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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Shellfish pride
Claw your way to Mad City Crab House
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If you love crab, and you don't have a lot of money, the Mad City Crab House is the place for you.

Opened this summer on upper State Street, the Crab House offers the coveted, side-stepping crustacean in any number of forms - in crab cakes, in fondue, in quesadillas and ravioli, in bruschetta and salads. You can get crab legs or crab claws, or go for broke and get a whole crab. There are Florida stone crabs and West Coast Dungeness crabs, Alaskan King crabs and snow crabs, but, strangely, no representatives of the species I grew up with - the beautiful Chesapeake Atlantic blue.

Four of us made a recent visit to the Crab House and admired the bold colors around us and the big fish hanging over the bar, while listening to Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett and Roger Miller. And we soon found that, yes, the thing to order here is crab. Go anywhere beyond crab and you enter hit-or-miss territory. But do trust the crab.

We started off with beers, after considering and declining the cocktails on the menu, which include Banana in Your Pants and - an evening 2-for-1 special - the Mad City Hurricane, made with Southern Comfort and orange-cranberry juice. Hmmm. Beers on tap include Spotted Cow, Blue Moon and Guinness, all good choices.

The appetizer menu features 11 items, six involving crab. Crab House bruschetta combines chilled Dungeness morsels with diced tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, served on what could have been a crisper toast round. A pan-seared crab cake is a winner, bursting with fresh crab flavor, golden outside and creamy inside, topped with a sun dried tomato sauce that compliments the crab without overwhelming it. These great crab cakes are also available as an entrée.

My oysters on the half shell, on the other hand, were mediocre, smaller than most and lacking that great salty sea flavor. (For good raw oysters, go to Captain Bill's, in Middleton.) Instead of an entrée, I ordered a plate of calamari from the starter menu, and these were somewhat less than ordinary - small, overcooked yet greasy, served with a nondescript cocktail sauce. As I say, stick to the crab.

Among entrees, Crab Cake Oscar was a definite hit, those same pan-seared cakes topped with a rich Hollandaise sauce loaded with King Crab bits. Another companion had the same cakes, but blackened and enlivened with a peppery spice. Both are served with grilled asparagus. And then, the whole Alaskan King Crab legs were just as one would expect - big, meaty, and tender.

Other entrees include crab-stuffed ravioli, red snapper and fish and chips.

A welcome feature of the menu is the side dishes that may be added to any plate, each costing only $1.95. Among these, the Caesar was very good, nicely chilled romaine with coddled eggs and grated parmesan, in a piquant vinaigrette topped with crispy croutons. The sweet potato fries, crinkle cut, were nicely fried and pleasantly sweet. And my clam chowder was suitably creamy, studded with tender clam bits and delivering a nice, flowery essence. The garlic mashed potatoes had an agreeable flavor, but were dryer than they should be.

There are only two desserts on the menu - key lime pie and a brownie with ice cream. We ordered two pieces of key lime pie, but were told there was only one piece left. Commented one companion, "It's only six o'clock. If they have only two desserts on the menu, you'd think they'd have more than one piece of one of them." The pie, nevertheless, was fine - creamy and sweet, albeit lacking the intense lime flavor of a real key lime pie.

One of the surprises of the Mad City Crab House is that it has a real bar shuffleboard, something I haven't seen in a bar for many years. As I used to spend more time than recommended perfecting this indoor sport, I was pleased to find that I had not lost the deft touch of my youth. My companions were impressed.

I wish the Mad City Crab House the best of success, as it continues to satisfy the crab lust of displaced East and West coasters, and all who have learned to appreciate the delicate white meat of these most beautiful sea creatures. If crab is your thing, the Mad City Crab House is definitely the place to go. I can also see it as a fun place to meet friends and hang out after work. Nothing can clinch a friendship better than a couple of stone crab claws and a glass of Goose Island Honkers Ale.

Mad City Crab House, 122 State St., 310-6933, www.madcitycrabhouse.com, 11 am-11 pm Mon.-Sat. Wheelchair accessible. No reservations. Starters $7-9, entrees $10-22. Sides $2. Major credit cards. No checks.

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