ONE OF THE most delicious recent additions to American menus comes from Australia: yabbies, a species of freshwater crustacean that looks like a large crawfish and tastes something like those saltwater cousins the spiny lobster or langoustine -- sweeter, of course, and with less of that musky head mustard. Part of the sweetness has to do with the fact that most yabbies these days are farmed in clean water and raised on cereals instead of just the usual sometimes muddy river water traffic; and since they are fresh rather than frozen, they retain a lot more flavor than those so-called rock lobster tails.
At the hip-without-heavy attitude Donovans House beachside restaurant in the St. Kilda area of Melbourne, for instance, which is sort of like a cross between Malibu and St. Mary's County (as I said, they don't do attitude), sweet and savory grilled yabbies are often among the "five tastes" daily appetizer plate, and a lot of people stop right there. In fact, a lot of those so-called "shrimp on the barbie," at least the ones that made Australian cuisine trendy, were originally yabbies; but franchise operations can't afford to get into that, of course.
Despite the not so very appetizing name (and is it much worse than "mudbug," anyway?), they are definitely worth looking out for. In fact, they've already popped up in a few places around town, but in the next few weeks, and especially as the holidays approach, you are likely to see even more.
Chef Bernard Dehaene of the Belgian bistro-bar Le Mannequin Pis in Olney (18064 Georgia Ave; 301/570-4800), who keeps the creatures swimming in a fish tank, cuts the live yabbies in half and spreads them with a combination of fresh anchovies and anchovy paste, a touch of garlic, chopped shallots and cognac ("but no salt, just the natural salt from the anchovies"). Then he runs them under the salamander just long enough for the spread to get crusty, "and at the same time the alcohol in the cognac flambes the meat." The finished tidbits are served with baby frisee salad and lemon so that the acid brightens the final dish.
At Lavandou, the Provencal-before-Provencal-was-chic fave in Cleveland Park (3321 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/966-3002), chef Francis Devilliers (who first heard of yabbies from Dehaene) takes a similar approach: He also splits the yabbies in half, spreads them with truffle butter and broils them, then serves them over angel hair dressed with wild mushrooms.
(It's also good to note that Lavandou's recent renovations included solving the access difficulties that in the old days made the restaurant comfortable for only the strongest wheelchair users; so if you've been discouraged from the adventure, wait no longer.)
Michael Martohue of the Georgetown Seafood Grill (1200 19th St. NW; 202/530-4430) has been experimenting with several recipes, one a Thai-spiced pan roast of cockles and yabbies with lemon grass and jasmine rice and an equally spanky yabbie-tofu spring roll, crisp-fried and served with nuoc cham, the Vietnamese anchovy/lime/garlic/chilies dipping sauce.
Georgia Brown's chef Neal Langermann not surprisingly gives these Down Under waterbugs a personal introduction to classic low-country cooking, sauteing them with shallots, drenching them in a dark, complex seafood reduction and serving them over grits (950 15th St. NW; 202/393-4499). He's also dabbling in a lighter, more tenor-keyed version by turning the yabbies onto a frisee and baby spinach salad with roasted garlic-mustard vinaigrette.
And at the mod-Med Matisse Cafe in Tenleytown (4934 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/244-5222), Fritz Siegfried first tried to serve the yabbies as appetizers, but he found the yabbies' claws as strong as full-sized lobster claws, hard enough to require crackers; so instead he has been using the claws to intensify a classic lobster sauce. Then he sears dry-packed sea scallops and the yabbie tails, leaning the meaty yabbies against a central mound of green orzo and finishes it all with the lobster-yabbie sauce.
Who says there's no such thing as Santa claws?
POST SCRIPTS: Another nice new "chef's dining room" has recently opened, and one with a particularly comfortable setting: Rue Lepic, the second-floor private room at Bistrot Lepic in Glover Park (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/333-2738), where several nights a week, chef Bruno Fortin prepares a seven-course dinner for groups of eight to 10. Fortin plans to offer more seasonal and perhaps more experimental (and leisurely) fare than the cafe does downstairs, with ingredients that are a little more expensive and unusual. And partly to remind diners of this, the upstairs decor is modern and quite eclectic, as opposed to the main dining room.
The real Rue Lepic in Paris, incidentally, where Van Gogh once lived, was also where Fortin lived early in his culinary career.
Also, if you're still collecting resources for chefs' dinners, glance at www.dcitymag.com; a few of the gatherings listed there may fit the bill.
AND FINALLY, a little bit of restaurant service lore: We're big supporters of oyster bars, as you know; but a couple of times -- most recently at the downtown McCormick & Schmick's (1652 K St. NW; 202/861-2233), though they are not the only ones -- we've been delivered exactly the dozen oysters on the half-shell we ordered. Traditionally a "dozen" oysters is 13, as it is with baker's dozens, not just because the shuckers are trying to make friends and/or repeat customers, though that's important, too; but because so often one or two of the mollusks aren't sweet. It's hard to know why this tradition is disappearing, whether it's just a matter of "the times they are a changing" or a misguided attempt at cost control, but oyster bars are among the few up-close dining interactions left, and as more and more of these niceties disappear, so does a lot of the natural camaraderie of the eatery. (And you know how we feel about that.)