When can dining out be a high aesthetic and culinary adventure? When it's a summer meal at Windows on Urbanna Creek in Urbanna, Va.
The bewitching panoramic view of the Rappahannock River at twilight and the tantalizingly fresh dishes that materialize from 00 chef Jimmy Sneed's open kitchen make the drive from Baltimore (just under three hours) seem irrelevant.
Though Mr. Sneed's training is classical French, his cooking is strictly American -- but refined, in the best sense of that term.
He trained at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and worked for nearly six years as sous-chef at the Watergate Hotel. Yet simply prepared food based on the freshest ingredients is his specialty at Windows.
I stopped by to see the operation of a local farmer who grows shiitake mushrooms for the restaurant. He explained that since Mr. Sneed accepts only the premium specimens, he harvests mushrooms every four hours around the clock. The chef combines them with a rich cream base for his signature shiitake mushroom soup.
And outside his restaurant's door, Mr. Sneed has his own crab-shedding tank. He plucks the crabs from the water as soon as they emerge from their hard shells and sautes them quickly in a hot cast-iron skillet.
Before dinner he took me over to a nearby commercial shedding operation that ships to urban markets. Each tank holds a thousand "busters," crabs that are ready to cast off their shells. After shedding, they are refrigerated live for delivery the next day.
One bite of Mr. Sneed's crabs gave new meaning to the ter"soft shell." With no chance for the shell to harden before cooking, there's barely any cartilage at all and the sweet meat needs no seasoning or coating to make it ambrosial.
His crab cakes are equally pristine, relying on the freshness of high-quality crab meat rather than fancy seasonings or filler for flavor. A simple mustard, mayonnaise and egg binder holds the juicy lumps of crab meat together. And he bakes rather than fries them so that no oily coating masks their essence.
Mr. Sneed is a generous guy, too. He's always cooking fo charity events and he willingly parts with trade secrets. So here are recipes for a few dishes he suggests for great summertime eating.
JIMMY SNEED'S SOFT-SHELL CRABS
canola or peanut oil
12 fresh soft-shell crabs, cleaned
juice of 1 lemon mixed with 1 tablespoon clarified butter
chopped parsley for garnish
Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium hot. Add just enough oil to cover the bottom and then add an equal amount of clarified butter. Dust crabs with flour and shake off as much as possible. Lay as many crabs as will fit without crowding top side down in the pan. Be careful because they pop. Cook 1-2 minutes and turn. Cook 1 minute more. Place crabs on a plate and brush with lemon butter. Sprinkle with parsley. Serves six.
JIMMY SNEED'S JUMBO LUMP CRAB CAKES
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 pound lump crab meat
Combine mustard, mayonnaise and egg. Gently fold in crab. Brush a platter with oil, place crab mixture on it and carefully form 4 crab cakes so as not to break the lumps. Bake in a preheated, 400-degree oven 8-10 minutes. Serves two.
JIMMY SNEED'S LOCAL STRAWBERRY SORBET
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 quart fresh strawberries
Make a simple syrup by boiling water with sugar until sugar is melted and mixture thickens slightly. Add strawberries and cook 5-6 minutes or until soft. Add salt. Puree mixture, strain and cool. Pour into an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer's directions.