The Aventine, 8990 University Center Lane, La Jolla
Truluck’s is a Florida-based surf-and-turf house specializing in crabs — above all, Florida stone crabs, but also Maine Jonahs, Pacific Dungeness, never-frozen (they claim) Alaskan King, and even a bit of Maine Peekytoe and blue crab of unspecified geographic origin. Filling out the menu are other shellfish and fin-fish from all over, all non-endangered, along with naturally raised Niman Ranch meats and chicken. Truluck’s boldly moved where no restaurant has gone and survived — the Aventine’s notorious “corner of doom,” at the opposite end of this four-restaurant upscale food-mall from Japengo.
I’m no great fan of chains, but shellfish are a passion, and Truluck’s has been offering a summertime bargain “Date Menu” — appetizer, entrée, and shared dessert for two for $35 a person. I phoned to ask when “summer” would officially end. The hostess didn’t know and couldn’t dig up a manager, but she thought it would run through September. She’d have somebody call me back. No call ever came, but by the time I didn’t hear from them, I was already eating there to get in on the deal: they had some crazy little stone crabs, and I was gonna get me some. “Hey, Sam,” I emailed my most seafood-lovin’ buddy, “Can I give you the crabs?” I wanted to try some à la carte choices, too, so asked him to bring along a date (Sam’s a magnet for smart, lively women, always welcome table-company), and I’d play date-night chaperone.
Truluck’s looks like a transplant from some other place, some other time — specifically, 1947–1967. After passing the more modern-looking live tank of Dungeness on the way in, you slide past a large, dark bar with shiny black floors, piano in the corner, and a large, muted flat-screen TV beamed at the adjoining dining room. Like facing Medusa, you need to blindfold yourself not to look at it, lest its hypnotic powers turn you into a stoned couch potato. Big mirrors and plaster game-fish hang on the walls. At least, I hope they’re plaster. If not, that’s a lot of sawdust-stuffed endangered marlin. I prefer it stuffed Baja-style with sliced limes, pickled red onion, and cilantro.
The spacious dining room is brighter, mixing four-top tables in various arrangements and burgundy pleather booths and more petrified fish and mirrors on high. An eclectic loop of okay taped music was playing softly when we entered but soon gave way to the barroom’s pianist belting out pre-rock vocals loudly enough to drown out conversation, reminiscent of those torturous wedding receptions where hopelessly square parents have hired the band. Given the piscine menu, the entertainer should have updated the inescapable Dean Martin number to “When an eel nips your lip when you’re taking a dip, that’s a moray/ When a fish fangs your face while you’re floating in place...” His country-western version of blues great Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” ended with an appalling little Texas yodel before the final chord. It was a harbinger of the cooking to come.
The bread plate was mixed news: the baguette slices were stale; the brown bread was sweet, soft, and warm; the butter was warm, too, and spreadable.
All “Dating Menu” dishes are drawn from the à la carte choices, so even if this option expires, you can get the same dishes anytime (most food prices are moderate, unless you opt for luxury stuff). It offers several salads and a soup for starters — the latter, an interesting crab-and-corn chowder. It was dense and creamy, and oddly, a little smoky, with potato slices and tiny corn kernels — very likable. In this retro atmosphere, I couldn’t resist trying the “Wedge” salad (iceberg with diced tomatoes, crumbled bacon, a bit of Maytag blue). Its blue-cheese dressing was thin, sweet, not very cheesy. Wished I’d chosen the Caesar instead, or the Sonoma Greens. (But didn’t the menu say “local produce”? Sonoma is 750 miles north, near enough for baby goats and goat cheese, but we’ve got great greens a lot more local all over North County.)
For the à la carte starter, we chose rock-shrimp-and-artichoke beignets (fritters). They did look like darker-colored, overgrown N’Awlins breakfast beignets. Tender and mostly tasty, but uneven from one to the next, some carried a slash of hot spice, others were sweet; a few had excess batter. They came with habanero aioli dip, heavy and spicy enough to overwhelm not just the puffs but an army of hungry Visigoths — not bad when applied discreetly in bloblets. Like most other plates, this also offered net-wrapped lemon halves for squeezing, a useful fallback whenever the kitchen’s more elaborate concoctions failed.
While we pondered what to order, our server (a charming Aussie named Michael) brought out a tray of all available crabs and gave a memorized spiel about each. He swore the huge Alaskan King crab claws had never been frozen (nearly all this species are flash-frozen on shipboard before they ever reach land, according to an ex–Alaska crabber acquaintance). I was sorely tempted by the Dungeness, but at $24 per pound (average 1H pounds each), I gave up my Dungeness dreams. Florida stone crabs were off-season, but the Date Menu offered chilled “Texas Stone Crab Claws” (farm-raised by the company) instead, so we were guaranteed crustaceans in any case. As it turned out, all the pretty little stone crabs (with the tropical colors of a macaw) were gone that evening, though we’d arrived fairly early, so with our permission the kitchen substituted Jonah crabs. And now I know why nobody ever heard of Jonah crabs until a few years ago, when Peekytoe became a fad and cheaper Jonahs became a sometime-substitute for them. I learned this lesson most vividly when dealing with the leftover half-portion at home.
Jonah shells are totally tough — tougher than Rambo, tougher than Chuck Norris, tougher than Ah-nold. We’ve got crustacean Hulks here. All your lobster-dismemberment tools are of no avail. The only option is to bam them with a mallet until the shells are shards (as the kitchen did at the restaurant), which then get in the way of trying to eat the flesh, ’cause you have to peel all that flotsam off. Worse yet, the center of each claw has a “room divider” of tough cellulose, so you must scoop out the shreds of meat from each side — there is little hope of getting a big succulent bite of claw-meat from this species. After all that labor, half a portion left a scant half-cup of salty shreds, not nearly as sweet as Dungeness or blue crab. Maybe the stone crabs, if you can get ’em, are worth it.