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Taste Test: Rating Washington's Crab Cakes

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The classic crab cake is a simple dish: fresh meat, a little seasoning and just enough eggs, mayo and/or bread to hold it together. Yet just one in three restaurants made the cut for our list of Washington's best crab cakes, equal to the number that left us feeling, well, crabby.

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Staff writers Bonnie S. Benwick, Jane Black, Leigh Lambert, Jane Touzalin and Joe Yonan visited 25 reputable seafood establishments in the Washington Post readership area. We ate the cakes sauteed, broiled and deep-fried and chowed down on typical accompaniments such as coleslaw, fries and steamed vegetables. The restaurants within each section are listed in alphabetical order. Prices refer to dinner entrees unless otherwise noted.

Here are our picks:

The Real Deal

BlackSalt Restaurant and Fish Market
Two 4.5-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $28 to $32; available as a dinner entree if the crab cakes are in stock at the market

Sauteed just long enough to create a crisp top and bottom, then finished briefly in the oven, these crab cakes were about the handsomest of our taste test. Bits of jalapeƱo pepper should have been a deal-breaker ingredient, but they work, as do the aioli and onion. The fish market at the front of the house earns points for being one of the few establishments currently using Maryland crab. The crab cake sold at lunch comes on a rich brioche bun with lemon-caper aioli and a smart house slaw ($16).

4883 MacArthur Blvd. NW, 202-342-9101; http://www.blacksaltrestaurant.com.

DC Coast
Two 2.5-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $28

Minimalism is the watchword of this crab cake. The recipe calls for Gulf of Mexico crab with just a pinch of bread crumbs, a little mayonnaise, mustard, egg, lemon and chives, and a dash of Tabasco sauce and cayenne pepper for a tickle of heat. The crab is all jumbo lump, but the cakes hold together thanks to a nice, crisp exterior. These are pricey for the size, but other touches on the plate -- a tangy piquillo pepper sauce, saffron vinaigrette and arugula -- elevate the cakes to the level you'd expect at this genteel power-lunch spot.

1401 K St. NW, 202-216-5988, http://www.dccoast.com.

G&M Seafood Restaurant and Lounge
Eight-ounce jumbo-lump crab cake, $16.95; two crab cakes, $24.50

Volume is the first word that comes to mind, especially as you watch double-breasted platters with a full pound of crab cakes whoosh by while you wait. Ninety percent of the customers who fill this 299-seat restaurant order the somewhat-secret-recipe, available-by-mail-order, award-winning behemoths. These crab cakes are broiled to an almost-souffled state and remain moist inside thanks to egg, mayonnaise, mustard, Old Bay, Worcestershire sauce and a smattering of fresh bread crumbs. They deliver the full-on taste of sweet crab (Venezuelan), with classic flavor. Hard to beat.

804 Hammonds Ferry Rd., Linthicum Heights, 410-636-1777; http://www.gandmrestaurant.com.

Jerry's Seafood
Jumbo-lump baby "bomb," $26 for six ounces, $34 for 10 ounces

"Home of the Crab Bomb" is the motto of this no-frills family restaurant with three Maryland locations, and for good reason. The snow-white meat from Venezuela is picked on premises. The marble-size chunks are then tossed with a touch of mayonnaise and Old Bay, not a bread crumb in sight. The result is a seemingly impossible but awe-inspiring combination of delicacy and all-American satisfaction.

Multiple locations, http://www.jerrysseafood.com.

Johnny's Half Shell
Two 3-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $32.50

Of all the offerings on the menu, a great crab cake is one of the hardest to get right, says chef Ann Cashion. She has pulled it off in the beautifully formed cakes served at her sprawling Capitol Hill grill. Each patty pulls apart to reveal hefty lumps of sweet American crab, seasoned with just enough Old Bay, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce. Our only complaint: They're just not big enough.

400 North Capitol St. NW, No. 175, 202-737-0400, http://www.johnnyshalfshell.net.

Kinkead's and Hell Point Seafood
One 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cake, $16, appetizer; two for $32

Bob Kinkead knows how to make a crab cake: Never deep-fried, the meat is mixed with mayonnaise and seasoned with celery, tarragon, lemon and just a pinch of bread crumbs to hold it together. Both the formal Washington restaurant and the dockside Annapolis space -- ask for a seat on the patio -- follow the blue crab season from the Gulf up the East Coast for the sweetest meat, shown off by a rich mustard creme fraiche sauce and fresh corn relish.

Kinkead's, 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-296-7700, http://www.kinkead.com; Hell Point Seafood, 12 Dock St., Annapolis, 410-990-9888.

PassionFish
Two 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, market price (our visit: $26)

Chef Chris Clime keeps his crab cakes simple: jumbo-lump meat plus a touch of Old Bay, Tabasco and chives for seasoning. Then he lets his customers dress them up. Add two sides such as french fries, mashed potatoes or asparagus, and dip the flaky, snow-white meat in one of four sauces including Thai curry or beurre blanc, though we're partial to the butter pickle tartar that comes standard on the lunchtime sandwich.

