Two slices of white bread, a piece of lettuce, a thin slice of tomato, and a schmear of mayo. Nothing special there.
Add a cornmeal dusted lightly pan-fried soft shell crab, and the otherwise simple becomes scrumptiously unique.
I know that many folks, even seafood lovers, have never eaten a soft shell crab, preferring rock-hard summer blues steamed and slathered in Old Bay. I also understand my wife’s reluctance to biting into something that looks like the critter itself and might ‘crunch’ on impact. I got over that existential qualm with my first taste of a soft shell crab sandwich 20-plus years ago when we lived in Baltimore, by rights the blue crab capital of the world, thanks to the Chesapeake Bay and its immense estuary.
My first of this season was the soft shell crab po’ boy at The Grey Market, an ‘until-they-run-out’ daily special. The sandwich is what it should be and more, upgrading the white bread for a soft-but-sturdy hoagie roll and trimming the crab with gribiche (a.k.a. R-rated French tartar sauce) and comeback sauce (a.k.a. kicky Russian dressing). The uninitiated might blanch at $18 for a one-crab po’ boy. Get over it. Remember: this happens once a year. Eat the sandwich.
A week into this year’s soft shell crabbing season, I called or visited some two-dozen local restaurants, ones specializing in seafood or catering to exclusive seasonal produce, to see if these fellers were on any menus. Though all but a few inquiries ended in polite, commiserative rejections, I might as well have been looking for unicorn pot pie. In a way, I understand. Soft shell crabs are culinary gossamer, a commodity whose annual existence is ephemeral and expensive.
The most venerable and even more affable Charlie Russo has had them in his cold case for two weeks now — at $6.99 apiece — and has been supplying them to Elizabeth on 37th, The Oglethorpe Club, The Chatham Club and the far less financially daunting Olympia Cafe.
At owner-chef Nick Pappas’ River Street institution, the soft shell crab special is hand-drawn in chalk on the sandwich board outside the front door. “Nobody uses the mixture we have,” he said of his original dredge blend. He pan-fries the crab and then smartly cuts it into bite-sized chunks, much like a Greek plating of octopus, with grilled pita wedges and a bright pink romesco.
At $13.50 for the single-crab appetizer or $24.50 for the doubled-up dinner entrée, Pappas’ truly tasty version might be the best deal in the city — proven last week when the fresh order of three dozen from Charlie Russo did not last the day.
In Savannah, the following restaurants have them as menu specials right now:
Cotton & Rye is offering a single-crab small plate, fried and served with lemon-caper aioli, pickled red onions, and bitter greens ($23).
Elizabeth on 37th has a two-crab entrée, dusted in cornmeal, pan-fried, and served with Asian accents of julienned cucumbers and red onions and a sesame vinaigrette ($39.95).
Starting this week, Husk will be doing a similar preparation, though as a small plate: a cornmeal-dusted pan-fried crab served with a mustard green salad dressed with crab garum (think fishy soy sauce) and lime juice for that umami finish.
At The Grey, in the front bar, you can have a one-crab small plate, served like Nashville hot chicken on milk toast with a side of comeback sauce ($18), and in the dining room, two deep-fried crabs come with chow-chow and grilled spring onions ($36).
La Scala has crabs from the Vernon River, lightly dredged in seasoned flour and house-made breadcrumbs, flash-fried, and served atop lemon-dill tagliatelle, tossed with fish fumet, saffron oil, and microgreens ($28).
At 1540 Room, the special is a tempura soft shell paired with a succotash of fingerling potatoes, corn, onion, Swiss chard, and tomatoes and served with lemon aioli ($29).
Just across the river, Toomer’s Bluffton Seafood House lightly fries and then grills their soft shells, offering a single as an appetizer ($12), as a sandwich with two sides ($20), or as a two-crab entrée also with two sides ($30).
Several other area restaurants are in ‘stay posted’ mode concerning soft shells with specials possible on a daily basis, which means they will be fresh. Wherever you go this week and next, make sure you ask.
And if you call Russo’s Seafood ahead of time, Charlie will send one or two across the parking lot to be fixed up for you at their companion eatery.
While supplies last.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.