The Delights of Dungeness

Winter is Dungeness crab season; its time to get cracking.

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Consider a mollusk such as the escargot. It would be nothing but a garden pest without a megadose of garlic and butter. On the other hand, Dungeness, the crustacean indigenous to the West Coast, needs absolutely nothing—not even a pretty French name—to elevate it. The sweet, briny meat can actually improve your garlic and butter.

I have found no evidence that you could say the same for other types of crabs—blue, for instance.

"For many West Coast seafood lovers, including me," writes Mark Bittman in his book Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, "this great-tasting Pacific crab . . . is better compared to Maine lobster than to blue crab; it's that good and that meaty."

I knew this down to my bones when my sister Lisa, who lives in Annapolis, called me from Fisherman's Wharf. Visiting San Francisco, Lisa was about to order lunch with her husband and two kids.

"Get the crab," I told her in no uncertain terms.

"Nah," she replied, "I live on Chesapeake Bay—we have better crab."

Better? Maybe better than the crabs we pulled from Barnegat Bay at the Jersey Shore as kids, I thought. But I kept my opinion to myself. I may have blown my horn once too often to the family back East about how everything out West is better—from our mountains to our fog to our ocean, from which an average 38.5 million pounds of Dunge-ness are pulled annually. Some 25 percent of that weight is ambrosial leg and body meat so divine it brings smiles and tears of pleasure to those with enlightened palates.

Tell that to adherents of the majority opinion who, I'm guessing, think blue crabs arrived on the Mayflower. Dungeness, caught from Morro Bay to the Aleutian Islands, came into vogue commercially during Gold Rush days, among those most rugged individualists, the forty-niners. What a delicacy it must have seemed to the gritty argo-nauts when they sucked the moist white flesh from its shell, enjoying it with—what else?—a slab of freshly baked sourdough. If that heritage doesn't establish Cancer magister as the gold standard for premium crab, I know plenty of cooks and purveyors who share its turf—surf, rather—who will make the claim on its behalf.

"Dungeness," says Annette Traverso, an owner of Alioto-Lazio Fish Company (888-673-5868) at Fisherman's Wharf, "is the Pacific Ocean's treasure. It's rich and delicious." Speculating on what a crab that owes its flavor overwhelmingly to Old Bay seasoning might really taste like, she admits, "No offense, I've never eaten a blue."

Living near the wharf makes it easy for me to buy Dungeness from Alioto-Lazio's warehouse near the Hyde Street Pier. One crab encounter in particular has gone down in the history of my senses.

The two wriggling specimens, both heavier than others their size, must have been pulled from the sea only hours before. I cooked them as soon as I got home. Their freshness combined with immediate cooking could only render a memorable feast. At the table, I pushed aside the requisite drawn butter, finding it criminal to adorn meat whose taste and texture defined all the goodness of "fruit of the sea." Savoring my crab with a baguette, lightly dressed greens, and chardonnay, I believed I had never eaten more luxuriously.

While chefs incorporate Dungeness into all manner of dishes—from quiche, omelets, and pastas to fish stews, soups, and salads—many diners opt for the fun, if messy, bib-and-nutcracker ritual of extracting the prized meat from its shell.

"When crab season opens," says Patricia Unterman, co-owner of Hayes Street Grill (415-863-5545) in San Francisco, "people like it that way, but later they get lazy and want it cleaned." Unterman obliges with crab cakes; a cocktail made with mango, avocado, and lime-cilantro vinaigrette; and capellini topped with crab sautéed in butter, olive oil, garlic, chiles, and wine (a recipe for which, Unterman says, we may thank a once-renowned, now-defunct Eastern establishment: Mama Leone's in New York City).

Despite all this evidence supporting the superiority of Dungeness, I still encounter the opinion in erstwhile compatriots from the Eastern seaboard that theirs is the blue blood of crab. But Heidi Cusick, author of Mendocino: The Ultimate Wine and Food Lover's Guide and eight other food books, needs no coaxing to state flatly: "I don't think there's anything that comes close to Dungeness. I've tasted the Maryland crab. It's stringy and dry. Dungeness is lovely. It fills your mouth with flavor and then stays there for a while."

The West's native crab has helped build the reputations of San Francisco seafood institutions, such as Swan Oyster Depot (415-673-1101) on Polk Street and Scoma's (415-771-4383) at the wharf. The latter has its own fish- receiving station where the day's catch is transferred directly from boat to cooking pot. Since 1971, Thanh Long (415-665-1146), located in the city's Sunset District, has built its French-Vietnamese menu around Dungeness. At its sister eatery, Crustacean (415-776-2722), I ordered the specialty, the roasted crab. It's what they're famous for—people call for reservations from Colorado, Louisiana, Arizona, Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines. It was tender, tasty, and a well-advised match with the house's garlicky Asian noodles.

Dungeness crabs, smart critters, are ready for the catch during late fall, about the time the last tourist leaves town. I'm hoping my sister will visit then. We'll gorge on crab, making our way north to Fort Bragg. There at Mendo Bistro, located on the second floor of the former Union Lumber Company, we'll try the crab cakes. Developed by chef-owner Nicholas Petti, they have won the Mendocino Crabcake Cookoff two years running. (Barred from entering the next cook-off, he has been promoted to judge.)

Sure that Petti's recipe was even more classified than the president's golf score, I asked for his secret regarding Dungeness crabs. "All you have to do is stay out of their way," was the advice you might expect for something this inherently good. Thus his recipe, which he is happy to share (see below), relies mostly on crabmeat, bound with a tarragon aioli. For anyone with lingering doubt, I repeat his unsolicited kicker: "They're so meaty, you need a dozen blue to equal one Dungeness." By the time I send Lisa back East, she'll never sing the "blues" again.

Dungeness Cracking Grounds

Dungeness season opens in mid-November in central California, a little later as you move north. Since the bulk of the catch is landed early in the season (which runs through June), experts say the best time to enjoy the shellfish is December through February.

Mendocino Crab & Wine Days, January 23 to February 1, throughout Mendocino County. Lodgings offer "crustacean vacations." Events abound, including crab feeds at community halls, cooking demos, and crab-centered ocean excursions. Information: (866) 466-3636, www.gomendo.com.

San Francisco Crab Festival, February 1 to 29. Events at Fisherman's Wharf, along the Embarcadero, and around Union Square. On February 28 and 29, the sellout Crab & Wine Marketplace, which drew 11,000 people earlier this year, is held at Fort Mason Center. Information: (415) 391-2000, www.sfvisitor.org

Mendo Bistro crab cakes

serves 4

If you can't find panko bread crumbs (a Japanese-style bread crumb) in Asian food stores, use the driest crumbs available.

For the aioli:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 dash Tabasco sauce
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 1/2 bunch tarragon, finely chopped

For the crab cakes:

  • 1 1/2 pounds Dungeness crabmeat
  • 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs plus additional crumbs for coating
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • Oil for sautéing

Place first 5 ingredients in a food processor or blender and run machine. Pour in hot water and process for 15 seconds. With machine running, slowly drizzle in oil until sauce emulsifies. Stir in chopped tarragon and set aside.

Combine crab, bread crumbs, and green onions. Add about 1/2 cup of aioli, enough to just barely hold the mixture together. Form the mixture into cakes about 3 inches in diameter and place one side in bread crumbs. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Place cakes, bread-crumb side down, in pan. Sauté until golden and carefully turn over. Lower heat and sauté until heated through. Top with aioli.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy

This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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