High stakes crab cakes

It’s the seasoning. It’s large chunks of seafood. It’s local meat. It’s the butter.
Those were just some of the opinions offered Monday night on the topic of what makes a great crab cake, as five of the city’s top chefs got together at Phillips on the Southwest Waterfront for a crab-cake cook-off.

It’s the seasoning. It’s large chunks of seafood. It’s local meat. It’s the butter.

Those were just some of the opinions offered Monday night on the topic of what makes a great crab cake, as five of the city’s top chefs got together at Phillips on the Southwest Waterfront for a crab-cake cook-off.

It’s no wonder the once-humble crab cake is now the subject of such strong opinions. In the past two decades, crab cakes have evolved from a regional specialty, a cult curiosity, into a near-universally recognized menu staple. Chefs of all stripes hail crab as sweeter, more versatile and, yes, cheaper than lobster meat.

Fortunately, crab cakes are as comfortable on boardwalk takeout stands as they are in five-star dining rooms.

And it’s not just their environs that are diverse. Like chili, barbecue and other American staples, crab cakes are among the most widely tinkered-with recipes out there.

Starting with the crab itself.

Nearly any species of crab can be turned into a cake — Dungeness from the West Coast, king crab from Alaska, stone crab from Florida, Peekytoe from Maine — but as a point of regional privilege and pride, we shall ignore those crab cousins and focus on the majestic Mid-Atlantic blue crab.

Recently, the crab industry has come under fire in some quarters for not serving local blue crab but rather a pasteurized and packaged version from the Far East. But Dennis Gavagan, corporate executive chef for Phillips, said this stems from an ecological concern.

He said all the crab from Monday’s competition came from Indonesia. “The [Chesapeake] Bay is so overfished right now, to go into that commercially would be irresponsible,” he said. “We reserve the local for fresh only,” meaning taken from the bay right to their restaurants.

Indeed, most restaurants worth their salt will serve fresh local crab, especially when in season.

But what about terms like “jumbo lump,” “backfin” and the like? These aren’t types of crab, but rather unofficial designations referring to the grade of meat. “It’s the size of the pearl,” or chunk of meat, explains Gavagan.

Jumbo lump boasts loads of plump, meaty seafood that holds together well. Lump crab comes in smaller pieces, backfin smaller still, special and claw meat smaller still. The last three shred much more easily when blended with other ingredients.

“It’s gotta be jumbo lump crab, the big, meaty pieces,” said Jim Swenson, executive chef of the Fourth Estate restaurant at the National Press Club.

The taste, however, is largely indistinguishable between the grades. “I like jumbo lump, [but] it’s more about the texture,” said Ris Lacoste, the recently retired chef at 1789 who emceed Monday’s event.

Next up: How to bind them. Some swear by some type of starch mixed with egg. Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar uses Japanese panko breadcrumbs and a little mayo. Lacoste prefers saltine crackers and flavored mayo.

“You don’t want to see the bread crumbs,” said Swenson, whose traditional crab cakes, dressed only with baby arugula and tartar sauce, were the top choice of the public who attended Monday.

Other chefs use only fat to bind them. Chef Greggory Hill of David Greggory used diced bacon and egg in his bacon-wrapped crab cakes, while Chef Roberto Donna of Galileo used diced pig’s feet that rendered as the crab cakes cooked.

While you’re doing all that binding, however, you need to get some flavor into the crab — but not too much. “First and foremost, stay out of the way of the crab,” said Geoff Tracy of Chef Geoff’s restaurants. In fact, Tracy boils down the crab shells to make a stock that is then blended into the crabmeat with only white wine, egg, mayo and that tried-and-true crab seasoning, Old Bay — “only two tablespoons per 15 pounds of crab.”

Donna agrees. “Just combine it with an ingredient that lets you taste the crab at the end,” he said. The judges named his entry, Surf and Turf Crab Cakes, the top example of crab-cake excellence. It combined, along with the backfin crab and pig’s feet, red chilies, green onions and sour cream. He served it with a blood orange and ginger sauce.

Hill and Leeds added a bit more flourish. Hill served his bacon-laden crab cakes over a fava-bean succotash; Leeds sandwiched an entire soft-shell crab between layers of crab cake and served the whole thing over Cajun remoulade sauce.

The final piece of the puzzle is the cooking method. There are generally two: broiling and frying. “Broiling is the low-fat method,” Tracy said. “But I’m not going low-fat method in front of the judges.”

Instead, he chose to pan-fry in canola oil and butter, which “incorporates some more flavor into it.”

His peers all did much the same, frying in oil or some other fat in a cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan. All except Hill, who used — you guessed it — bacon fat.

When it comes to sauce, the tried-and-true tomato-and-horseradish cocktail sauce is exposed as tired and crude next to the delicate crabmeat. Creamy and fatty options tend to work best, as they complement the texture and flavor of blue crab.