11960 Democracy Dr., Reston, 703-230-3474, http://www.passionfishreston.com.

Good

Bobby's Crabcakes
Two 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $26.50; two five-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $32.95

Our single, broiled five-ouncer ($18.75) sat up nicely but was a bit dry. Perhaps on a different day, Bobby Bloch's popular and well-regarded rendition might have ranked higher. (Is there such a thing as crab cake guilt?) Brown mustard adds depth, and the minimal amount of filler is admirable. The hand-cut french fries are well executed.

101 Gibbs St., Rockville, 301-217-0858; http://www.bobbyscrabcakes.com.

Clare & Don's Beach Shack
Two 5-plus-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $23.75; served with a salad and two sides (sandwich platter, $11.75)

The pan-fried Venezuelan crabmeat is sweet and moist; the seasonings are understated and give the crab its due. This might have ranked higher, if not for the too-copious breading (in this case, pulverized Ritz crackers) and the (not one, not two, but three) bits of shell that had to be extricated from the cakes at our table. Avoid the appetizer of miniature crab cakes, four sad little spheres that can't hold a candle to their larger siblings.

130 N. Washington St., Falls Church, 703-532-9283, http://www.clareanddons.com.

Coastal Flats
One 8-ounce jumbo-lump crab cake, market price (our visit: $22)

This baby has a local reputation, and it's deserved. The meat was silky if not ultra-sweet. (It usually comes from Mexico and sometimes Venezuela.) There's little filler. And though the kitchen adds sauteed onion, parsley and a little Old Bay for seasoning, the flavor is pure. Still, we didn't love the crisp breading on the outside or the way the cake melted onto the plate when you cut in.

7860-L Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-356-1440; 11901 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax, 571-522-6300, http://www.greatamericanrestaurants.com.

Monterey Bay Fish Grotto
Two 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $36.95

The crab meat was delicate; the texture, nice and lumpy. The ratio of meat to filler (soft bread crumbs from the interior of a crusty loaf, parsley, seasoning and eggs) was just right. But the flavor of this jewel-toned restaurant's crab cake was slightly bland despite an onion-y remoulade sauce drizzled on the plate. And crunch! We bit into a tiny shell. It's an easy mistake to make but a crab cake no-no.

1800 Tysons Blvd., McLean, 703-917-0661, http://www.montereybayfishgrotto.com.

Oceanaire
Two 5-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $31.95

With its chunky meat and generous size, Oceanaire's crab cake might have topped almost any we tried but for one thing. Along with the hint of dry mustard, Old Bay and parsley was salt: way too much salt that left us parched even after downing a two-liter bottle of water that afternoon. A one-time mistake? This cake is still worth a try: The domestic crab -- from Maryland when possible -- was nice and sweet, and the complementary pickle plate and half-loaf of sourdough made this a meal.

1201 F St. NW, Washington, 202-347-2277, http://www.theoceanaire.com.

So-So

Cameron's Seafood Market
Two 4-ounce lump-backfin crab cakes (broiled or fried), $11.99; 8-ounce jumbo-lump crab cake, $10.99

Fair value for what you get, with no mystery about what flavors the crabmeat: The market sells the Old Bay Crab Cake Classic Mix right next to the cases of fish on ice. The filler is rightly spare, but the chef can leave the cakes too long in the fryer. Ask for them broiled. The accompanying bread/roll is not worth its carbs; fries are average. Scarf down the carryout at the patio tables, and an audience of small, hopeful critters (two- and four-legged) may factor into the dining experience.

8603 16th St., Silver Spring, 301-585-5555

Cantler's Riverside Inn
Two 4-ounce lump crab cakes butter-broiled, $24.99, or two 4-ounce backfin crab cakes, deep-fried, $19.99

From the constant mallet-hammering and the sign on the patio that reads "Smoke 'em if you've got 'em," it's a fair bet people come here for hard-shells and the casual waterfront scene. Lazy pickers can do well enough with the crab cakes. The deep-fried version surprisingly outdoes its lump-meat counterpart thanks to the contrast between crunchy coating and sweet meat filling.

458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis, 410-757-1311, http://www.cantlers.com.

Dancing Crab
Two 3.5- to 4-ounce lump-backfin crab cakes, $26

Whether you order them broiled or fried, the verdict's the same: If the crab cakes were as well-seasoned as the server (22-plus years of experience) and the celebrity photos on the wall (Tom Cruise, pre-Scientology, and Raquel Welch, pre-plastic surgery), they could have been contenders. Besides East Coast crab, the cakes contain unsalted cracker crumbs, egg, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, mayonnaise and parsley; the latter is prominent enough to lend an herb-y appeal. The broiled ones get dry, while the fried ones have an okay crunch.

