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Dungeness Crabs in California

R&G LOUNGE My friend Melanie Wong is so obsessed with Dungeness that she has the phone number of a source for live crabs on her cell phone's speed dial. She joined me at R&G, her favorite Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, to taste some world-class crab as part of a Hong Kong-style Cantonese banquet. The mountain of poached live shrimp was sublime, served with their heads on and accompanied by a jalapeño-tinged soy dipping sauce. "You can tell they were alive when they hit the water," explained Melanie, holding one up to illustrate, "because their two little tail fins are separated." If the fins are stuck together, the shrimp were already kaput when cooked. Next came the double-boiled soup du jour: that night it was a clear turtle broth. That was followed by crisp sautéed pea shoots, deep-fried whole boned chicken stuffed with sweet rice, and a parade of other dishes before, at last, the famous salt-and-pepper crab landed on the table. Deep-fried, smartly seasoned, and broken into manageable pieces, this was the crab that dreams are made of. The meaty knuckles—the most delicious part—were especially coveted around the table. Slabs of "crab butter," the fat that lies beneath the shell, were also deep-fried, and spectacularly delicious. (But beware: I later learned that the "butter" and the internal organs of some crabs may contain a natural toxin that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning when ingested.) 631 Kearny St., San Francisco; 415/982-7877; Chinese banquet for 10 people $268.

THE GIRL & THE FIG I had made it through a week of eating Dungeness at least twice a day, visiting no fewer than a dozen restaurants. Crabbed-out and seeking refuge, I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, driving north to wine country. I stopped in at Readers' Books, my favorite Sonoma bookshop, and asked owner Andy Weinberger if he could recommend a place for lunch that would definitely not have crab on the menu. He sent me to the Girl & the Fig, a relaxed American bistro on the town square. "We have a new item on our menu today," chirped the server. "Dungeness crab cake sandwich." What could I do but try it?A celery-accented crab cake, topped with arugula and two thin slices of Meyer lemon tempura, all on a soft round roll slathered with herb aioli—it was a small triumph, perfect with a mini-flight of three Viogniers. I almost felt I could continue eating Dungeness crab twice a day for the rest of my life—and be happy as a, well, clam. 110 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707/938-3634; www.thegirlandthefig.com; lunch for two $40.

GUILT-FREE FEAST Seafood lovers who are frustrated by the combination of ecological and health concerns that make so many fish (swordfish, Chilean sea bass) off-limits will be happy to learn that Dungeness crab is P.C. In fact, it's on the "recommended" list of such organizations as the National Resources Defense Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and other marine protection groups. Although tons of crabs are pulled out of the Pacific—more than 32 million pounds in an average season—the traps used to catch them are considered eco-friendly, since they allow any crabs smaller than the minimum 61/4 inches, along with other "by-catch," to escape. (Only mature male crabs are legal to trap.) And unlike farmed and deepwater fish, Dungeness crab carries a low risk of mercury and PCB contamination.

DUNGENESS: FROM CRATE TO PLATE With the idea of putting together a crab picnic to bring to a nearby winery, I went to the Egg Basket Food Market (1150 River Rd., Fulton; 707/546-6091), a grungy grocery in Sonoma that sells whole Dungeness crabs cooked on the spot. The counterman told me they were out of them, but suggested I cook a couple of live crabs myself. Luckily, my hotel room had a kitchen. "Just boil up a big pot of water and toss some fresh garlic cloves and salt in there," he said. "They'll be done in twelve minutes." Soon after, my jackpot was ready: steaming crabs, so fresh I didn't even need a cracker. I paired them, adorned with just a squeeze of lemon and some melted butter, with earthy sourdough bread and a bottle of St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc. Absolute heaven. Here are some tips for those who want to have crabs at home.

·Pick a crab that is heavy for its size. You'll get more meat because enough time has passed since the crab last molted for it to have grown completely into its new shell.

·When choosing a live crab, the more active the specimen, the better. Lethargic ones can taste bitter due to digestive juices permeating the meat.

·When buying cooked crab, look for those with their legs pulled close to their body: this indicates the crab was alive when boiled.

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