Chow Bella

Soft-Shell Crab Done Right at Quiessence, Teeter House and Binkley's

It's soft-shell crab season now until the end of summer, which means we're going to be seeing lots of it on local menus -- usually served lightly battered and deep-fried, always eaten whole.

The good news? No futzing around with crab-crackers.

The bad news? Having to eat those beady little eyes.

If you're not squeamish about soft-shell crab, you already know its many virtues -- sweet meat, major crunch, and a bit of juiciness in the middle. If you've never tried it, you're definitely missing out.

Ever wonder what the soft shell is all about? Here's a science lesson to get you up to speed:

Crabs are crustaceans, and crustaceans are invertebrates, meaning they don't have a spinal column but rather a rigid exoskeleton (a.k.a. hard shell). To grow larger, the crab must shed its smaller shell and grow another one through a process called molting. Crabs fatten up to make it through the molting ordeal, which means they're especially flavorful right after they ditch the old shell. Their new shells are only soft for two to three hours, so it's kind of an ephemeral thing.

Here in the States, we eat blue crabs in their soft-shell state. Maryland and Virginia are famous for blue crabs, which live in the Chesapeake Bay, but other Southern states have blue crabs, too.

Now that you're fired up to give them a try, here are three places that do an exceptional job with soft-shell crab.

At Quiessence, chef de cuisine Tony Andiario makes the entire dish a tribute to late spring-early summer. On the plate: two crisp-fried jumbo soft shell crabs, served with purple baby artichokes and the first squash of the season. Shaved into long, thin strips and tossed in EVOO and red wine vinegar, the zucchini becomes a raw, marinated slaw-like salad, amped up with shaved red onion, wild Italian mint, and red pepper flakes. Swish the crab in a puddle of tart-sweet vinaigrette, composed of garlic, shallots, and hothouse tomato puree ($40).

Known for his interpretive spin on traditional Japanese food, chef-owner Nobuo Fukuda of Nobuo at Teeter House, tucks a small, crunchy soft shell crab inside a golden bun of house-made focaccia. And it's the bread -- laced with green onion and sesame seeds, then quickly deep-fried until the exterior has its own brittle edge -- that comes damn close to stealing the show. Layered with sliced cucumber, arugula, and kanzuri aioli (think mayo, jazzed up with spicy chile paste and Japanese citrus), this is one fine sandwich. Soft-shell crabs are available frozen year-round, but right now, Fukuda brings in fresh blue crab from Maryland.

Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant is justifiably famous for his heart-stopping presentations. But it's never all-show-and-no-go with this guy, who wants us to eat with our eyes but devour the canvas. In this case, the behind-the-scenes photo I snapped (and the dish I later ate) is a yummy portrait in taste and texture contrasts: spicy slaw, a buttery smear of avocado, crisp taro root chips, Serrano chile, daikon and sweet chokecherries ($21).

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Nikki Buchanan