Maryland crabs fire gourmet appetites in Manhattan

July 24, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK — New York

Deep in the heart of New York's hedonistic Greenwich Village, Maryland's finest were offered up for sacrifice.

Burnt red, caked in mouth-snapping pepper paste and surrounded by pitchers of frothy dark beer, they were set upon by a crowd of natives, who ripped off their legs and ate them whole.

But that fit of unbridled gluttony came late in the evening after the locals had already been won over by Obrycki's crab house. The 49-year-old Baltimore institution had been invited to appease a hardened crowd of culinary connoisseurs, the sort of people who demand more than just cold beer and cooked crabs.

By all accounts, the Marylanders succeeded in satisfying the hungry mob.

"The meat is sweet and the sauce spicy. This is wake-up food," says John Mariani, Esquire magazine's food-and-travel correspondent.

Mr. Mariani and the other guests were sampling Chesapeake crustaceans at the James Beard House, the 7-year-old foundation named after the popularizer of American cuisine who gained national fame through his cookbooks, television shows and articles.

Housed in a brownstone walk-up owned by Mr. Beard when he died in 1985, the foundation has a multiple personality. It tries to preserve Mr. Beard's legacy by collecting and maintaining his papers, works and library, as well as supporting culinary education and giving lovers of good food a place to meet, talk and eat.

TC All of this is accomplished through the foundation's lunches and dinners. Each year, 220 guest cooks perform for up to 80 of the foundation's 3,000 members. Membership starts at $100 a year, which entitles one to try to buy tickets for the meals, which cost $65 to $75 and are often sold out.

That was the case Thursday night, when Obrycki's became the second Baltimore restaurant to win the honor of cooking for the Beard house. The narrow, three-story rowhouse was jammed full of guests, who spilled out into the leafy backyard.

The night started with an hour of drinks and appetizers -- clam bits and crab balls -- mercifully free of the doughy batter that plagues much deep-fried seafood.

Crab balls and beer in hand, guests wandered through the house, admiring a pig-shaped fountain that sprayed water through its snout (a harbinger of the rest of the evening?) and Mr. Beard's legendary shower that was built on a glass-enclosed balcony overlooking the backyard.

Soon, however, attention shifted from the panoramic shower to the food on the plates. Crab soup led off, followed by small bowls of coleslaw and creamed cucumbers.

Then came what really could be considered two entrees, crab cakes and steamed hard-shell crabs, enough for two meals. Yet, in the interest of truly immersing themselves in Maryland's exotic cuisine, the New Yorkers made a superhuman effort and scarfed down both dishes.

More precisely, they scarfed down the cakes. The crabs required more work, but the crowd seemed at home with mallets and knives. Few required members of the Cernak family, which now runs Obrycki's, to give a lesson in crab eating.

"Are you kidding? A New Yorker not know how to use a knife? Be real," says one guest.

In fact, New York, being the cosmopolitan place it is, has its very own crab house, so the guests' expertise in cracking crabs might have more to do with experience than street smarts.

Logistics, however, make it hard for any restaurant to get really fresh crabs. This helps explain Obrycki's other successful forays into New York City. From 1986 to 1988, it participated in monthlong promotions at Rockefeller Center.

Then, on Thursday, the Cernaks had the herculean task of organizing the seafood in Baltimore and trucking it up to New York. After surviving a break-down of one truck, the family arrived and began work.

The smallish kitchen at Beard house forced them to borrow facilities at Rockefeller Center to steam the 500 crabs, which were then trucked through Manhattan's crowded streets to the Village.

While watching confidently as the guests ate, talked and drank, Cheri Cernak couldn't help but admit to a bit of exhaustion. Her mother and sister had stayed in Baltimore to hold down the fort while she, her father, Richard, and brothers Rick and Rob cooked for the Manhattanites.

"It's quite an honor for us. This house showcases famous chefs and cuisines, so we are really happy to make the sacrifice," Ms. Cernak says.

As the guests pounded the shells, licked Obrycki's "magical blend" of seasonings off their fingers and then hurriedly slurped dark beer, the family's efforts seemed well-rewarded. Not only had they won first-rate publicity, but the foundation's members seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"This isn't like some of the stuffy food that makes people so formal," says Joanne Hayes, food editor of Country Living magazine. "You have to concentrate a bit at first, but later you really start talking. It's fun food."

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