Soft-Shells Aren't Hard to Match

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; Page F05

The first time Karen saw soft-shell crabs on a menu 25 years ago, she asked the waiter what they were. He tried to discourage her by advising, "If you haven't had them before, you should probably order something else." Undeterred, she insisted on trying them and fell in love with their sublimely sweet-and-salty, creamy insides and crunchy outsides.

Ever since, ordering them has been her first inclination when they start to appear on restaurant menus in spring, although cautionary reports about their mercury levels limit us both to ordering them no more than weekly. When the season launches, typically in May, we'll eat them any way they're offered. By the end of the season, in September, we've put in months of trying them in different ways and with different wines.

The other night our Japanese-style spider roll with panko-crusted soft-shell crab, tobiko and spicy mayonnaise paired best with a glass of medium-dry Hakushika sake, with its banana and other light tropical-fruit aromas and flavors. The 2007 Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Riesling ($13) won honorable mention when we found it flexible enough to be a refreshing choice with that dish as well as the next: pan-seared Maryland soft-shells with a vanilla brown butter sauce. But the best match of the night was those crabs with a 2006 Chalone Vineyard Monterey County Chardonnay ($17, although Pearson's has it on sale for $10), which was full-bodied and rich, its creamy texture well balanced by apple and pear fruitiness and nice acidity. The vanilla and butter flavors resonated on the plate and in the glass.

Each preparation of soft-shell crabs calls for a different wine choice to best enhance the flavors of the dish. Here are some of the winning matches we've discovered, along with various takes from chefs tapping flavors from around the globe:

Spanish: With a dish such as Cafe Atlantico chef José Andrés's simple soft-shells fried in extra-virgin olive oil and served with a lemon wedge, we recommend Andrew's pick this week: the elegant, light-bodied NV Cristalino Brut Cava ($8). Made in the traditional French champagne method (that is, with secondary fermentation taking place in the bottle), this delicious cava features crisp apple fruitiness with a lemonlike finish. It spends a year and a half on the lees, resulting in impressive complexity of flavor, and its bubbles are perfect for refreshing the palate during a meal of fried crabs.

Andrew sauteed soft-shell crabs and served them with a rich Spanish romesco sauce made of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, parsley and fried bread. He found an ideal match in the 2006 Calistoga Estate Napa Valley Chardonnay ($15), ripe with apple and pear fruitiness. Its rich, buttery notes apparently are a mirage, as the wine reportedly spends no time on oak.

Japanese: Chef Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro employs the largest crabs he can find (which he praises as meatiest) in two signature preparations, soft-shell crab roll with jalapeño sauce and soft-shell crab kara age with wasabi-carrot sauce. Though he's also inclined, as we were, to pair them with sake, such as a Yomeiribune Junmai ($15 for 300 ml), he also enjoys them with a sauvignon blanc from California's Kaz Winery (no relation).

Italian: With our first taste of Karen's pick, the 2006 Tortoise Creek Central Coast Chardonnay ($12), each of us independently detected hints of bacon on the nose and palate. It reminded us of the late chef Jean-Louis Palladin and his impossibly rich dish of soft-shell crabs with pancetta butter. We were inspired to pair this wine with a version of his dish featuring an equally rich, smoky bacon butter sauce. It was an ethereal pairing.

With Italian-influenced soft-shell crabs served with pesto, the 2006 Calistoga Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($15) proved to be a refreshing match. Its distinct minerality mirrored the crab's ocean flavors as its lovely pear and lemon fruitiness cut through the richness of the Parmesan cheese and pine nuts.

Thai: Bob Kinkead of Kinkead's has served a crisp Thai-style soft-shell crab with green papaya salad and lime dipping sauce. It inspired the version we paired with the 2007 Tortoise Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($12), whose tropical-fruit nose and palate said New Zealand more than its native France. It's bright and refreshing, with light grapefruit pith flavors and soft limelike acidity that meld well with Thai flavors.

Though soft-shell crabs may be an acquired taste, adventurous palates are sure to love them when matched with one of the wines mentioned above.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and the forthcoming "The Flavor Bible," can be reached through their Web site,, or at

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