There is no better way to enjoy Louisiana blue crab than in a crab cake.
By Brett Anderson
A healthy debate can be had over the best way to appreciate blue crabs. The purists could argue that nothing beats picking apart whole boiled beasts by hand. Diners who prefer to outsource dismemberment tasks could speak in favor lump meat dressed simply in ravigote or claws dripping seasoned olive oil. Chefs, eager to enlist the power tools of their trade, might advocate on behalf of crab au gratin, a creamy bisque or the added value crab brings atop a finfish fillet or rib-eye steak.
There are other reasonable arguments to be made, but none that would sway me from my position that there is no more delicious way to enjoy Louisiana crab than in an excellent crab cake.
I say excellent because not all crab cakes are so. Most are just fine. They are the deep fried crunch packets of seafood flavor that are the signature crab cake style of so many south Louisiana restaurants. I can appreciate these croquettes of crab dressing, but they are not the crab cakes I gave myself the task of finding in my quest to unearth the New Orleans area's very best.
I was interested in the other crab cakes, the ones built from lump meat and not much more. These crab cakes are browned in an oven, a high-power broiler or sautée pan, and they are so different from the fried crab cakes that the dishes deserve different names.
"Our fried one is more along the lines of stuffed crab, rather than a Maryland-style crab cake, which is what the broiled one is," said Pat Gallagher, who serves both style cakes at his North Shore restaurants Gallagher's Grill and Pat Gallagher's 527. "We started serving the broiled one a few years ago, and it has become more popular."
Gallagher's broiled cakes are emblematic of the excellent crab cakes I identified for your benefit. They arrive at the table literally sizzling, just as the steaks do, in a pool of melted butter. Gallagher's uses some panko crumbs to bind the meat, but most mouthfuls seem to contain nothing but butter and jumbo lump crab - a delicacy Commander's Palace's Ella Brennan calls, in the crab cake recipe in the book Commander's Kitchen, "the caviar of Louisiana."
All of the crab cakes in my list of New Orleans' best leave a diner feeling that the meat is just that good. The cakes do have something in common, as Gallagher suggested, with the ones found in better restaurants around Maryland, and in the Mid Atlantic generally, where I happened to live for half of my 20s. Maryland is particularly fond and proud of the blue crab – so much so that the state relies on Gulf of Mexico crabs to satisfy the hunger.
Eat examples of these crab cakes around New Orleans and you'll have a difficult time faulting Marylanders their obsession. They are, by and large, found at restaurants on the high end of the price spectrum. There is good reason for this: Lump blue crab meat is prized and thus not cheap, and these crab cakes are excellent mainly because they contain mainly that one amazing ingredient.
You will notice a tight concentration of places in the French Quarter – Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, GW Fins and Mr. B's Bistro are all located within short walking distance of each other. My research also revealed steakhouses to generally be a source for excellent crab cakes. The evidence goes beyond the inclusion of the great cakes served at Mr. John's, The Steakhouse and Dickie Brennan's. Gallagher and GW Fins' Tenney Flynn are both former Ruth's Chris Steakhouse chefs. And the crab cakes at Mr. John's and Gallagher's are served in the same manner as butter-sizzling steaks. As Mr. John's chef Robert Bruce put it, "Crab meat and butter is a match made in heaven."
Louisiana blue crab is officially back in season. Granted, crab never truly disappears from local restaurant menus. But the supply does become scarce during the cold months. This year, crab became harder to find than usual, as even restaurants closely identified with lump meat, like Galatoire's andClancy's, stopped serving crab altogether for a period.
Local chefs and restaurateurs report that crab has been slow to return this spring, many citing cold weather and fresh water diversions as contributing factors, but it has resumed its place of ubiquity on local restaurant menus. If you find a crab dish more delicious than an excellent lump meat crab cake, I want to know about it.