When you eat out enough, you find yourself drifting toward the same restaurants when you are looking for a particular dish. If you are in the mood for a thick steak, you will go here. If you want a burger, you will likely go there. Seafood? You probably have a favorite or two in mind as well. With that in mind, I placed a call to a friend of mine a week or so ago to find out where he enjoys his soft shell crabs when they are in season. He probably eats more seafood in town than anyone I know. I was pretty surprised to hear him say that he didn’t go out in search of them so much lately because most of them were frozen and therefore not as good. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the soft shell crab scene in town really. I found it all hard to believe. I spend enough time talking to chefs in Savannah who insist on freshness. Especially when it comes to seafood. I decided I was going to spend some time beating the bushes to see who was carrying these guys. Coincidentally, I then got an email from someone over on Hilton Head Island letting me know that Soft Shell Crab season was going to start early and it was likely to be a great year for them.
“Got crabs?” Not exactly the kind of question you like to find yourself calling around and asking, none the less, that was me over the last ten days. I sent out a couple of emails to places I thought would carry them and was told they weren’t. I started to wonder if this was going to be such a good year, then where were all these crabs hiding?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon that is soft shell crab season, just talk to a chef who wants to get his hands on some. In a nutshell-pun intended-we’ve all seen and likely eaten crabs. Picked at the shells and had a wrestling match with a bunch of carcasses to get the meat out of them. That’s what you do. Wrestle, eat, repeat. Every year about this time, Spring/Summer, crabs shed their exoskeletons. The new shell grows and hardens pretty quickly underwater. The crabs that are plucked out of the water before those new shells harden are called soft shell crabs, because you can basically eat the whole thing without any kind of labor to speak of. The labor comes in catching them at the right time, before the new shell hardens. That, I’m told, can be a tedious process. Especially because chefs want them while they are still alive. As a result, soft shell crabs aren’t cheap. I’m hearing restaurants are paying anywhere from $55-$60 per dozen.
“If they aren’t alive, I won’t touch them.” says David Landrigan, Executive Chef at Circa 1875 on Whitaker Street. David tells me a similiar story I’ve heard from pretty much every other chef I’ve spoken to in town about them. If they can get them in, they sell out. “I did save some from Friday to Saturday” David says “Just to make sure I’d have some for Saturday, but once my fish guy told me I’d be good for Saturday, they were flying out the door.”
People love them. They can’t get enough of them sometimes. That also applies to the restaurants as well. The middle of last week I started seeing soft shell crabs plated on Instagram. Lucky Rooster over on Hilton Head Island was first (that I saw at any rate). Cotton and Rye here in Savannah followed. Shortly thereafter, it was actually kind of amusing, a bunch of chefs started sending me iPhone video of their boxes of bubble blowing crabs to show me that theirs were very much still alive.
It’s official, the ‘softies’ as they are called, are on the street. They are pretty much everywhere. Unlike previous years, when some seasons lasted as short as a week, I’m getting the sense chatting with guys and gals around town that this season is going to be the best one we’ve had in a while. “I think after last year, everyone was salivating for a great season this year.” Landrigan says “Really the season should last through the end of April or beginning of May” but that hasn’t always happened. “The last few years have been short seasons.” He adds. “Maybe two or three weeks.” “It was really good. Then OK. Then poor. Now we think we are getting them back up to where we want them to be.” David says.
“I just think they are cool.” he adds. “I mean, you get to eat the whole thing.” “I don’t mind getting in there and picking out all of the blue shell crab stuff, but to me (with soft shells) you can just get into it.” As a result, they can be served any number of different ways. David joked to me about putting a soft shell crab on a burger as a special. “A different kind of surf and turf.” Um, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that. When that burger shows up and you have that spider looking thing hanging out of the bun on all sides. But hey, that’s just me. I had one restaurant owner tell me they had no trouble selling as many as he could get in, but then joked about offering soft shell benedicts for brunch if they couldn’t move them the night before. At least I think he was joking. As you might imagine, preparation is all over the map. Cotton and Rye offered them last week “chicken fried with pickled ramps, pea tendrils and comeback sauce.” Landrigan is going for a little more ‘uptown’ approach, if you will. “I like to keep it pretty simple.” he says. “Flour, salt and pepper. Sear them in hot oil and finish it with a little lemon brown butter sauce. Really simple” The nights he gets them in, he sells out. “Oh yeah, they are gone.”
When I first started asking questions for this column, I was getting a lot of “I’m not sure” responses as to how long the supply would last. “Charlie Russo called me just this morning” says Kelly Yambor, Executive Chef at Elizabeth on 37th. “I asked him to send me whatever he had.” I got to eat one of those. That was just wonderful. But as the week has rolled on, I’ve been hearing more and more that the season will likely last a few more weeks. Which is back to what is considered “normal.” Of course, no one is going to guarantee that they will have them every night. If a restaurant is low on reservations, maybe they won’t buy any. It all depends. Your best bet is to call your restaurant of choice first. A lot of places in town are going to have them, just make sure you get there early, but once they start moving they fly out the door. When they are gone, they are gone with no solid guarantee when more will come in. If you love them and have enjoyed them in the past, I’d suggest you get out there now and eat it and like it, because you just don’t know if they will be there next week.
See you on TV,