It's soft-shell crab season, which means chefs around town are once again putting their own spin on this incredible seasonal ingredient. Each spring, blue crabs go through a massive growth spurt, busting out of their hard shells and growing up to 35 percent bigger. Once they've shed, the crabs are soft and vulnerable — and very tasty. You can eat almost all of the crab without having to crack open a hard shell and fish around inside for nuggets of crab meat.
Last year, some friends and I embarked on an inaugural soft-shell crab crawl, eating 26 crabs over the course of one day and drinking many bottles of wine. It was a lesson in Charleston's diversity — and our own gluttony. Sure, there are limited ways to cook a softie — pan-saute, bread and fry, roast in a wood-smoke oven — but there are as many ways to present them as there are chefs in town. I hadn't planned to do another crawl — the thought of eating another softie made me feel vaguely ill — but once they started showing up on menus around town, popular demand compelled us to throw together our second annual crab crawl, which we did on a recent Tuesday night.
This time, I found as many eaters as possible so I wouldn't have to eat so much. My co-conspirator, once again, was Harry Root of Grassroots Wine. He supplied a cooler of delicious rosé wines and suggested we try to eat some spring vegetables this time around to help mitigate the richness of the crabs. Good idea.
I started the day by calling Kimberly Carroll of Kimberly's Crabs to see who she was delivering to and discovered that she had sold her boat and given up the crab business, a sad development for the local restaurants that relied on her timely deliveries. It seems Bill Livingston of Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville is filling much of the void left by Kimberly. Chefs are also sourcing through Crosby's and have been trying to find direct links to crabbers sorting softies around town without much luck. Kevin Johnson at The Grocery was so desperate for his first batch of crabs that he met Livingston in the parking lot of a Walmart way out on the edge of Mt. Pleasant. Since then, he's been able to get them delivered to his door, but that's costing him an extra 50 cents per crab.
We started around 2 p.m., hitting Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen where they were serving two preparations — one flash-fried in a salt-and-pepper batter and the other tempura battered and served with veggies and a spicy mango sauce. My fortune cookie warned me that I would end the day drunk and sick: "The best prophet of the future is the past."
From there, we hit Two Boroughs Larder for Josh Keeler's beautiful fried softie served with sea beans, favas, and a poached egg. Next, we sat in the open window at Closed for Business and split a soft-shell crab po' boy that proved to be a solid sandwich on fantastic bread.
Then we hit a roadblock. At 4 p.m., most restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner, so we started making phone calls and sending tweets looking for our next stop. Lucky for us, the Edmund's Oast crew agreed to whip us up a batch of softies, even though their kitchen didn't officially open until 5:30 p.m. A big crew of eaters met up with us there and helped us plow through a platter of six crabs (cooked in miso butter) splayed out on veggies and poached eggs. A highlight of the day.
We had called ahead to FIG to reserve the community table and arrived right when the kitchen opened to gobble up a plate of three pan-sauteed soft-shell crabs served with my favorite vegetable of the day — squash blossoms stuffed with pea purée, the brainchild of Chef Jason Stanhope.
Dinner hour was upon our group, which had grown to eight, and we wanted to hit Slightly North of Broad since we couldn't get in last year. We had to wait a bit here for two tables and four orders of softies there, which were deep fried and served on a pile of savory barley with pole beans and radishes.
Across the street at Cypress, things got a little ridiculous when Chef Craig Deihl sent out a big Creuset platter of softies and pork belly sprinkled with pickled golden raisins, perhaps the most unusual pop of flavor all night. This stop officially put us into the drunk and full category.
We'd been hearing all day long about Xiao Bao Biscuit's softies and were eager to check out their version, but alas, no softies were on the menu this night, so we hopped over to The Grocery where Kevin Johnson presented his three versions of softies: wood-roasted, fried, and pan-sauteed. He also sent us some platters of much-needed veggies.
At this point, the night was winding down. Kitchens were closing all around town, but luckily Mike Lata was waiting for us to hit The Ordinary, and it proved a perfect place to end the night. The soft-shell sandwich that we loved so much last year has received a quirky update: it's served like a BLT on squid ink brioche. I could barely eat another bite, but the other eaters crowed at its awesomeness. The second preparation was a sauteed softie smothered in the most incredible sauce of the day, Américaine.
In the end, we ate 23 crabs, hit nine restaurants, and drank many bottles of wine. After The Ordinary, bellies full and curiosity quelled, we tottered off into the night to sleep off another epic softie crawl.