Seafood boils are an East Coast tradition, from lobsters and clams in Maine and Rhode Island to blue crabs in Maryland to Cajun-spiced crawfish and shrimp in the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana. New Jersey was essentially not in the game until Steve Lin opened Oceancrat the Boiling Seafood in Mount Laurel in April.
Lin, who grew up in China, moved to North Jersey in 1995 and worked in Japanese and other restaurants until he opened Fuji, a sushi and hibachi place in Summit, in 2001. He later sold Fuji and moved with his wife and daughters to Cherry Hill, where he opened the first of eventually five sushi restaurants.
The seafood boil, he says, “is my favorite food to cook, and it’s how I like to eat. I just want the fresh seafood, not a lot of pasta or rice.”
Lin, 44, says he researched the style online, experimenting with cooking times and sauces, and decorated the 100-seat restaurant with fishing nets and plastic crabs and lobsters. Since Oceancrat’s logo involves a silhouette of a crab, people ask him why the name doesn’t end with a B. His response is to shrug and say he was just looking for a sea-themed name; it didn’t have to mean anything.
Fortunately, Oceancrat delivers meaningful seafood and a fun experience. At the top of the menu, you’ll find, “Step 1 – Create Your Bucket.” Select, by the pound, any of 12 different shellfish you want in your boil (clams, mussels, blue crabs, snowcrab legs, oysters, lobsters and more). Then choose one of five sauces (including Cajun, Old Bay); one of five levels of spiciness; and finish with any of 11 add ons (chunks of corn on the cob, potatoes, sausage and more for the pot, as well as sides such as fried rice or garlic noodles).
RELATED: The Sea Isle Spot Where Crab Is King
The completed boil is rushed to your table in a tied plastic bag inside a metal pan. This keeps the food warm, Lin says. Moreover, when the server opens the bag and rolls it down, waves of aroma gush out. Diners are given bibs (much needed) and plastic gloves; we dispensed with the latter, the better to dig into the food directly.
The quality of the seafood is excellent, and it is carefully cleaned on arrival. Live crawfish are shipped from Louisiana, clams from New England or Maryland, black mussels from Prince Edward Island. Depending on the size of the clams, Lin adjusts the cooking time to catch them just as the shells are opening. The clams we sampled were perfectly al dente, the mussels soft, plump and briny.
Crawfish aficionados know how to suck all the juicy goodness out of these little crustaceans, but for me, it was too much work for too little meat. I much preferred the crab options, like the sweet and juicy snow crab legs (a 1.25-pound order yields about two legs) and the 1-pound, $34 king crab leg, an inch-thick cord of crabmeat so rich and succulent I was ready to trade my love of lobster for this distant cousin. Both types of crab legs come frozen, though Lin said he can sometimes get an entire live king crab. The West Coast Dungeness crabs, Maryland blue crabs and Boston lobsters all arrive fresh.
We chose medium-to-hot spice levels, and were happy with those. Of the sauces, the Oceancrat special—rich and buttery, with finely chopped garlic, ginger and shallots—was the most satisfying. I spooned it up even after the seafood and vegetables were gone.
Oceancrat also offers fried seafood and sides. The tempura batter on the fried calamari was pleasingly light, but though the calamari were fresh, they lacked flavor. Fried, battered catfish was generous and flakey, though the accompanying fries needed more time in the fryer.
Desserts are an afterthought, not made on the premises. Most of the listed choices were not available, so we settled for a lemon cake, moist but not particularly tart, and a mango-raspberry-passionfruit sorbet bomb. Cold and fruity, encased in white chocolate, the bomb made a refreshing finale after being up to our elbows in rich, saucy seafood.
- Cuisine Type:Seafood
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $3.75–$10.50; shellfish, $13–$34 a pound; fried-fish entrées, $12–$13; desserts, $6
- Ambience:Casual, fun, eat-with-your-hands
- Service:Efficient, helpful
- Wine list:BYO