Chef hopes diners get hooked on taste of crayfish

April 25, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Will this crab town take a liking to crayfish?

I wondered about this recently as I watched a batch of Louisiana crayfish wiggle around in their temporary home, the kitchen of Ethel and Ramone's restaurant in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood.

A typical reaction of a Marylander to a mass of quivering crayfish (also called crawfish or crawdads) might be the one displayed by Ava Bloom. She screamed and ran away. Ava is 4 years old and the daughter of Ed Bloom, the restaurant's chef.

Bloom, 38, says he is "crawfish crazy." He claims to have been that way for 16 years, ever since he went to New Orleans, began working with renowned Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme and started eating mounds of crayfish at Dennis' Seafood in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.

Just as the crayfish are starting to stir this spring, Bloom is arranging to fly batches of the "Louisiana lobsters" into Baltimore and serve them in a variety of ways -- steamed, in gumbo, and in a sauce of cream and sun-dried tomatoes -- at his "Maryland creole" restaurant.

He acknowledges it is a risky proposition. The crustaceans live for about two days and if customers don't gobble them up, "I could end up with a lot of dead crawfish on my hands, or I could make a lot of crawfish pie."

Bloom is counting on the similarities between crabs and crayfish to win customers over. Both critters, he noted, are covered with shells and require a fair amount of handiwork by eaters to get to the good stuff. Moreover, in both cases, fresh meat is better than frozen, with more moisture and more flavor. With both crustaceans, the live ones are often bigger and yield more meat.

Picking up a fresh arrival from Louisiana, Bloom pointed to a pink ribbon running along its side. The ribbon is a sign of top-quality crayfish, he told me, the equivalent, I surmised, of having a Rolls-Royce emblem on the hood of your automobile.

Outside of Louisiana, it is hard to talk about crayfish without mentioning the word "bait." Bloom told me that he had used crayfish as fish bait, but stressed that the crayfish on his hook hailed from the muddy creeks of Baltimore County's Robert E. Lee Park, not the waters of the Gulf Coast.

The crayfish on the menu were classier than the Maryland mud dwellers, he said. They were too well-bred and too expensive to be considered bait. I confessed that I had the same reaction when soft crabs were used as bait. Whenever I go fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and somebody puts a soft crab on a hook, I suspect the bait might turn out to be tastier than the catch.

As is true with crabs, there is an art to removing the meat from the crayfish's shell. Bloom schooled me on the proper method of eating a steamed crayfish. He showed me how to twist the head off, how to pinch the tail until the meat came loose and how to "inhale" or suck the juicy contents of the head. The head, Bloom said, is "the bonus."

The flavor of the steamed crayfish was unique. While not as sweet as crab meat, it nonetheless had compelling, slightly fishy notes. I liked it.

My favorite, however, was the Crayfish Monica, tail meat married with sun-dried tomatoes and cream. Here, as in crab imperial, the flavors were rich and well matched. It might be too tame a treatment for Cajuns, but I loved it.

In the past, Baltimoreans have shied away from eating crayfish, Kerry O'Donnell told me.

O'Donnell said that when he ran Ocean Pride, he tried to get customers of the Baltimore County restaurant hooked on crayfish, but did not have any luck. "I tried to sell them for 30 years," O'Donnell told me. "You would think with the crab eaters here, they would be a natural. But I couldn't give crawfish away."

That was 15 years ago. Now O'Donnell is a partner in Mr. Fish, a wholesale seafood business in Dundalk. He supplies crabs to Baltimore-area restaurants and occasionally brings in live crayfish, as he did recently for Bloom.

A Baltimore native, O'Donnell said he has learned to like crayfish. Sometimes, to the delight of his family, he brings a bag of the creatures to their Harford County home and steams them, just like crabs. His sons, Kerry Jr., 10, and Sam, 7, "tear them up," he said.

But the enthusiasm for crayfish has not spread beyond his family. When he offers steamed crayfish to his neighbors, they take a bite, "tell me they are great, but then they go for the barbecued ribs."

Steamed crayfish, O'Donnell said, taste better the day after they are cooked, when the meat firms up.

"Crawfish are also easier to eat when they are cold," he said, "just like crabs."

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