A celebrity is in town.
I'm not talking about some movie star, head of state or athlete. I'm talking about something with substance, texture, and a devoted constituency. I'm talking about the soft-shell crab. It is the best eats in the region, if not the world.
Paradoxically, while this week's hard crabs have been hard to find and pricey, by the end of the week soft crabs, crabs without their shells, were both plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Whales, the largest soft crabs, were selling three for $9 on Thursday, jumbos, the next size down, were three for $8.
Both Bill Devine at Faidley's seafood in the Lexington Market and Tommy Chagouris of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in the Cross Street Market told me they had plenty of local soft crabs.
They also explained to me, as best they could, why hard crabs, crabs with shells, were expensive, and crabs without their shells, soft crabs, were not. Part of the reason was demand. Most people buy hard crabs by the dozen, and they buy soft crabs one or two at a time. So a merchant who has two dozen soft crabs will not usually sell them out as fast as he would two dozen hard crabs. Moreover, crab houses predominantly offer cooked hard crabs.
Part of the reason is nature. A hard crab is the same creature as a soft crab; the only difference is when they are caught. A crab that is soft, or without its shell, one day will get a new shell and become "hard" a few days later. If watermen catch large crabs when they are soft, there will be fewer hard crabs to catch a few days later.
That happened recently. As friends of the soft crab will tell you, the start of the local soft crab season is timed with the first full moon in May. For some reason, when the May moon is full, many crabs in the Chesapeake Bay shed their hard skins. Watermen are ready to scoop up the shell-free crabs and ship them to market.
While no one is certain why there is a relationship between a full moon and peeling, when I think about my youthful adventures the link makes sense. As I recall, whenever the May moon was full, the people I went to college with felt the urge to shed their clothes. And usually campus police were there to scoop up "the peelers."
Anyway, the full moon has worked its magic, and crabs, they are a-peelin'.
News of the arrival of soft crabs prompted me to survey a handful of area chefs to see how they were treating the much-awaited dignitary. Answers varied. Some chefs greeted the soft crab with butter. Some gave it the tempura treatment. Some ringed it with salsa or accompanied it with basil. Most gave it the traditional handling: sauteed, then draped with a fresh tomato.
At the Polo Grill, chef Harold Marmulstein said he changed his treatment of the soft crab daily. Some days, after dipping it in seasoned flour and sauteing it, he served it with tomato salsa, or with an aioli, a mayonnaise flavored with garlic and basil.
Another time, he said, he put the crab on white toast and added bacon, lettuce and tomato. This, I guess, would be a CBLT.
Still another day, he said he sliced the cooked crab in half and served it standing up. I asked if this dish was called "tall crab." Marmulstein said he hadn't decided what to call it.
Rudy Speckamp said the soft crabs that arrived at Rudy's 2900 were given one of three receptions. First, there is the standard greeting: sauteed in hot oil and topped with pine nuts, capers and spring onion.
Secondly, there is the tempura treatment, in which the crab is dipped in tempura batter, deep-fried, then served with a light sauce, like one made with tomatoes, chives and butter.
For bold eaters, there's No. 3: The sauteed crab comes with a crust made of corn flakes, walnuts and herbs, Rudy said.
At Pierpoint, Nancy Longo surrounds her soft crabs with splashy vegetables, like red and green tomato salsa, grilled spinach and succotash. At Pier 500, soft crabs are stuffed with more crab meat and served with chutney, said Mary Howe, sous-chef.
BTC "I try to treat the soft crab with respect," said Vincent Vanhecke, chef of the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels. "You want it to look fancy, but you still want to taste the crab."
Vanhecke said he pan-fries his crab in an olive oil mixture, then serves it in a nest of various types of lettuce.
Down at Gunning's, a landmark South Baltimore crab house, soft crab is first bathed in a special batter containing egg, cracker meal and Worcestershire sauce, then deep-fried, according to manager Cal Etheridge.
Similarly, in East Baltimore at Obrycki's, the soft crabs are treated simply. They are sauteed, then served with fresh tomato.
I ended my soft crab survey confident that once again the sweet morsel would receive worthy greeting.
6* I couldn't wait to get my fork in one.