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Crab salads old and new lead patrons to ‘spend up’

Capitalizing on the popularity of crab in both classic and innovative applications, some restaurant and hotel operators are touting popular salads that showcase the meat’s sweet and delicate flavor.

They agree the tasty crustacean is not a food that needs a lengthy tableside pitch to sell, especially when fashioned into an appealing salad. “Crab kind of pushes a button for the guest who is able to ‘spend up’ a little,” said Bill King, vice president of culinary development for the 84-unit McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants, based in Portland, Ore. “You know the guest is going to appreciate the quality and, on occasion, be willing to spend for it.”

In fact, so popular is McCormick & Schmick’s Crab Louis salad that the recipe has remained essentially unchanged for more than three decades. It calls for Dungeness crabmeat dressed with Thousand Island dressing and served with garnishes like olives and slices of hardboiled eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers. “We try not to mess with the classics any more than we have to,” said King.

Although Dungeness is the traditional product for Crab Louis, which originated in San Francisco, according to King, his restaurants in the East and Midwest use Eastern blue crabmeat because the supply is better in those regions. But that also works fine, he said.

Achef who favors the Maryland blue crab for Crab Louis and other salads is executive chef Kevin Hickey of the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. “I like blue crab meat because of its texture — those big, fat meaty pieces,” said Hickey.

For Hickey, crab salads are best in summer, paired with fresh seasonal ingredients. “Heirloom tomatoes work beautifully with crab, as does sweet corn, because of the crunch and sweetness,” he said. “The creamy fattiness of avocado also goes great with the sweet, salty chewiness of crab.”

In fact, sweet corn added a pleasing nuance to a popular summertime Crab Roll featured at the hotel café — a hollowed brioche roll filled with a salad of crabmeat, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, chives and corn kernels.

At Go Fish in St. Helena, Calif., one of chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn’s three Napa Valley restaurants, you get two sauces for your money’s worth with The Louie, a salad priced at $21 with crab, $17 with shrimp and $27 “loaded” with both types of shellfish. Executive chef Victor Scargle dresses mixed iceberg lettuce and watercress with apple cider vinaigrette and folds a Louis sauce made with homemade mayonnaise, ketchup, olive oil and Worcestershire into Dungeness crabmeat. “Whether it’s crab in a crabcake or crab in a Louie, people understand they’re going to get that sweet crab flavor that is very special,” said Scargle.

Other operators show how far you can depart from the classics with crab. Take the Dungeness Crab Salad at Solbar, the restaurant of the Solage Calistoga, a resort and spa in Calistoga, Calif. The centerpiece of executive chef Brandon Sharp’s $16 creation is Dungeness crabmeat molded into a disk and served atop a pool of watermelon consommé. It is surrounded by melon balls, paper-thin slices of radish and jalapeno and small diamonds of tequila-lime gelee. Micro cilantro greens are strewn atop the crab for garnish. “I’m not sure people know what to expect, but it is a neat kind of cold, refreshing cocktail of flavors,” said Sharp. “They like the crunch of the melon, the creaminess of the crab and the sharpness of the shaved slices of radish and jalapeno.” 

At Etta’s Seafood, one of the five Tom Douglas Restaurants in Seattle, Dungeness Crab Salad with the zesty flavors of lime and grapefruit is a monster seller. “On a busy day, we can move 50 or 60 of these,” said sous chef Joe Labatt. The salad has fresh vacuum-packed Dungeness crabmeat and julienne jicama over organic bibb and baby red oak lettuce and watercress in a lime vinaigrette made with ginger and fresh grapefruit sections. “Crab matches up very well with citrus,” said Labatt. “The pepperiness of the watercress gives it another zesty note as well.”

Also playing off the affinity of crab and citrus — with the perfume of vanilla as a kicker — is the Citrus Crab Salad Sandwich ($13) at Green Zebra in Chicago, a vegetarian-focused restaurant, one of chef-owner Shawn McClain’s trio of eateries there, which also serves the odd seafood item. The salad is made with peekytoe crabmeat from Maine, chopped orange, lime, lemon and red grapefruit sections, vanilla bean shavings, olive oil and a dab of sriracha hot chile sauce. The vegetarian slant notwithstanding, “some people really love this sandwich,” said chef de cuisine Molly Harrison.

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