Shrimp Nation The hype vs the reality

Shrimp Nation
Shrimp Nation, a new restaurant in the Khalda/Dabouq area, offers a simple menu including appetizers, a seafood boil, and a selection of side dishes. (Photos: Zeid Odeh/Jordan News)
The food scene in Amman is becoming very repetitive, and seldom do entrepreneurs take risks by bringing in new ideas. An innovative restaurant concept seems to be simply too much to ask for — burger joints and fried chicken kitchens dot the map, and their numbers are growing, with few out-of-the-box eateries joining restaurant ranks.اضافة اعلان

These days, even promotional campaigns in the sector seem to lack inspiration.

I do not usually make a beeline to hyped-up places that social media bloggers and influencers have made a virtual fuss about, qualifying it as “the best thing they have experienced”. In general, their expertise lies more in making their platforms attractive than in true food critique. However, this time I went to try out one of the places that has been all over my Instagram feed, to see for myself if it was worth the hype.

One day this week around lunchtime I headed to Shrimp Nation, a new restaurant in the Khalda/Dabouq area. The culinary concept is similar to shellfish boils, with crustaceans cooked in a flavorful broth with potatoes and corn, and eaten by hand, of course. Usually, there is a particular enjoyment in such experience, with the mess on the table and the good company going hand in hand to create a memorable meal.

The menu and a mishap
As I was strolling into the establishment, I was met with a clean and modern ambiance. Wooden tables were covered in disposable table covers of food-safe paper, hinting that the meal would be served directly on the tabletop.

Shrimp Nation’s menu is simple. First, there are fried appetizers such as calamari, fish fingers, and shrimp. The main dish is the seafood boil: you can choose from shrimp, crab, lobster, or mussels. Or you can get them all in one, cooked in your choice of flavorful broth. The sides include fries, potato wedges, rice, and two types of salad.

I ended up ordering the fried fish fingers, the mixed seafood boil with the restaurant’s signature Cajun sauce, a side of rice, and fries.

The servers provide plastic aprons, gloves, cutlery, and napkins before serving the food.

The food was delivered all at once, and the servers brought out a bucket containing a bag of seafood. They flipped the container of rice directly on the table cover and opened the seafood bag so that the sauce leaked all over the rice and the seafood items spilled out.

Although the idea behind it is nifty, I would have preferred the food flipped on a tray instead, leaving the disposable tablecloth for lobster and crab shells. Moreover, the server should not have spun the bag that quickly, splashing the oil on our clothes — the sauce dripping from the table straight onto my pants had already done the job nicely. If you are a neat freak, do not say I did not warn you.

Overlooking the mess on my clothes and channeling my energy into the eating part of the experience, I prepared myself for the succulent flavors of broth and the produce of the sea. Here it goes.

Unsavory surprises
First, I headed for the fried fish sticks with their homemade garlic sauce. The fish was crunchy and had a golden color, yet there was no flavor. I will just leave it at that.

The biggest disappointment was the main dish, the mixed seafood. I have not tasted an undeveloped and under-seasoned Cajun broth — until now. I was surprised by how little flavor the savory liquid had but, following this, was not surprised by the semi-tasteless shellfish.

The dish also included a variety of finely diced vegetables, which did have some flavor, but which had an overly generous amount of pepper. They were tolerable when consumed with white rice, which, incidentally, was cooked nicely.

A little innovation goes a long way
Here is my letter to Shrimp Nation: when I think of a seafood-specialty place in our modern times, with the generations we are targeting, I would go a little more creative and authentic. If the appetizers offered more variety, if the Cajun broth were cooked with consideration and a little more spice, and if the entree menu included plates of beautiful shrimp and grits, lobster or crab mac and cheese, and mussels in a creamy white sauce or a browned butter, garlic, and lemon sauce, the value of the restaurant would be uplifted.

If it were my restaurant, I would also add authentic sides of mashed potatoes with bacon bits, mac and cheese with breadcrumbs, fish balls, and crab cakes with creamy corn and green onion sauce. A tartar sauce for the fish sticks would be a must and clarified butter would be the first dipping sauce on the menu, instead of a spattering of aioli derivatives.

I would also push for a sandwich selection, even if only two options. You never know when you might find picky eaters among the children who come to dine with their families, or when your customers simply do not want to get their hands messy.

As for the service, it matched the level of the food. Aside from the oil incident, nothing was cleared off after we finished eating, which left our eyes to feast over the leftover shells and sauce everywhere. I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Another note: active service and friendly faces go a long way, especially for a restaurant that is newly opened and has a reputation to build.

All in all, with many new openings creating competition in the food sector, execution needs to exceed expectations. While challenges certainly do come with opening a seafood restaurant in a country like Jordan, they should not catch a business off-guard, but should be carefully studied. But maybe, being new, the restaurant still has time to make adjustments.

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