, but she was very helpful, giving us the rundown of the ordering process and answering most of our questions.

Shaking Crab specializes in seafood, spiced up in a variety of sauces and served in the rough. Actually, it’s served in plastic bags that are combination cooking vessels, serving dishes and dinner plates.

As we looked over the menu, we snooped on our neighbors to see what they ordered and how they were tackling it. We watched as their waitress brought a bunch of plastic utensils, a fistful of napkins, and a galvanized bucket that contained their bagged seafood. Our view was blocked, so we couldn’t actually see what they were eating, but I noticed that the male half of the couple — a strapping gentleman — was wearing a lobster bib.

“Hah,” I thought. “Amateur.”

The menu at Shaking Crab features a few appetizers and fried items, ranging from french fries and onion rings to fried oysters and lobster tails. There are also soups and chowders and po’boy sandwiches. Everything has at least a mild Cajun accent. But those are all secondary to the main attractions — the seafood boils, and the sauces that kick them up and make them ridiculously messy.

There’s a process to ordering: You decide what kind of seafood you want — crab, shrimp, lobster, crawfish, or combo. Then you pick one of four sauces — Shaking, Gulf, Seoul or Envie, most labeled “mildly spicy.” Then add more spice, if you want. And finally, choose any add-ins — corn, sausage, potato, quail egg or the “Shake It Up” add-on of a half-pound of shrimp and a side of french fries.

Mrs. G puzzled over the menu for a while before finally asking our waitress what was the most popular item. Snow crab legs and shrimp combo, she was told. (Coincidentally, it was also one of the most expensive at $38). She chose the Gulf sauce and added sausage to the package.

Once she decided on all that, it occurred to us (me, anyway) that we didn’t really need the fried oysters we had thought about starting with. Instead, I ordered a side of gumbo ($6) that we might share. And for my entree, I chose lobster tail, with the “Shake It Up” addition of shrimp and fries ($12).

My gumbo turned out to be a great stew of tomatoes, rice, okra and onions. With a slightly acidic broth and just a touch of heat, it was a perfect choice for a cool fall evening.

As we were enjoying the gumbo, the entrees arrived, along with their supporting apparatus. It was like the servers were setting up an operating room for surgery. First came piles of napkins. Then a small can with picks, forks and a nut cracker. Then two packaged oversized moist wipes. Then the lobster bibs. Then the plastic gloves.

Plastic gloves?

Finally, our two bagged entrees were placed in front of us, directly on the table. With virtually no room left on our little table, the galvanized pail was placed on the floor beside us. “That’s for your shells,” we were told.

As soon as we opened the bags, it was obvious that we were going to need the gloves. Everything was drenched in sauce. I reached in and pulled out my lobster tail, thinking I would attack it in my usual method — squeezing it to crack the underside, then pulling it apart the long way. But as soon as I squeezed it, it squirted out of my hands, flinging sauce everywhere, and almost ending up on the floor.

After I wiped the sauce off the wall beside me, I put on the lobster bib.

The rest of the meal proceeded without further incident, though we needed napkin replenishment twice and probably should have asked for more gloves, since with all the cracking, shelling and peeling, the sauce eventually found its way inside.

And the food? In a word (or three), garlicky, spicy and rich. The sweetness of the seafood — lobster tail, crab legs and shrimp — held its own against the big, bold sauces. The Cajun sauce was a dark red, smoky, with a heat that left lips tingling but didn’t send me searching for something to quench the flames. Mrs. G’s Gulf sauce was lighter, but no less spicy. We were both glad that we stuck with the default “medium” heat level.

My “Shake It Up” addition gave me plenty of shrimp, but Mrs. G’s combo included a ridiculous amount of shrimp in addition to the crab legs. It had to be two full orders — she brought home three big crab legs and 16 — 16! — big shrimp. (And a side note: A couple of nights in the fridge at home only made the spices meld and get even stronger.)

Shaking Crab is unlike any restaurant we’ve experienced in New Hampshire. The food was great, the eating was an adventure, and the service was friendly and polite. Our tab came to $93, but next time, now that we know what to expect, we could shave about $20 off that without missing anything but a doggie bag of great leftovers. And next time, I’ll put the bib on right away.

Or maybe I’ll just wear a raincoat.