Clawing for success

Stone crabs are colorful, hard-shelled beasts that come in precious Southwestern hues. The meat, though more fibrous and less delicate than that of other crab species, is sweet and rich.

But there is another vitally important aspect to the stone crab. In theory, vegans can consume this animal flesh without guilt. More importantly, vegans can savor the succulent meat without igniting (again, in theory) the harsh flames of indignation among their cohorts, who are ever attuned to the errant leather sandal strap, the stray lambskin condom, and other violations of orthodoxy.

This is because the stone crab can be partially eaten while the rest of the animal quivers and scurries around, going about its business.

Named for its rock-like oval shell, the stone crab is most prolific in Florida waters, though it is found along America's coast from North Carolina to Texas. Harvesting these crabs is tightly regulated to ensure that they thrive. Rules govern the size of the traps, the length of time they can be in the water, and the methods of trap retrieval.

After the crabs are harvested, their massive crusher claws are twisted off, and the beasts are tossed back into the sea, where they grow a new appendage within two years. The limbs are then graded according to size and weight--medium, large, jumbo, and colossal.

This process seems to fall into line with vegan sensibilities. After all, the reason vegans reject animal products is that their use represents unbridled exploitation and the senseless abuse and destruction of animals in the name of profit, greed, progress, and entertainment.

But here, the animal is neither destroyed nor tortured, just inconvenienced--in the name of profit, greed, progress, and entertainment. The crusher claw, which the crab can jettison of its own volition when threatened (such as when the clumsy accessory gets tangled in octopus tentacles), is used for defensive purposes, and losing it does not impair the crab's ability to feed.

Of course, there is no way to know that the crab doesn't suffer during the amputation process. But there is also no way of knowing for certain that lettuce heads, mercilessly yanked from the earth, don't scream in agony as they're gored, cored, and shredded. Isn't it high time for ethical vegetable treatment?

The new Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab on McKinney Avenue (in the former Fog City Diner location) is a swell place to loosen vegan inhibitions. Truluck's stone crab claws, served chilled with pre-crushed shells, are sweetly succulent, firm, and tasty--probably the best in the city. But if there's anything else you're interested in, fine dining for instance, you'll want to steer clear.

And this is peculiar, because Truluck's sibling in Addison offers reasonably good food and service--or at least it did at one time. Unfortunately, the new location has become a boil on the face of good restaurateuring.

Let's start with service. My first visit was completely devoid of thank yous, you're welcomes, or other pleasantries. Instead, one condescending remark or gesture after another from servers marred the occasion. It was as if customers were an imposition. The wait was inordinate after we were seated at one of the tables near the rear of the restaurant, especially for a dining room so sparsely populated.

When I finally caught the eye of a server as he was delivering salads to a nearby table, he quipped: "Can I just drop this off first?" A strange response, since nothing was asked of him.

When he finally did get around to our table, he delivered no menus. He simply took our wine order and disappeared (we had to obtain menus from another server). Upon his return, he unceremoniously plunked our wineglasses onto the table, reached in front of my companion, and snatched her water glass. "Oh, my mahogany table," he snarled, placing the glass back on its cocktail napkin, already drenched from glass sweat. Were we seated at a precious sitting-room coffee table, or in a public dining room?

The process didn't improve. Menus weren't picked up (we had to slip them to the same server who delivered them), and glasses were slowly refilled. Plus, when I asked our server to repeat a question he asked concerning my entree, he replied "never mind." Huh?

On a second visit, the service wasn't nearly as insulting, but it was equally rickety. Execution was slow and vague, and we were never offered water (must be that mahogany table thing) or bread.

Truluck's food isn't nearly as bad as the service (if it were, the line from the bathrooms would stretch to the valet), but it's still sub-par.

Most of the items on the appetizer platter were served cold. Gulf Coast crab cakes were moist but flavorless. The steak and stone crab quesadillas were speckled with leathery beef (unsurprisingly, the crab was delicious). The spinach-artichoke nachos were the only item served hot. Gooed in gobs of melted cheese, these nachos were hearty and flavorful, especially when dipped in the side of tangy, spicy salsa.

The Caesar salad appeared to be constructed with the toughest portions of the lettuce. It was dry and chewy, and the dressing did little to help.

One of Truluck's signature preparations is its twist on surf and turf, the steak and stone crab combo. Four medium claws (or three jumbo shrimp) can be paired with any steak on the menu. But while the four medium claws were exemplary, they were mated with a wide, thin, 12-ounce rib-eye steak that was far too gristly, though it did have an appealing rich flavor and a layer of sweetness that played well off the crab.

In the sea, Truluck's sloshes around inconsistently once it slips out of those crusher claws. The Caribbean salmon fillet topped with a cool tropical fruit salsa and citrus Chardonnay sauce was soft, mushy, and very nearly raw. The salsa was texturally cumbersome, and the viscous sauce amplified the mushiness of the meat, making it seem more like fish Jell-O. Yet you could perceive hints of the attempted flavor dynamics at work here, and the idea seemed solid. It just suffered from poor execution.

Grilled mahi-mahi proved far better. Basted with lemon-garlic butter sauce, the fresh meat was firm, moist, and resilient. A side of grilled yellow squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and green beans was crisp, succulent, and not overly slimed with oil.

Other sides slipped irretrievably. Steamed broccoli was tough, chewy, and flavorless, while the country wild rice was dry, hard, and clumped together in little spiny wads. Save for being a little on the stiff side, the Parmesan mashed potatoes did better, with a rich, sharp cheese flavor that perked up the mash.

Truluck's underachieves on the easy stuff too. The chicken-walnut B.L.T., with Monterey jack cheese and diced chicken in a creamy dressing between dry, lightly toasted slices of bread, was fairly bland. And despite the billing, there were no walnuts in the dressing--at least none that could easily be discovered. A side of seasoned fries tasted old, mushy, and stale.

Spawned in Houston, Truluck's was launched in Addison last year in the ex-Deep Ellum Cafe space on Belt Line Road. The project is a partnership that includes J. Stuart Sargent (developer of Studebaker's nightclub), restaurant-industry veteran Steve Fields, and Mort Meyerson. An Austin location is set to open within the next few weeks.

After a months-long, tenacious attempt to grab the Fog City Diner location from California-based Real Restaurants (who had just acquired it from its Dallas owners), Fields and Sargent finally acquired Truluck's second Dallas-area location late last spring. It reopened in July with only minor cosmetic changes.

But if these operators hope to thrive on McKinney Avenue, a strip that lately hasn't been nourishing restaurants with any appreciable vigor, they will, at the very least, have to bring this place up to the standards the Addison version displays.

That, or consider converting the place into a vegan rehabilitation center.

Truluck's Steak & Stone Crab.2401McKinney Avenue,(214) 220-2401.Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.;Friday & Saturday11 a.m.-11 p.m.$$$-$$$$


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