On a quest for the best Dungeness crab in Northern California, writer Leslie Brenner finds claws to celebrate
Marylanders love their soft-shells, while Mainers tout the peekytoe; Floridians insist on stone crabs, Alaskans flaunt their long-legged kings. But ask any native of California, Oregon, or Washington State, and we'll tell you the truth: Dungeness rules. Legions of us on the West Coast adore the sweet, abundant meat of our indigenous crab as much as Northeasterners love lobster.
Even we fans of Dungeness are divided. Pacific Northwesterners prefer specimens trapped in their cold northerly waters—and they're quick to point out that the town of Dungeness, for which the crabs are named, is, after all, in the state of Washington. We Californians, on the other hand, insist on crustaceans from our own warmer waters. Although the crabs are fished from Santa Barbara all the way up the coast, aficionados consider those caught around the San Francisco Bay Area to have the best flavor and texture.
There is nothing more delicious than a cracked fresh Dungeness, served with lemon and drawn butter, maybe a little cocktail sauce, some crusty San Francisco sourdough, and a glass of Chardonnay. (I don't even particularly like Chardonnay, but its apple and pear flavors complement the crab's natural sweetness.) So, at the height of Dungeness season, which runs from November through June (with the best available early in the season), I got into my car and zigzagged across northern California, from Half Moon Bay to northern Sonoma County, in search of the most delicious preparations of Dungeness. Here's what I found.
KETCH JOANNE & HARBOR BAR A large proportion of the Bay Area's Dungeness crabs come out of Pillar Point Harbor, five miles north of Half Moon Bay, past hillsides blanketed with yellow wildflowers. There, hand-painted signs flutter over small crab boats, announcing their catch and the price—four bucks a pound. As savvy locals traverse the rickety docks to buy live crabs directly off the boats, and a row of fish shanties boil them up on the spot. The most inviting of these is Ketch Joanne, a salty-dog kind of place, decorated with captain's wheels and old photos of seafarers. I tried the cioppino, a fish soup believed to have been invented in the 19th century by the Bay Area's Italian and Portuguese fishermen to make use of their bounty; old-timers swear that cioppino is the only way to eat Dungeness. The steaming bowl of tomatoey fish broth flavored with carrots and celery had plenty of crab and was tasty and warming on the chilly February day. Yet if truth be told, when crab is cooked in broth, the texture suffers; the meat becomes a little hard and loses its flavor. The search continued. Pillar Point Harbor, Princeton-by-the-Sea; 650/728-3747; lunch for two $50.
NAVIO Peter Rudolph, chef de cuisine of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, so reveres Dungeness crab that he makes it the basis of his signature dish: Dungeness crab salad with artichoke "carpaccio," pickled chanterelles, and baby celery. Rudolph explained the reason Bay Area crabs are the best: "They need forty- to fifty-degree water," he said. "The temperature affects the mouth-feel. The ones from here have lighter texture and sweeter meat." For his Dungeness dish, he commissioned a local farmer to come up with a combination of microgreens—baby clover, chervil, young celery lettuce, red Swiss chard—that would best complement the crab. It's terrific: the mixture is moist, with the right touch of lemon to highlight the crab's sweetness, topped with succulent Dungeness leg meat and a delicate tangle of greens. The "carpaccio," tender, very thin slices of lightly marinated artichoke heart, offsets the other ingredients perfectly, and the pickled chanterelles act as flavorful exclamation points. 1 Miramontes Point Rd., Half Moon Bay; 650/712-7040; dinner for two $130.
MERENDA Dramatic views of the Pacific revealed themselves around every mountainous curve as I drove north to San Francisco on Highway 1. I settled on dinner at Merenda, a tiny, tomato-soup-red trattoria in the city's up-and-coming Cow Hollow district. Though the restaurant is better known for hand-cut spaghetti, here I discovered an unexpected rendition of Dungeness crab. Chef Keith Luce folds crabmeat into a mousse of petrale sole (another California favorite); a creamy slice of the resulting terrine tasted like an elegant version of gefilte fish, dressed up with a hint of tarragon. The dish was served with baby mâche, cucumbers, and a drizzle of vinaigrette made with a fragrant, fruity olive oil. 1809 Union St., San Francisco; 415/346-7373; dinner for two $80.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT Plunk down onto one of the 17 rickety wooden stools at the counter of this San Francisco institution for a taste of the greatest crab Louis in town. This no-nonsense version of the California classic is a hundred times greater than the sum of its parts: shredded iceberg lettuce and mounds of plump, just-cooked Dungeness crab, all coated with a by-the-book Louis dressing—good mayo spiked with ketchup, chopped olives, eggs, and relish—and garnished with lemon wedges. Though I was tempted to pair it with a glass of white wine, something told me a pint of Anchor Steam would be just the thing (perhaps it was the neon beer signs?). I could have stayed all afternoon, munching crusty slices of San Francisco sourdough, watching the countermen (five brothers) shuck oysters and flop fish onto the old-fashioned scales, but I felt it was my gastronomo-civic duty to cede my seat to one of the folks patiently waiting in the line that snaked out the door. 1517 Polk St., San Francisco; 415/673-1101; lunch for two $50.
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.
Located in the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, this upscale restaurant serves coastal-inspired California cuisine amid panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Meaning “ship” in Portuguese, Navio has a curved wooden ceiling that resembles a boat hull, as well as wood-paneled walls hung with framed fish prints. Window tables have the most impressive views, while black-leather booths with privacy curtains provide a more intimate setting. In addition to dinner dishes like the smoked fettuccine with Dungeness crab and house-made bacon, the restaurant also serves a renowned Sunday brunch buffet, which includes everything from traditional breakfast fare to an extensive caviar station.
R & G Lounge in the heart of Chinatown is known for its Cantonese-style food, but its signature dish is the salt and pepper Dungeness crab. Plucked from the tank, the crab is live battered and deep fried, then sprinkled with salt and pepper. Those in the know insist that the meat should be eaten with bits of the batter. Another popular dish is the crispy and tender Peking duck with Chinese buns; more adventurous dishes include shark's fin and thick slices of abalone. The wood-paneled restaurant now accommodates 250, and the refurbished basement boasts a noodle-themed ceiling.
Swan Oyster Depot
In business since 1912, this Nob Hill neighborhood joint is essentially a seafood diner. Just over a dozen can squeeze onto the stools of its old school, marble, fish bar, so there's often a line out the door at lunch. Once seated, expect the freshest seafood, from crab, clam chowder, and seafood salad to the restaurant's signature oysters. Need help choosing between miyagi, kumamoto, and Olympias? Feel free to ask the knowledgeable and friendly staff for advice.
The Girl & the Fig
A Sonoma County favorite since 1997, this charming spot serves French-country cuisine for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. (Proprietor Sondra Bernstein and chef John Toulze moved the original restaurant from Glen Ellen to the current downtown Sonoma location in 2001—and their fan base followed.) It’s practically de rigueur to precede a meal here with a Fig Royale (the house cocktail, made with fig syrup and sparkling wine) at the huge antique wooden bar; once you settle in to the homey, mustard-yellow dining room, though, you’ll have some tough choices to make. Should you try the brioche French toast stuffed with fromage blanc for brunch—or the duck confit with poached eggs and potato hash? The slow-braised carbonade de boeuf for dinner, or the pan-roasted black cod? Either way, be sure to sample from the extensive charcuterie offerings—and from the “Rhone alone” wine list featuring locally grown Rhone varietals (like Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache).