When Victor Scargle tasted his first soft-shell crab back in 1995, it was at the behest of some more senior chefs he was working with in a New York City seafood restaurant. Then a young, up-and-coming chef who was more familiar with the hard-shell crabs of his native West Coast, Scargle thought his new co-workers were pulling his leg when they told him to eat the whole crab, shell and all. But he took the bait and has been in love with the delicacy ever since.
“It was wonderful,” said Scargle of that first experience. “What a delicious surprise and treat it was.”
Scargle is now chef at Lucy’s Restaurant in Yountville, California, where, once the season hits in late April, he plans to serve fennel pollen and phyllo-crusted soft-shell crabs with Lucy artichokes barigoule, morel mushrooms, wrinkled crinkled cress and apple balsamic.
“It’s such a great product, very versatile, sweet flavor, has a crunchiness to it,” he said. “It goes well with a lot of stuff.”
Scargle isn’t alone in his passion for the delicate crustaceans. Chefs across the country are discovering the uniqueness and versatility of soft-shell crabs and are increasingly adding them to their menus. According to Datassential MenuTrends, soft shells now appear on 15 percent more restaurant menus than they did five years ago.
Soft shells are most common on fine dining menus, where 10 percent of menus feature the item. The biggest increase over the last five years has occurred at the midscale and casual-dining segments, where the appearance of soft-shell crabs on menus increased by 28 percent and 20 percent respectively.
A number of trends are driving the increased interest in soft shells, say chefs, including diners’ desire to eat more seasonally. At a time when most seafood can be had during any season and in any location, soft-shell crabs remain seasonal. They are only available from late April through summer when the crab sheds its shell in preparation to grow a new one.
“It’s a very unique time of year that you can eat the whole crab,” said chef Frederik de Pue of Azur in Washington, D.C, a contemporary seafood restaurant that opened Thursday. “You have to take advantage of products that are in season and unique.”
While soft shells are traditionally deep fried, de Pue prefers a lighter preparation. He will serve pan-roasted Maryland crab with English peas, house-made crème fraiche and Japanese yuzu koshu paste.
Also breaking from tradition is chef Mike Isabella, chef and owner of Graffiato in Washington, D.C., and former contestant on Bravo TV's Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars. Isabella will be serving a wild rice–crusted soft-shell crab with eggplant relish and green plum. The breading, which includes fried rice, flour and egg, gives the crab an exterior he describes as being “almost like a Rice Krispie.”
“It’s cool lookin’ … unexpected,” said Isabella of his puffed-rice creation. “Everyone loves a fried soft-shell crab.”
Though soft shells primarily come from The Gulf of Mexico, The Chesapeake Bay, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, advances in packaging, shipping and storage mean the crabs can noweasily travel across the country, allowing chefs such as Sonny Sweetman of Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles to serve them as well.
“They have an amazing natural, briny, sweet flavor, and they remind me of home,” said Sweetman, who is originally from Maryland. “But the season is short so you have to get them quickly when they are available.”
Sweetman puts soft shells on the menu at Wolfgang Puck every spring and varies the preparations. This year he’ll be coating Maryland soft shells in tempura, deep frying them and serving them with fava beans, eggplant and Indian spices.
In Houston, chef Danny Trace of Brennan’s of Houston plans to take advantage of the rare product by serving a variety of preparations. His menu will include Soft-Shell Crab Imperial, Blue Crab Bread Pudding with Soft-Shell Bisque, Blue Crab Soufflé with soft-shell saffron cream, Crispy Smoked Soft-Shell Crab and Soft-Shell Provencal.
“There’s something unbelievable about a fried soft shell crab,” said Trace. “[I’m] always excited to see them coming. We always try to do something different.”