March 23, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Fatty Crab Scuttles Uptown
Chunks of duck with popped rice and Lo Si Fun noodles behind. Photo: Steven Richter
In its cramped little pocket downtown on Hudson Street, steps from the clatter of couturier gentrification on 14th Street, Fatty Crab drew chili freaks and adventurers in ethnic eating with its feverish early press. Believers dedicated to this edible haj, they cooled their jets in line waiting to claim a tiny table. Unwilling to suffer in queues, I finally let myself be dragged along for my own first Fatty Crab thrill.
Earlier than usual one evening, with the line yet to gel, the four of us spotted a group likely to clear out soon and began at the bar with Fatty pork tea sandwiches and cocktails before moving to a kindergarten-size tea table. Memories of waves of layered spice and chili heat had pricked my cravings from time to time, but I never went back. So the rumored cloning of Fat and Crabby on Broadway next to Tom Valenti’s new West Branch at 77th Street seemed to me yet another gift in the great gastronomic greening of my own Upper West Side haunt.
Pretty plastic plates for the pork-and-beef sliders with sambal aioli. Photo: Steven Richter
At first, that entrepreneur for all seasons, Jeffrey Chodorow, who had leased the space and recruited both Valenti and Zak Pelaccio, talked about a Malaysian coffee shop. That would allow the spice-smitten chef room to deviate from a strictly native vibe. In the jerk and hustle of life it felt like we waited forever. The awning was a tease for months if you glanced up on the way to West Branch or Dovetail. And then suddenly there it was, Fatty Crab uptown. Since I was just packing to leave town for Italy, I had to get my first taste fast, even though the place was brand new and Zak himself confessed he was still getting the drift of this new turf. Bare black tables and plastic tableware in wonderful Asian patterns (still melamine, after all) seem to promise a tab you can handle on your unemployment check. The daily specials top out at $25 for a whole branzino with most tempting options in the teens or single digits.
Light shines on the art but not on our plates. See stroller on right. Photo: Steven Richter
The bold black and red painted room with low-watt bulbs and a giant silk screen on one wall – skyscrapers and palms – leaves us in the dark and darker. It’s almost too dark to see the food, the Road Food Warrior’s worst restaurant peeve. But in the spotlights illuminating the art I spy an infant asleep in a buggy parked alongside a table of adults exalting in chili fumes. Our waiter gives us the drill: everything is meant to share and dishes will arrive as they are ready – in no particular order.
“A nice sloppy advantage for the kitchen,” one of our companions observes in a bit of grump.
“You mean there are four sliders in every order?” I ask.
“No, two,” he says. “But we are four,” I object. He shrugs and interrupts when I order the day’s special spicy-and-sour seafood soup.
“You mean everything but soup can be shared?” I feel like I’ve had this stupid sharing debate too many times lately. “Bring four bowls and we’ll share.”
The tureen is heaped with squid, clams, chunks of rouget and gently cooked shrimp in a sensational broth. “That’s hot!” my friends exclaim. And when the 24-hour lamb shoulder stewed with gula jawa sugar and curry leaves arrives, they’re steaming. Even these Indian food fans are complaining, their eyes tearing, guzzling water, ordering extra rice. Well yes, I agree, some of this is very hot, exactly hot enough for me. But I ask the waiter to tell the kitchen “not so hot.” The Fatty sliders – we each get half a miniature spiced pork and beef burger tingling from a paste of spices and smeared with a sambal aioli. Mildly spicy, I would say. And fabulous. We debate ordering seconds when the arrival of short rib rending distracts, kaffir lime and coconut woven with more chili heat. I seem to be the sole surviving happy camper. Even Steven protests the burn.
Rice helps cool the fire of 24-hour lamb shoulder in the clay pot. Photo: Steven Richter
“You’ve already got the buggy brigade,” I observe as the chef suddenly appears from the kitchen.
“Beginning at 5:30 we have buggies and strollers. And kids. It’s not like downtown. I’ve got a big learning curve up here. Like, do I need a children’s menu? Coloring books? It’s going to take time to figure it all out.”
“And what about the chili?” I ask. Can Upper West Side tots take the heat? "Some of us at this table are actually suffering."
“But there are many mildly spicy dishes,” he protests. “The chicken or scallop saté, the first four items in the noodle section.” And yes, the menu has a caveat in red letters: “If you have an aversion to spicy food, please ask your waiter for suggestions before ordering.” Alas, our waiter did not pick up the cue when we requested mercy. “Even the music is hot,” says Steven, as the sound shifts into Little Feet.
Fatty Crab’s namesake arrives with chunks of toasted Pullman bread. Photo: Steven Richter
Now the duck arrives in one huge gleaming mahogany chunk and two smaller cuts. I ask our friend to carve but table knives don’t make a dent. “Bring us a sharp knife from the kitchen,” I implore.
“We’ll take that into the kitchen to cut it for you,” says the waiter.
“We never had that problem downtown,” Pelaccio observes. “Downtown people just rip it apart with their hands or maybe they pick it up and chew off a piece and pass it to the next guy, I guess.” Zak remarks. The bird – steamed, fried, served on top of tamaki rice toasted like popcorn – is marvelous. And everyone feels safe again with Lo Si Fun noodles – slightly gummy little rice noodle nubbins tossed with sausage and shiitake from the less volatile offerings. Still, I’d like more noodles in my noodle dish.
The huge crab comes in a big bowl with fat triangles of toasted Pullman bread, chopped in two, claws easy enough to rip off. It’s a sticky, sweet, peppery mess to eat and, quite frankly, for me, not worth the effort, especially at a market price, $38 tonight, for a few ounces of crab. Beer is what you want with this food – wine can’t compete with those chilis – and beer takes up a page in the menu – Porkslap, Singha, Tiger, Saigon in the can. Rogue Black and Hitachino, Rogue Fatty Crab Sidestepper on draft and reserve beer from Switzerland with the flavor of fresh picked sage and from Italy, Nuova Mattina, a blend of coriander, ginger and chamomile.
That first week the chef had not yet decided what to do about dessert. He sent out a small square of mochi, with a sweet coating of coconut milk and some coconut milk panna cotta studded with fresh and preserved fruits and salty nuts.
I left Zak Palaccio to deal with his conundrum. Downtown fans come eager for the taste of fire. There’s no temptation to compromise. If he starts jiggering the heat here, he risks offending spice warriors. It’s not that we lack pyromaniacs on the Upper West Side, but Fatty Crab needs to turn tables all night, to lure ingénues and please the timid too. Perhaps he'll give in to multiples of chili pepper asterisks peppering the menu so all of us can have it our way.
2176 Broadway between 76th and 77th Streets. 212 496 2722. Open Monday to Friday for lunch from 11:30 to 3:30 and dinner from 5 to midnight. Saturday brunch is from 11 to 4 and dinner from 5 to midnight. Sunday "supper" is served from 1:30 to 10:30.