The Naked Crustacean

High and Low: Soft Shell Crabs

Molting does not sound like fun. Imagine, you're a crab—a blue one, probably—and in spring, while everyone else is picnicking and jumping rope, you suddenly grow so big that your shell no longer fits over the expanse of your guts. Your torso sheds its outer layer, which sounds painful enough. But think of the psychological damage of being exposed (wearing nothing but the soft under-layer of shell) and vulnerable. It's almost too much to bear.

We are currently deep in soft shell crab season, which began in May and will continue into July. For us, blue's pain is our gain. In fact, we tend to particularly enjoy crunching the joints of a crab's naked legs between our molars. Regular crabs are quite high maintenance, and the molting is something to celebrate. We want to eat other animals whole, like vicious cavemen, but our wimpy teeth are just not up to the task most of the time.

Like any delicacy, there are classic preparations as well as endless attempts to twist and reinvent. That said, efforts are almost always made to honor the crunchy texture of the crustacean. Soft shells are often fried or sautéed whole or cut into large chunks—each with some meat and a petrified leg or two extending. People love them in sushi rolls, mayonnaise-y sandwiches, and with bacon.

This month, some of the more inventive versions around town Momofuku's pan-fried soft shell crabs, with pickled garlic shoots, almonds, roasted ramps, and pickled cherries, and Alias's fried crabs with kimchi, apricot sauce, and chive flowers. Both focus on contrasting the mellow taste of the crab with bright, bold flavors, but not overwhelming it. In Chinatown, where the delicacy is extremely popular, and the crabs can be found year-round in many places (not a good sign—it probably means they were caught in the Pacific Ocean and shipped frozen), the cooking is a lot less complicated. In short, they're deep-fried and piled high.

Recently, I went on a bit of a crab binge to experience both sides of the season. First, the high: a special ($30) at Ureña, a low-key but classy Spanish restaurant on East 28th (from Alex Ureña, formerly the head chef at Bouley) which opened last winter and has already changed the menu nine times to keep up with the seasons. The dish could easily be called convoluted. The crabs were nestled in a layer of tangy ramp foam, with an English pea puree beneath them, and sautéed blue foot mushrooms and corn piled about. The corn, which is not yet in season, and the peas, which are, both seemed extraneous. But, like on Iron Chef, the real question is whether the main ingredient shone. And it did. The crab was crunchy and salty, which the mushrooms helped to highlight, while pickled ramps balanced out the buttery, sweet quality of the flesh.

Near the Manhattan bridge, at Kam Chueh on the Bowery, the crabs had fewer backup dancers. The neon-clad restaurant offers a dish called "Soft Shell Crabs Kam Chueh," which has garlic and a black bean sauce, but we were encouraged not to order it. Apparently, no one does. "People like the other one," our waiter told us, referring to the salt-and-pepper version. The crab, after been hacked apart, is dredged in an airy batter and deep-fried till the legs look like puffy little chicken fingers. They're tossed with salt, black pepper, and some translucent slices of red and green chili peppers. This could be bar food. It's nearly impossible to stop eating, and it costs exactly half as much as the entrée at Ureña. But the crab itself is bland. It's all about the fry.

 
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