Blue crab blues
Officially blue crab season in Maryland starts April 1 (no foolin) and ends December 15, tomorrow. I hear best time for crabs is in autumn, when they start eating more to survive the long winter; I'd been meaning to drive down to Baltimore to try some.
Did not happen for a number of reasons: time (or lack of), money (or lack of). So we compromised: Chic's Seafood on 300 Summit Ave., Hagerstown--which was technically Maryland (though three hours from the coast).
The place looked promising, from the simple clapboard-and-shingle house exterior to the huge crustacean perched on the roof, looking as if it was waiting to turn the tables on you. We walked in anyway; if that big shellfish wanted to attack us he was welcome to do so; we were starving.
Inside was nice. All-wood with simple furnishings and almost theatrical lighting:
There was even a Christmas tree trimmed with plain white bulbs that didn't flash to a cheesy beat--my favorite kind, short of actual candles:
And there was an interesting little detail--the tables were mounted on the lower halves of old cast-iron Singer sewing machines, complete with band wheel:
Those things last forever, so I figure the tables would stay standing longer than we'll be around, easy.
For appetizer we had oysters on the half-shell. A dozen local shellfish with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges:
They were briny juicy creatures, freshly shucked.
We also got clams on a half shell:
Which were if you can believe it even better: sweet and tender, and you can tell they'd just been deprived of their top shell (Steamed clams? Guh!).
And then the main course: a dozen medium crabs, seasoned with Old Bay and steamed. It's the tail end of the season and other places had already run out of local crabs; I would've understood if they had sourced their shellfish from elsewhere.
But no--these were local! "They must have gotten them from far out in the bay, around thirty forty feet deep," the man at the counter beamed with pride. "With this weather the water's too choppy; there won't be any crabs near the surface. We couldn't believe we got this batch. You really lucked out."
We did. The flesh was firm and sweet, nicely accentuated by the Old Bay; we asked for and got malt vinegar to dip in, to cut the richness of the meat. The fat found in the shell--which the crab had worked so hard to build up for the coming winter--was even better: buttery and intense, the very essence of crab. Some of that crusting you see in the pic above is fat leaked out and mixed with the Old Bay; you can imagine how that tasted.
Not all of us were skilled at picking apart shellfish, so we ordered a crab cake:
Dessert was--what else? A Smith Island Cake, that most Maryland of sweets: about a dozen or so layers of yellow cake between an equal number of rich icing, made in-house. We got two: one with caramel cream icing, the other with Oreo-orange:
Half finished, sorry; already started on the wedge before I thought to take a picture. The caramel had already gone alas (salty-sweet), and so had the key lime pie (creamy tart).
The counter man added: "You should have checked us out in November. The crabs were huge and there was so many we were practically giving them away." So: this place, next November--check.
Leaving the place I looked back to check on our rooftop predator: he was still poised to leap.
I wish him luck. I was full but still had plenty of room for one more oversized crustacean.