THE barman at the Triple Ace Bar was particularly unimpressed with the Real Evil Genius (REG) ordering a middy of Resches shandy. It was Happy Hour at the Triple Ace where schooners of Resches were only $3.50 but REG wanted a smaller and diluted (he would argue “enhanced”) beer with lemonade (aka shandy), which, as the barman explained to REG, would cost him more as it wasn’t covered by the bar’s Happy Hour policy.
A Mexican standoff arose. The barman couldn’t believe a bloke didn’t want more beer for less (and would order a beer with lemonade in it). REG couldn’t believe that the barman didn’t understand that all he wanted was a small shandy (as he liked lemonade in his beer). A mediation ensued (REG is a skilled mediator), and even though money and shandy were traded both Reg and the barman were left a bit dismayed. I was just left recovering from an anxiety attack as I was concerned for REG’s physical well-being as the Triple Ace is a favourite watering hole for really big blokes that use different mediation techniques than REG and who were watching the exchange with great interest.
Harry’s Chilli Crab is a Sydney institution and is on the top floor of the aforementioned Triple Ace Bar – just a few steps up from a side entrance at Campbell Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills. It was started some 30 years ago by Harry Lau and you can’t miss it – there is a huge illuminated sign on the hotel of Harry with his trademark smile proudly holding a giant mud crab.
Climbing the few steps up to Harry’s you are greeted by crates full of huge live Queensland mud crabs waiting to be grabbed and served. It’s a bit surreal meeting your dinner at the door but that moment of sadistic guilt passes fairly quickly when the ice-cold Tiger and Tsing Tao beers arrive with a few more stuffed into a bucket full of ice (not only convenient but also a good sales technique). The restaurant space isn’t anything special – it’s a bit small and slightly poky and outdated (with that 1970s Chinese restaurant kind of charm), but Harry’s devotees don’t come for the décor – they come for the giant crustaceans mingling outside awaiting their unfortunate fate.
At $85 a kilo it isn’t going to be a cheap meal, especially considering that we were recommended a 2kg mud crab. There are 11 featured cooking styles for these massive crabs. Along with the famous chilli crab you can have pepper and salt; ginger and shallots; and black pepper (just to name a few that caught my eye). We went for the traditional Singapore chilli crab and were asked how spicy we wanted it (on a scale of 1 to 10 with kids apparently a 4). We went for ‘7’ – although REG and I both like heat we needed to be a bit wary as we had never really encountered the scale before and didn’t want to overpower the crab meat. It proved to be a good decision (although I could have gone up to an ‘8’ with hindsight).
The staff also recommended to have a plate of roti for dipping into the chilli sauce and some greens – in this case it was the garlic kangkong ($15).
Crabs are not the only items on the menu (but the restaurant is famous for them). You can also order from a range of Straits Chinese and Malaysian-style foods such as fresh barramundi fillet and snow peas ($26.50); scallops (from $30); lobsters at market price and a variety of prawn, duck, pork, vegetable and noodle and rice dishes. Banquets are also available with notice.
As the huge gleaming red crab came out on a platter cut up and swimming in a thick and egg-based and rust-colored chili sauce so did the manager with two huge plastic aprons which he wrapped and fastened around me and REG. Plastic aprons are a good thing for the HBV as I have the tendency to sometimes (and embarrassingly) wear food, spill the odd drink or, as one dining companion recently witnessed, brush crushed ice onto the floor of a trendy Sydney cocktail bar after it escaped from an ice bucket. I’m not a grub, it’s just that my arms wave about when I get excited.
Eating crab isn’t for the faint-hearted – you have to get stuck into it and it is going to get messy. I kept my eye on REG to get tips as he is a ‘crabophile’. He attacked the crab the way he tackled that barman – persistently, politely and with precision – not giving in to it and ensuring the red exoskeleton was hollow when he finished with a segment. He also ensured the HBV was getting his fair share.
The crab is quite good. Cooked very well with the right amount of time and it had surprisingly large amounts of melt-in-the-mouth sweet flesh throughout its shell (I’m always skeptical when it comes to large crustaceans). The sauce had the right amount of heat, was thick, robust and flavorsome with hints of onion, ginger, garlic and chilli and not overpowering. The firm roti was used to scoop this wonderful sauce in between us liking our fingers.
The steamed garlic kankong was firm and tossed in crushed garlic. A nice complement to the crab.
Harry’s motto is: “Nobody leaves my door unhappy”. We didn’t leave unhappy, just an empty beer bucket, a couple of kilos heavier and our wallets a bit lighter (it can be pricey). And, best of all, I didn’t have a speck of food or sauce on me.
Who needs to go to Singapore for good chilli crab?
The verdict: Dining at Harry’s may not be like sitting under a blanket of humidity overlooking the sea at Singapore’s East Coast Seafood Centre while ripping into a true Singapore Chilli Crab but it’s no accident Harry is still in the crab game after 30 years – he recreates a good authentic Singapore chilli crab style using carefully selected Queensland mud crabs which are lip-smacking great.
HBV tip: The Triple Ace Bar is a pleasant, old-school Sydney pub without the crap (and it doesn’t take any either), with cheap ice-cold beer. Just don’t order a shandy.
Ate there: 5 January 2012.