4615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, 202-244-1882.

Mike's Bar & Crab House
Two 6- to 8-ounce lump crab cakes, $21.95

After 55 years in business, Mike's has its crab cake down pat. Each one is hand-formed of lump crab, buttery bread crumbs and Mike's own -- "better," said our server -- version of Old Bay, then broiled or fried. The price is right, but the lump meat that comes from around the globe can't compete with its similarly priced jumbo peers. These were the best in this group, for sure. But at Mike's, the steamed crabs are the draw.

3030 Riva Rd., Riva, 410-956-2784, http://www.mikescrabhouse.com.

Don't Bother

Bethesda Crab House
Two 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $22.95

A mixture of Venezuelan blue crab, mayonnaise, J.O. Excellent Seasoning No. 1, bread crumbs, prepared mustard, celery seed and a touch of butter makes these soft, rounded and slightly sweet. But these crab cakes are pan-fried in Wesson oil too long, or at the wrong temperature, so they arrive like two greasy lumps next to freshly steamed corn on the cob and a decent coleslaw.

4958 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-3382, http://www.bethesdabigcrabs.com.

Captain Pell's Fairfax Crab House
Two 4-ounce lump crab cakes, $18.95

Nearly every table at this bare-bones joint is occupied by folks pounding and picking their way through heaps of steamed crabs, so you immediately suspect that crab cakes are an afterthought here. Suspicion confirmed: The bland, smallish pieces of local crab are rendered even more flavorless by the onslaught of too much breading, overpowering spice and the hot oil in which they're deep-fried. The sides are equally unremarkable.

10195 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-560-0060, http://www.captainpell.com.

Crisfield Seafood Restaurant
Two 3.5-ounce backfin crab cakes, $20

The tiled walls and old-time lunch counter set the tone for this crab cake: the ultimate blue-plate special. Made with local backfin crab, the cakes are seasoned lightly with Old Bay, green pepper, onion and a bit of cracker meal, then deep-fried. You get a generous portion, but the crab lacks the sweetness of some competitors, and the overall texture is a bit pasty. The skinny french fries and creamy coleslaw are the main attractions.

8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-589-1306, http://www.crisfieldseafoodrestaurant.com.

Grillfish
Two 4-ounce lump crab cakes, $18.75

These seemed promising at first: good color, lots of crab, not much filler. The crabmeat is from Venezuela, but the seasoning was so peppery that it obliterated any sweetness, and the crunch of the exterior was marred by greasiness. The accompaniments didn't help: a basic tartar sauce and corn on the cob that had been overcooked to mush.

1200 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-331-7310, http://www.grillfishdc.com.

Hank's Oyster Bar
Two 5-ounce jumbo-lump/lump crab cakes, $26

These are the crab cakes that give the dish a bad name. Hank's panko-crusted cake was filler studded with small bits of crab rather than the other way around. The restaurant says it's part jumbo lump, but the meat tasted no better than backfin: bland and watery. If you must order them, go for brunch, when the cakes serve as a decent base for eggs Benedict. (Note: We tasted the dish at the Washington location; Alexandria says it has a different recipe.)

1624 Q St. NW, Washington 202-462-4265; 1026 King St., Alexandria 703-739-4265, http://www.hanksdc.com.

Joe's Crab Shack
Two 4-ounce lump crab cakes, $17.99

When parsley, bread crumbs, remoulade sauce and a heavy dusting of Old Bay can't keep a crab cake from falling apart, is it merely a matter of too much time under the broiler? Joe's specimens are lifeless and overly salted, and they are tapped for menu indignities such as the Crab Cake Chipotle Caesar Salad (with pico de gallo!) as well as cutesy appetizers. If you don't want to see and hear all the servers sing "YMCA" more than once, eat fast; they perform every 45 minutes.

221 Rio Blvd., Gaithersburg, 301-947-4377; http://www.joescrabshack.com.

Legal Sea Foods
Two 4-ounce jumbo-lump crab cakes, $27.95

This national chain prides itself on consistency, so we had hoped for better. The cake, made from Southeast Asian crab, was so utterly overbaked that it had a crisp crust, a la burnt toast, and was dry and almost chewy through the center and pretty flavorless to boot. The creamy mustard sauce and generously portioned sides tempered the bad experience but couldn't save the day.

Various locations (prices may vary), http://www.legalseafoods.com.

McCormick & Schmick's
Two 4-ounce lump crab cakes, $25.95

Fishy flavor is a bad sign in a crab cake. That was the first problem. Then there was the texture, dry and flaky; the look, squashed by a spatula; and the seasoning, bell peppers and a few indistinct green "herbs." That may pass at outlets around the country, but in the heart of crab cake land, the kitchen should show a little more respect.

Various locations (prices may vary), http://www.mccormickandschmicks.com.


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