I hail from Washington, D.C., one of the great crab capitals of the U.S., and crab always enjoyed star status in the Russell home. My mother’s crab imperial was my earliest encounter with the concept of comfort food, and I’ve lost count of how many heaps of steamed blue crabs have been dumped before me onto newspaper-lined tables over the years.
When I took my wife to the Spinnaker on our first date in 1989, she ordered the King crab legs. It was love at first crack. And my zodiac sign is Cancer. Go figure.
So much crab, so little time. But when it comes to the crab cake, those beautiful spheres of succulence, there is frequently so little crab.
Encouragingly, there are several local eateries that have solved the missing crab caper by reaffirming its role as the star of the crab cake show.
Restaurateur Travis Reese’s earliest crab cake memories were of “frozen and fried patties of who knows what” that were tossed in a basket and submerged in hot oil until they surrendered and floated to the surface.
“These little pucks were nothing more than hush puppies that just happened to have a bit of crab in them,” said Reese, owner of 47 Scott, 47 N. Scott Avenue.
His crab cake epiphany came in his early 20s while working at a Texas country club when he observed the property chef treating crab cakes with a reverence they appeared to deserve.
“He actually made crab cakes with crab,” said Reese. “He used just a little oil in a pan to gently sauté them, with very little bread crumbs for texture.”
This was the memory that inspired Reese to do his part in bringing crab back to the crab cake conversation through his new dish at 47 Scott.
“So often when you order crab cakes they end up tasting like bread crumbs, or eggs, or Old Bay seasoning,” he said. “We go heavy on the crab with ours; it’s more crab, less filling, that’s kind of how we think about this.”
Reese uses a blend of lump and claw meat which represents different textures in the crab mix. Once formed into cakes, they’re gently sautéed to render an outer crust and plated onto a sweet onion soubise, an “old school onion cream sauce” that he reimagines by introducing lemon peels to the simmer which are later filtered out.
“The lemon peels bring some floral aromatics and acidity to the sweetness of the onion cream and the richness of the crab to balance it out,” he said.
A relish made from capers, red bell peppers, shallots and vinegar is then whipped up and delicately spooned onto each cake.
Reese also likes the way that fat works in this appetizer, noting how it maintains its lightness and brightness without being filling.
“When some people cook at home, they tend to use little or no fat whatsoever,” he said, “but we work with fat in so many different ways down here and our guests love it.”
In addition to those at 47 Scott, I’ve seen other crab cakes around town that are decidedly crab-forward as well, including Caffe Torino, PY Steakhouse, and Bob’s Steak and Chop House.
Thanks to these puck-free zones, the crab cake has officially crawled its way back to relevance.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.