The Lump Sum: Washington's Best Crab Cakes

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

New York has pizza. Chicago has hot dogs. But perhaps no city has embraced a regional dish the way Washington has the crab cake.

You don't have to go to a special crabcakeria or a sidewalk stand. Crab cakes are everywhere: at manly steakhouses, flirty bistros and waterside restaurants. I've even seen a crab cake at Japanese restaurant Sushi Ko, where it is -- some might say heretically -- fried in tempura batter and served with avocado.

Restaurateurs take for granted that we love them. And that isn't always a good thing. Like all simple dishes, an exceptional crab cake isn't easy to make. You need sweet crab, enough lumps for texture and a subtle matrix of flavors that enhance the crab but don't overpower it: traditionally a little Old Bay seasoning, lemon juice, herbs and a binder such as eggs, mayonnaise or bread crumbs.

Some restaurants take the trouble to make the regional dish shine; others seem to know there's a sizable number of diners who will order crab cakes regardless. Hence the bland, greasy, bready or all-of-the-above specimens you may have had along the way.

I happen to believe that chefs should take a signature dish seriously; the mid-Atlantic doesn't have many in the first place. So this summer, the Food section embarked on a hunt to define and discover the best local examples. We couldn't begin to taste them all, so we narrowed our search to seafood restaurants that serve them year-round. There's no point in waxing poetic about a crab cake special at, say, Komi, which changes its menu daily. We also restricted our tour to restaurants within the Washington Post readership area. Sorry, Eastern Shore.

We started out looking for the quintessential Maryland crab cake, until it became clear that no one could agree what that is. "A Maryland crab cake has to have Old Bay," Chris Clime, the executive chef at PassionFish in Reston, told me. Not necessarily, countered John Shields, author of "Chesapeake Bay Cooking" and host of the PBS television show "Coastal Cooking." Old Bay, mayonnaise, Tabasco sauce and Worcestershire sauce are common. But Eastern Shore traditionalists say Old Bay overwhelms the delicate flavor of the crab, which should be mixed only with melted butter, lemon juice and a little horseradish.

The concept of a "Maryland crab cake" is so loose, in fact, that national seafood chain McCormick and Schmick's isn't even consistent with the term on its own menu. At the K Street NW location, the crab cake appetizer and sandwich are called simply "crab cakes." The entree is called "Maryland-style crab cakes," even though the only difference between the two presentations is the number of crab cakes on the plate. "They're the same thing," executive chef Fernando Giacomini told me. "I don't know why it's different. Maybe it just didn't fit" on the menu.

And crabmeat from Maryland isn't the common link. Most area chefs say they can't get local crab all year. Mallory Buford, chef at Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom, says he has it about eight months a year. Johnny's Half Shell on Capitol Hill gets it in the summer but sources its crabmeat mostly from the Gulf Coast, as does DC Coast downtown. The local Jerry's Seafood chain stopped using Chesapeake Bay crabmeat years ago in favor of a more reliable source of blue crabmeat from Venezuela.

Breathe out. Overseas crabmeat is not like catfish or shrimp from China. Chefs I spoke with generally preferred domestic crab, which comes from the Gulf, the Carolinas and, of course, the Chesapeake Bay. But all agreed that Venezuelan crab is a good product, and our tasters agreed. The meat is snow-white, with a clean flavor. The crabs are larger than their domestic counterparts and provide great chunks of meat. Venezuelan crab also arrives fresh by air. Most crab from the Philippines and Indonesia is pasteurized and shipped by boat, Shields said.

Indeed, some diners find they prefer imported crabmeat. "As soon as I started serving [local crabmeat], people started sending it back, saying, 'This tastes fishy,' " said Shields, who also is chef at Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I think for the last 15 years, almost every crab cake you've had in every restaurant has been Southeast Asian crabmeat. It's washed and bleached. That takes away a lot of the flavor."

So "Maryland style" didn't provide a standard. But after 25 crab cakes, we discovered our own criteria. On the whole, we preferred cakes made with jumbo-lump meat, the top grade. The more refined ones at restaurants such as BlackSalt, Kinkead's and Johnny's look like neat patties but pull apart to reveal chunky lumps of crab inside. The chefs use a little bread filler or lump crab to hold the cakes together, then pan-fry or broil them. Deep-frying, says chef-owner Bob Kinkead, is a no-no.

More rustic but equally impressive are the jumbo-lump versions at Jerry's Seafood's three locations and at G&M in Linthicum Heights. They look like bumpy, golden-brown lotus flowers. At Jerry's, just mayonnaise, eggs and a little seasoning hold the crabmeat together. G&M adds a touch of bread crumbs.

In both types, we looked for subtle seasoning: some salt, a few herbs, a little heat. Tabasco did the job most of the time, but so did the delectable addition of minced jalapeño at BlackSalt and a touch of cayenne at DC Coast.

Where we ate them was also a good indicator of quality. You might think waterside crab houses would be a good bet. But we were disappointed with them on the whole. Such restaurants generally specialize in steamed hard crabs, because that's what everyone comes for. The rest of the menu, from burgers to fried seafood and crab cakes, seems like an afterthought.

Upscale restaurants, which can charge $30 or more, are more reliable because they often feature local, jumbo-lump meat -- and a chef with a gentle touch. Of the eight in our top category, five were pricier restaurants. But there are exceptions. G&M, long a local favorite for crab cakes, charges $24.50 for two eight-ounce crab cakes (at dinner, with a salad and two sides). That's a pound of crab: enough for two, even three diners.

There was much we didn't like: too much filler, overcooked cakes and crab that tasted like, well, more filler instead of fresh seafood. Plenty of chefs committed those sins including the ones at chain restaurants Legal Sea Foods and McCormick and Schmick's, and local independent seafood house Hank's Oyster Bar.

That's a shame. As "Coastal Cooking's" Shields told me, people who come here always want to eat crab cakes, just as they want gumbo when they go to New Orleans. There may be no official standard for the mid-Atlantic classic, but there is one overriding rule: They should always taste good.

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