If you love seafood and aren’t afraid to get messy, you’d do well to check out Mad Seafood Boiler, which opened in downtown Madison in May.
The restaurant offers a unique dining experience—unique, at least, to Madison seafood lovers. Its concept is simple: A choice of shellfish is boiled in a pot of water with salt and spices and served in a heavy plastic bag with a choice of sauces (Cajun, garlic butter, lemon pepper, or a mix of all three). Diners determine how spicy they want the sauce to be and also select a side—corn on the cob, red potatoes or sausages—to go in the bag.
Once the bag of steaming spiced food is served, customers use shell-cracking utensils to extract the meat from a variety of seafood options that include shrimp, lobster, crab, crawfish, mussels or clams.
There are no plates or silverware here. Instead diners are given a bib, gloves and a tiny fork along with snappers and crackers to open the shells and get at the sweet meat. The bags help concentrate flavors and prevent butter in the sauce from congealing.
The bib and gloves are pretty much required to eat this way, and even then you’ll use a lot of napkins. It’s a messy, labor-intensive way to eat, but one that’s also fun once you get the hang of it. Servers are on hand to explain how to approach cracking shells and extracting the meat, which is not the same for a lobster and, say, a Dungeness crab.
Mad Seafood Boiler is locally owned and receives fresh deliveries of seafood six days a week. You can taste that freshness in the dense, rich meat of boiled seafood in spicy garlic broth.
There are several types of crab on the menu. Everything but lobster tail and Dungeness crab comes in 1-pound portions.
A friend chose the Dungeness crab ($31.99 for two pounds), mildly spiced, with a side of corn on the cob for her dinner. She loved the pure, sweet flavor of the crab meat but needed a server’s help to figure out how to access it.
Instead of beginning with the legs, the server explained, first open the shell to get at the crustacean’s body where the mass of tender meat exists. Then drag the meat through the sauce to enhance its flavor. Most of the eating is done by hand (which explains the bib and gloves.)
Along with the boiled seafood, the kitchen turns out sushi and raw oysters. It also offers five combo plates that feature smaller portions of a mix of shellfish. They’re served with all three sides—potato, corn and sausage.
Combo A combines three shellfish options, each served in half-pound portions, for $21. Along with the sides, it offers four shellfish choices: shrimp, snow crab legs, mussels or crawfish. This is a great way to sample the food if, like me, you’re not well versed in shellfish.
I opted for shrimp (which come with head intact or removed), crab legs and crawfish and discovered that each was quite different in texture and flavor. Snow crab meat is less dense and somewhat less flavorful than Dungeness, but it is satisfying nonetheless. It’s particularly tasty when the three sauces are blended.
I was more familiar with the taste of shrimp, although the meat also came to life differently in the spicy blend. For the most part, I liked the flavor of crawfish—which I’d never had before. But there were one or two whose flavor was too earthy for my palate.
Décor-wise, the restaurant is sparse and contemporary with dark booths, sleek metal fixtures and solid white walls. There are a few big televisions and a bar that serves only beer and wine, but all the attention here focuses on what comes from the kitchen and how to help customers make the most of the experience. As mentioned, servers are friendly and anticipate answering questions. They’ll even help with cracking a shell and extracting the meat.
If you crave seafood, Mad Seafood Boiler is a convenient way to satisfy the urge. And it’s especially satisfying on a cold, wintry Wisconsin night.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.