Friday, October 9, 2009

No one does Crab like Baltimore

As a foodie, when I think of Maryland, I think of one thing: crab cakes. These meaty seafood delights are a dream to eat. Arriving in Baltimore very late on a Friday night, I knew that there was a sweet hearty shellfish dinner in my near future. I was consumed with the idea of crab cakes. Certainly you can get crab cakes all over the country and I’ve had plenty of them, but a few things about the Maryland version stand out as the best. While you may be inclined to think it’s the Blue Crabs from the Chesapeake Bay that are the reason, it’s actually how they make them but more on that in a minute.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America. It’s home to a bountiful amount of wildlife and the ecosystem where salt and fresh water mix is the perfect home for Blue Crabs. Each year, 75% of the crabs are harvested and the remaining population has been responsible for replenishing the stock. These harvests are tightly controlled and this system has worked for decades. Unfortunately, as we infringe on the land surrounding this magnificent well of life, the effects of runoff into these watershed lands has been pretty bad for our little friends the Blue Crab. These once abundant crustaceans have dramatically decreased in numbers leaving the local fishing industry a mess. The good news is that efforts are underway to stem the tide of population reduction and it seems to be paying off. Add to the solution that Blue crabs are found throughout the east coast and Gulf of Mexico where harvests and populations are abundant. In fact, in Baltimore where the demand for crab is the highest in the nation, much of the crab consumed there come from these other regions. The bottom line is that while we work hard to rejuvenate the Chesapeake, we can still enjoy the delicious sweet Blue Crab.

Maryland is certainly the most famous part of the country for crab but they are not alone. Ask someone from the Pacific Northwest about sumptuous crab and they’ll begin extolling the Dungeness Crab. Peekytoe Crabs from Maine are celebrated for their sweet pink meat and make a fine crab cake as well. Yet, it is the Blue Crab that still has command of the crab cake industry and for good reason. They achieve a perfect trinity of brine, sweetness and texture that leads to an ethereal crab eating experience. As far as different preparations go, there are many. A Google search for “crab cake recipe” will yield a plethora of versions. For me, less is more. The perfect crab cake has few ingredients and, for god sake’s, mayonnaise is not one of them. It’s crab CAKE not crab SALAD.

As I often do, I asked the concierge for the best crab cake recommendation in the area. While he pointed me to the G&M Restaurant where they have been voted best crab cake in Baltimore for the past 5 years, he also suggested that the best place in the inner harbor was right across from the hotel. Happy to get a great meal by walking across the street, I headed over to Luna Del Sea Bistro.

The patio was bustling on this warm end-of-summer afternoon. This is a small eclectic bistro with a diverse menu. While my eyes danced around ambitious offerings of pastas, mussels, clams and steaks, I really only had one meal in mind. A short while later, two 8 ounce crab cakes were placed in front of me. That’s a pound. I saw nothing but crab; no onions, no peppers, no fillers. This is why Maryland crab cakes are better than any other crab cake on the planet. While I’ve had others I enjoy, the residents of Baltimore demand a pristine rendition. Crab isn’t just the star; it is one of only a couple of ingredients. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be able to pick out anything else clearly. That’s what was I was looking at on my plate. As my fork slid easily through this cake, huge morsels of pure crab had the perfect blend of cohesion and flakiness. I was in a good place. No one is in a bad mood eating crab cakes. These were as perfect as any crab cake I could have had. Not one flake of that meat was missed. I was satisfied.

In a conversation with the manager, I learned that these are made to order. 8 ounces of jumbo lump crab meat get just a teaspoon of mustard, a teaspoon of a crushed Japanese cracker (I didn’t press him for info on that –I should have), and a dash of Old Bay seasoning. It is then formed into a smushed softball sized patty and baked till lightly browned. Not exactly NASA engineering but perfection none the less. Less is more.

So –while I recommend the crab cakes at Luna Del Sea, there are many fine places in Baltimore to enjoy them. A couple of years ago, the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel catered a lunch I attended. Those crab cakes still stand out in my mind and I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t make it over to G&M as well. Ahhhh, another time. For now, I have my recent memories and a seafood store to get to.

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