As the mother of a young dancer, I kill a lot of time in Midtown during ballet classes and rehearsals. So I'm always looking for a low-key bar or restaurant where I can read a book with an appetizer and a glass of wine (please don't tell my family — they think I'm running errands). So I was excited when The Crazy Hook recently opened at a strip mall location on 36th Avenue that has seen a lot of turnover in the last decade or so. I mentioned the spot to a few friends and it evoked some odd reactions. "Is that place just opening or just closing?" asked one friend. Another said, "I thought it was a strip club." Hmmm.
I understand the impression. The exterior lacks … curb appeal. The windows are painted over, making it look, as was implied, not quite open. And perhaps the word "Crazy" in its name implies an "adult entertainment" angle. But I was undeterred and stopped in for dinner with my husband.
The interior is instantly reassuring. The dining room is an eclectic, artsy space, painted in gunmetal gray with sleek fixtures, dynamic murals, an elaborate fish tank, and an attractive, open bar. Overall, it's rather chic with a few decorative missteps, like the prosaic neon beer signs over the bar.
That said, my first visit coincided with one of the first truly halcyon days of summer and it seemed like a shame to duck out of the sunlight and into the darkened room. It's a little bit like stepping into a submarine when you'd rather be sitting on the lido deck. To be fair, clear windows would only serve to highlight a decidedly unlovely parking lot and during the long, dark days of winter, one might welcome a bit of coziness.
The menu is confusing. There is a full sushi menu with elaborate rolls, a handful of classic pub food offerings and a number of Asian and Asian fusion dishes. Ordering a cohesive meal was a bit of a challenge. Burgers and stir-fried bok choy? Ramen noodles and french fries? Sushi and pulled pork? The best strategy seemed to be to pick a lane and stick to it.
We started by sharing the pork belly bao ($15) and an order of shrimp skewers ($14). The skewers were fine, if not memorable. They were presented beautifully on the plate but were a bit bland on the palate. The bacon-wrapped zucchini chunks added some needed flavor.
The bao, however, was absolutely delicious. So good, in fact, that I was already making a mental note to include them on my year-end list of best bites. Thick slices of tender pork belly were nestled taco-style into a plump, pillowy steamed dumpling. Crisp slaw with a slightly sweet, creamy dressing and a scattering of kimchi lent texture to each bite and a tanginess that beautifully offset the richness of the meat. This dish was salty, savory, sweet, sour and satisfying. I talked about this dish for days (more on that later).
My husband had the pulled pork burrito ($15), which contained interesting elements, including sprouts and kimchi, but they were overwhelmed by the sweetness of the meat. This was a fusion dish that didn't quite fuse.
My chicken curry ($15) was much more successful. Creamy, nicely spicy and generously studded with chunks of chicken, I'll be craving this dish come winter.
I returned the following week for dinner with a friend. We started with an order of chicken wings ($13) and the Steak and Fri roll ($16) and decided to share the seafood soup ($17) known as the Hangover Pot.
The wings were plump and tasty, with an admirably crisp coating, and a zippy sauce with just a hint of sweetness and a nice lingering heat.
The Steak and Fri roll is an "everything but the kitchen sink" dish, which takes steak, crab, shrimp tempura, cream cheese and jalapenos and rolls them all up in fried shoestring potatoes. Sushi purists: look away. This was a goofy dish. And a conversation starter at the bar. That said, it's a crowded field for any of the components to really shine. I'm glad I ordered it once but don't think I'd order it again.
The Hangover Pot ($17) was disappointing. Though it was packed with seafood, including clams, mussels, shrimp and salmon, along with vegetables and potatoes, the broth was all but flavorless. We picked out the seafood and left the liquid in the bowl.
Because my experiences were so mixed, I decided to give the restaurant a little more time to settle into itself before filing my review. I returned a couple of months later with my husband, hopeful that some of the kinks had been ironed out.
I normally avoid eating the same dish twice (for a review, that is) but after raving about the pork belly bao from my first visit, I got some feedback from diners who found it unpalatably salty. So I made an exception and ordered it again, paying special attention to the salt level. Happily, I was just as pleased by this dish on my second try. For me, both times, the seasoning was spot on.
We began by sharing the bacon-wrapped asparagus ($10), which was a heavier but more interesting dish than expected. The asparagus was breaded and deep-fried, then drizzled with a surprisingly sweet sauce. I liked the flavor combination but had to limit myself to just a few bites.
We also shared the stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce ($10), which I loved but would have preferred as an entree or a small plate. The garlicky sauce was delicious and I was longing for a scoop of rice to soak it up. The little heads of baby bok choy were cooked whole and retained a perfectly crispy interior with tender, just-wilted leaves.
My husband went with the Sam's Burger ($16). This was a good burger stacked high with caramelized onions, jalapenos, mushrooms, barbecue sauce and a fried egg. It was well-constructed and the patty itself had good flavor. But, be warned: This burger comes with sweet pickles. With respect to sweet pickle lovers everywhere, I say this: You are wrong. My husband, who doesn't like pickles in any case, unknowingly picked them off and gave them to me. Papers have been filed.
Service was attentive and pleasant but the management style on the floor was a bit … forceful. Servers were being corrected within earshot of diners, which, for me, added some tension to the room.
The Crazy Hook has a lot of potential and served up some terrific dishes over the course of three visits. But it seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Not many kitchens can successfully be all things to all people. A bit of soul-searching and a more focused menu could make this new spot a great addition to the Midtown dining scene. I'll be rooting for them.
(Additional features at The Crazy Hook include beer-tasting flights, weekly live music, Taco Tuesdays, and football viewing with beer and chicken wing specials.)
The Crazy Hook
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 4-10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 4-10 p.m. Sunday.
Location: 601 W. 36th Ave.