Get them while you can, because soft shell crabs (a.k.a. “softies”) come around only once a year and there are only a few days left in the season. Local blue crabs molt right before the first full moon each spring when water temperatures begin to warm. Local crabbers keep a watchful eye on this once-a-year outing, and most local restaurants begin frantically calling to place their orders. This year, due to wacky weather conditions, the supply is almost half of what it has been in past years, so time is of the essence to get your claws on some before they are gone.
Each year, a group of food minded folks go on an annual trek to seek out the best and brightest of the bunch. The organizers hit up over two dozen places, but here are The Daily Meal’s highlights of the crawl.
Edmund’s Oast: Diners can order a cast iron soft shell crab that sits above steamed cabbage, a semi-pureed cauliflower, and is topped with meyer lemon and a brioche crumble at Edmund’s Oast. Like most of the menu, it goes well with the extensive beverage menu, and should be ordered along some of the restaurants well known snack menu.
FIG: One of the first restaurants to serve softies this season was FIG, so we got the chance to eat this dish a few times during the season (tough job, but we will take it). The crabs were nicely prepared and served on a bed of spaghetti garnished with lemon, bottarga, herbs, and bread crumbs. Order a platter for the table, and if you can, go back for seconds.
The Glass Onion: When we first thought about eating soft shell crabs, we knew The Glass Onion would be a good place to go. We were not disappointed. Chef Chris Stewart cold smokes the crab with a hickory batter made from Fanta and locally distilled High Wire Distilling Co. Hometown vodka. He serves over warm grits with asparagus and Bearnaise sauce.
Hominy Grill: You can’t get through the season without eating a soft shell crab sandwich, and our preference is po-boy style. Hominy Grill does a nice lightly battered version, served on a baguette with lettuce, tomatoes, and remoulade. Get with a side of grits and call it a day.
Husk: Executive chef Travis Grimes offers an Asian-influenced version at Husk with a spicy kimchi vinaigrette, Virginia peanuts, jalapeno, baby carrots, and cilantro, topped with a light tempura breaded soft shell crab.
Marvin’s Seafood: Off the beaten path, and a true seafood institution, Marvin’s Seafood offers a deep-fried softie on white bread with fries. It is simple and good, period.
The Park Café: Ramps, ramps, and more ramps was the highlight of this crab dish at The Park Café. Even though we were distracted by that springtime delicacy, the ramp pesto did not overshadow the soft shell crab that was brown buttered basted not fried and layered over the top of fresh radishes, tomatoes, marble potatoes, shaved beets, and mache.
Trattoria Lucca: Chef Ken Vedrinski sort of fooled us – he prepared some off-menu variations for the crawl when we arrived at Trattoria Lucca. Lucky for us, it was some of the best dishes of all those consumed. One was coated in burnt flour, another marinated in grapefruit and kohlrabi, and one with anchovy sauce atop a bed of fresh pasta.
Two Borough’s Larder: Everything on the plate at Two Borough’s Larder looked like it was freshly plucked from a garden, cooked beautifully, and placed in front of you to enjoy every bite. The soft shell crab is lightly breaded and married with carrot, nasturtium, ramp, pea butter, and benne.
Others to try: Bacco never gets enough play and offers a solid meal; Básico, after you grab a bottle of My Essential Rosé at next door’s Mixson Market; Charleston Grill for the high-end experience; and Obstinate Daughter after you are done with the beach and want a bite of something from the nearby oceans.
What goes better with soft shell crab than a nice, bright, well-balanced rosé wine? Our tour guide on the annual crawl is one of the city’s best wine distributor: Harry Root of Grassroots Distributing, who graciously supplied and paired some of the hottest new Rosés released this spring with each crab dish. Some of the favorites from the crawl were the Bieler and My Essential Rosé — two rosés from Provence that are Grenache-based.
There are also some great "New" California winemakers whose rosés are balanced, expressive, and affordable like Lioco, Matthiasson, Arnot Roberts, Broc, and Wind Gap. Finally, almost every wine region in the world makes tasty rosé, it's just too tempting not to, so don't be afraid to try those from wine regions your pallet doesn't usually visit like Esporao from Portugal or Boxwood from Virginia.