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The Crab Shack Cometh
Get thee down to Canal Street, where a surprise awaits, and it’s got nothing to do with bingo.

Photo by Chris Kessler.

I am taking pictures with my phone. And my friend is art-directing. 

“Move the phone ever so slightly that way,” he says, reaching for my arm, “so you don’t see those old smokestacks up there.” 

Don’t ruin the moment, I want to shout back. 

This view was brought to us by Jimmy Buffett, not Bruce Springsteen. The sun casts a tropical glow over the rows of picnic tables shaded by green umbrellas. And it’s Loud Shirt Day! Who knew there were so many? Straw fedoras? We’ve got some of those, too. There’s even a Rod Stewart look-alike wearing a green wig. 

Milwaukee is in full Midwestern-denial mode with this recent restaurant opening – Twisted Fisherman Crab Shack – brought to Margaritaville life inside an old garage on Canal Street and facing the Menomonee River. 

This is the invention of restaurateur Russ Davis, whose best-known pescatarian operation is Lakefront Brewery Palm Garden’s Friday fish fry. He designed the building’s nautical revival – opening up the north façade of the structure to play up the outdoor restaurant feel of the place. Most of the seating – 220 spots – is on the patio. Between the river and the northernmost patio tables is a beach area reserved for the inevitable stargazing. Davis says he’s “focusing on the three-season crowd.” But when the thermometer starts really inching down, the dining and imbibing will go indoors. Davis’ plans for the site have only partially come to fruition. A special event tent, called the Canal Street Yacht Club, will accommodate a shindig for up to 400 people. (Throwing wedding receptions and other large-scale events is Davis’ bread and butter. His Vecchio Entertainment Group operates Hubbard Park Lodge in Shorewood.) 

This far-more-solid appropriation of a “shack” reminds me of a paprika-sprinkled fish joint that buoyed the then-desolate Menomonee Valley 13 years ago – Crabby Al’s Seafood Shack, a faux shanty with outdoor decks. It was quite the destination for a couple of years, but its crab legs were halted and the shack demolished when the Sixth Street viaduct was rebuilt.

The Twisted Fisherman’s menu is straightforward and aquatic. It relies on daily shipments of fresh catches. The main attraction is crab, varieties including Dungeness, which is not widely available in Milwaukee. Beyond that, there’s fresh fish like salmon and trout; a perch fry; American menu staples of calamari, crab cakes and shrimp cocktail; and a sizable number of carnivorous items, like a beer-sausage sandwich, T-bone steak and baby back ribs. 

As at Barnacle Bud’s, a fish joint on the Kinnickinnic River in Bay View, the setting is the selling point, not the food. But if they put some major honing work into the food, Twisted could raise its sails. When I ordered the Dungeness and snow crab plates ($24.95 and $19.95, respectively), the meat released from the shells was tender and sweet, but really nothing to write home about. The most appealing side was the mild, molassesy baked beans; on the least solid ground was the Spiced Cruzan Rum-glazed carrots, which were shriveled cooked baby carrots. The crab cake’s soft, creamy texture is suited better to its sandwich treatment (in a bun with lettuce and tomato, and spread with chipotle aioli, $11.95) than served two to a plate as an appetizer ($9.95). The fresh Rushing Waters trout fared best, a filet simply pan-seared, relying on its natural oils for moisture and flavor ($18.95).

It’s not until you walk across the driveway to the building’s north side that the restaurant reveals itself – its outdoor setting shielded from the traffic on Canal Street. Davis’ other project here involves an abandoned boat that’s “docked” on dry land next to the shack. Once the restaurateur’s carpenter is finished with it, the boat will be booked for “cruises” – i.e., all-inclusive dinners in a vessel that never gets wet. 

Now, is that the truly twisted part?

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