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Crustacean Destination

[whitespace] Crab Station
Christopher Gardner

It Doesn't Get Any Fresher: At Sunnyvale's Crab Station, patrons select their wriggling entrees-to-be from the restaurant's aquarium tanks.

With its live-seafood menagerie, California Crab Station makes a delicious addition to the South Bay's Chinese culinary scene

By Andrew X. Pham

FROM TAIWANESE STREET foods to Hong Kong congee to mainland-style shabu-shabu to Buddhist teahouses, Silicon Valley is quickly becoming a major Chinese culinary powerhouse. The recent arrival of Sunnyvale's Crab Station adds yet another heavyweight to the valley's roster. The contingent of true Chinese restaurants is now complete with this live-seafood extravaganza.

True to form, the restaurant is all business, very serious, almost clinical. Everything about it is harsh, the lighting brutally bright. Tables are set rather close together. Music is barely audible. The sunflower-yellow walls are almost naked, as if they had been freshly painted, with perhaps one or two framed artworks in the entire place. Of course, the singularly important decoration is located right inside the door. Banks of aquarium tanks wall the front of the establishment, teeming with sea life: Alaskan king crabs entangling themselves, fat rock cod sulking by the dozen, bamboo clams wiggling in tight ranks like saplings, oysters peeping out from shells. The delicious possibilities are almost countless. It's a good thing the prices are reasonable.

Naturally, there is form to follow when picking a meal from the tanks. The process goes something like this: A dining party gets an eyeful of the live daily specials while enduring a wait in the foyer, where the bill of fare lists seafood prices by the pound. Once patrons have been seated and are perusing the menu, the "head of table" returns to the tank and picks out the "guests" who will grace the table. A bow-tied waiter nets the indicated choices, weighs them and discreetly informs the head of table, who by now has rejoined his party. With a magnanimous gesture, he sends the waiter to the kitchen with execution orders. Within minutes, what was swimming in the tank arrives at the table exquisitely dressed and steaming on a platter.

The cooking is highly skilled, but staff coordination is still in its infancy. With the exception of our single appetizer, dishes arrived sporadically, the last coming when the first had gone cold. One entree was completely forgotten, lost somewhere in the hallway. When it finally made a curtain call after rigorous prompting, it was delivered without apologies.

The chef deemed it suitable to open our feast with soup--a seafood and mushroom special ($7.95, serves four) of silk-bodied broth, as transparent as white alabaster. Morsels of scallops, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, soft tofu, shrimp and seabass filled out the stock. We added a tiny dash of white pepper and enjoyed every spoonful.

A major triumph on the menu is a quartet of baby geoduck ($12), carved paper-thin and presented on the half shell. When properly steamed, these marvels have a texture that surpasses the best abalone. Redolently doused with minced garlic, they were sheer delicacies.

A true connoisseur might appreciate the fact that this restaurant stocks, whenever it's possible, both Pacific and Maine lobsters. We opted for the smaller and less pricey Maine variety ($17), superlatively robed in ginger-scallion magic. As expected, the nattily cleaved crustacean, unshelled, is boldly sauced, ginger coins and scallion scarves merely playing soft counterpoints. The pliant meat, once culled from its armor, has no rival for natural sea-sweetness. Another of our favorites was the Macao-style curry crab ($20), dressed in unusually intense flavors for this meat--a welcome touch.

In all its seafood dishes, the kitchen never overcooks. Chefs neither shell the crab and lobsters nor debone whole fish, making the process of eating somewhat challenging for novices. As for squid, it is hard to find better treatment anywhere: a plateful of calamari steaks, carved and panned in a light cognac with caramelized onion, celery and hot peppers--simple, fresh, delectable ($8.95).

For good measure, we beckoned for country-style chicken fried rice, flavored with salty anchovies, and a plate of mustard greens ($7) lightly sautéed in garlic. At $5.75, the fried rice order is a gigantic wok-full, deliciously salty and peppery. The greens are fresh, crunchy and not one second overdone.

Deft sensibilities and wok mastery are certain to make Crab Station one of our favorite destinations for live seafood.

California Crab Station

Cuisine: Canton-Macao
Ambiance: Moderately classy, serious and unmercifully bright
Menu: $5-$10, live seafood specialties $12-$20
Hours: Lunch 11am-2:30pm, dinner 5-11pm daily
Address: 855 E. Homestead Road, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/738-8113

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From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro.

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