The Barking Crab
Newport’s newest seafood outpost, The Barking Crab, pays (pricey) homage to the beloved New England clam shack.
Photography by Angel Tucker
The Barking Crab
151 Swinburne Row, Newport, 846-2722, barkingcrab.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Validated parking. Cuisine New England in a pot with a few noteworthy additions. Capacity About 150 indoors and 125 outdoors. Vibe Upscale clam shack with a liquor license and live music. Price Appetizers $7–$16, entrees $11–$127 (or whatever the market allows). Karen’s picks Calamari, lobster of any kind, mixed crab bowl, grilled swordfish. Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Dinner’s most dreaded question: Do you want to know the market price? Think hard. Do you? Do you really want a variable of ten getting in the way of your seafood fetish? Are you the type of person who wants to know the calories in your drawn butter, too? With knowledge comes anxiety. Sigh. Oh, alright, bill counters: Think of a shamelessly high number and then smile proudly as your baked stuffed lobster comes in short of a hundred dollars. It’s a steal at seventy-five! Particularly when served in an environment that’s nothing fancier than a good old-fashioned clambake. Culinary complexity and financial sacrifice often walk hand-in-hand, but The Barking Crab does its laid-back darndest to prove the simplest things in life are worth the most. Surprisingly, I left convinced that my capital was going toward a greater good: Who can put a price tag on the joy of lobster juice dripping down your chin?
The restaurant, fourteen years old in Boston and new to Newport, is a garage-style space, complete with retractable door and picnic tables out back. Front and center is the forty-person bar, filled with baseball caps, windbreakers and the occasional anomalous cocktail dress. They didn’t get a full summer season this year, but it’s safe to assume that by the time Memorial Day rolls around they’ll be full to capacity and then some. However, the ample size of the place—it holds nearly 300 between the bar, booths and patio—suggests there will be seats to spare in the colder months. Score one for residents who put up with a rowdy crowd for four long months.
While classic rock dominates along with a backdrop of the game du jour on two large screens, the scene is so pervasively Jimmy Buffett that one companion began to chronologically regress right in front of me. Tap open, football on, and loop of seventies anthems playing will, apparently, create the kind of nostalgia that evokes sentiments like “back in the day,” “that year I rented a house on the Cape” and “twenty-one trumps all.”
Such a truism of youth has an appropriately rustic decor. The palate is dark green and rusted red—note the skiff suspended from wooden beams—suffusing diners with a relaxed, beachfront outlook. Photos of a bare-chested Ernest Hemingway and his dangling swordfish foe preside over tables that display large rocks ready to smash obstinate shells of any variety. “Crackers, too? Yes, we have them….” (Wuss.)
Familiar favorites are all products of New England by the sea: Mussels, steamers and littlenecks are outdone only by Rhode Island classics. Stuffies head the menu, but it’s the pepperoncini-topped calamari ($9) that makes a mark. Often, a dish so ubiquitous can’t help but disappoint; there are simply too many competitors to allow one to stand out. Not so here. The coating is more dominant than the squid, but it’s a crunchy and compelling version that asks for no more than a squeeze of lemon and a beer. Clam chowder ($7) is creamy and potato-heavy, yet its smoky flavor is intriguing, a riff on old-fashioned bean and bacon soup with shellfish instead of legumes.
Behind the veil of informality, however, sits a rather luxurious foundation. It’s the land of lobster and crab, of jumbo shrimp and, of course, the entree that hovers around $80. It may be December, but summer springs eternal on this hedonistic menu. Appetizers include three diminutive crab cakes ($13) served alongside jicama and a cilantro sauce that is both unexpectedly subtle and sweet. Or you could opt for the $21 Cobb salad filled with lobster meat and dressed in a delicate Champagne vinaigrette.
The Newport menu differs slightly from its progenitor in that it offers several more detailed and, debatably, more sophisticated dishes. They’re also worth mentioning for anyone who opts not to go ballistic on an unsuspecting, albeit deceased, crustacean. Wild salmon ($27) is lacquered in a teriyaki glaze and served with coconut rice topped with daikon radish and snow peas. An even more mature option is herb-grilled swordfish ($22), which goes far beyond simple grilling but still manages restraint. The dense fish is tempered by a homestyle creamed corn with lobster and capped with a mixture of caramelized onion and briny olives. It’s an enduring culinary enigma why more chefs don’t challenge the milder varieties of fish given that they take so easily to bold accessories.
But the real draw here is shellfish: plain, simple and plentiful bordering on obscene. Lonely lobsters (as they are coined) come only with the shells on their backs and the scent of the sea. They cost upwards of $100 on most days though that’s for the mammoth three and five pounders. Sweeter and more tender two-pound lobsters usually run about $50. Note: As an added bonus, they’ll endlessly refill soft drinks saving you, uh, one percent of your total bill.
At this time of year though, it’s seasonally impossible to pass up the baked variety given that all the work is done for you and the dish tastes like Thanksgiving in a shell. (Clearly the Puritans’ original plan if only they weren’t repulsed by lobster.) The claws remain intact, but the rest of the one-and-a-half-pound crustacean is splayed and stuffed with thick wedges of bread, white wine, a hefty dose of sage and the meat of your spiny friend. One could argue that it’s even better than the standard boiling but this, of course, depends on mood. Some like to be transported from the beach to the hearth and others consider it sacrilege to take a fish out of water.
For the purists, the only thing more ritualistic than the New England clambake (with chowder, corn and a crunchy but slightly dull slaw) is the Barking bowl of crab, which sounds fairly innocuous, with its side of butter and bib. Such a meal is a pleasant enough task for diners who seek out laborious foods like artichokes and pomegranates. (Hands up, masochists.)
Yet the fourteen-inch salad bowl filled with forearm-length legs of Alaskan King crab and the split, cleaned bodies of Jonah, Dungeness, Blue and Snow crabs is a sight to behold; the holy grail of boiled shellfish. The sweetness of meat and subtly distinct flavors are a privilege to discern.
Rocks come in very handy right around this time as the $80 inventory is smashed to bits and its hidden treasure dives ardently into butter. New Englanders are raised with this kind of religion; visitors soon convert. Tradition is often difficult to live up to, but The Barking Crab delivers a time-honored custom with little more than seasoned water (the simpler the better here) and a philosophy of abundance.
Nature did some things so well that human hands should do as little as possible to alter them.
Once the wet-wipes have been unfolded and the buckets cleared, there are a few rotating desserts ($8) from which to choose. None are surprising, but all are good. Berries are wrapped in Grand Marnier whipped cream and served parfait style. Chocolate mousse is molded into a cake with a base of genoise, a thick layer of white chocolate and a drizzle of raspberry coulis. For those still in the tropical frame of mind, a key lime cheesecake gets Southern charm from a coconut crust. Or you could skip dessert and shift yourself over to the bar where regulars remain on their perches well into the night, making small talk with friends and strangers alike. That is, when they’re not reclaiming summer.
Karen Deutsch is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York.