Crab cake is official food of the Preakness Stakes for good reason. Just as the Preakness is the second jewel of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, the simple dish of quality crab meat, and little else, is a crown jewel of Maryland.
Thought to be another one of these ancient dishes with ambiguous roots, crab cake was enjoyed by early settlers of this country who would make croquettes using minced crab and breadcrumbs to form the patties, which was then grilled or fried and offered as an evening meal served on a roll or by itself.
For today's Toque to Toque challenge, we seek a perfect example of what our friends to the east might define as the perfect crab cake. This would be a blend of fresh large lump crab, a minimal binder of mayonnaise, a slight hand in its seasonings, and a smattering of breadcrumb to complete the bind and give the cake a golden hue.
Since lump crab meat can be prohibitively expensive, we wanted to see if it was possible to order a quality crab cake in Dallas without spending this month's mortgage, and thought it might prove more interesting to compare a high-end example with its less expensive cousin.
Our search led us to some wonderful crab including the appetizer at Five-Sixty, where chef Sara Johannes lays out a beautiful display of baby pucks laced with droplets of hoisin sauce. The cakes are delicious, but too tiny for what we are looking for in this challenge. The order of the day is big and meaty.
I had hoped to find a version of those famous crab cakes from the "21" Club in New York, eaten by Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, after Grace Kelly had a meal delivered to him. The 1920s speakeasy is famous for their crab cakes, and their recipe can be found just about anywhere. The "21" Club crab cake is crab cake Nirvana. It is simple to execute with its large lump crab meat, freshly made bread crumb, cilantro, minced jalapeno, red and yellow peppers, garlic, and mayonnaise. The ingredients are blended and carefully formed as not to break the large lumps, and then pan fried to a delicate crispness.
Meet today's opponents--both highly regarded in the crab cake arena but polar opposites on the financial scale. Let's get ready to rumble with The Oceanaire Seafood Room versus Rockfish Seafood Grill in the Toque to Toque Crab Cake Conundrum.
My first visit was to Oceanaire, located in the Galleria. Their reputation for great crab cakes is near legendary. But legends don't always live up to the hype. So I was anxious to try them out for myself.
Moseying up to the bar for a late lunch this week, I was quickly greeted by the bartender who offered me water and a menu. I scanned the menu and confirmed that this challenge would be accompanied by a large price tag: one large lump blue crab cake, about six ounces, for $16. Only when I actually looked deep into the folds of the dish did I begin to understand its economy.
The cake was nothing short of perfection and similar to that of the famed "21" cake sans the extraneous vegetation. Nearly pure crab. How did Oceanaire chef Aaron Valimont keep the lumps of crab intact without much in the way of binders? I say witchcraft.
The crab meat was delicate and fresh; the coloring of the cake impeccable. The taste rang with flavor and was worth every dollar spent.
Next stop was Rockfish, where I was promised a great crab cake on the cheap. I also heard the chain dished out a mean bowl of chowder and decided to give the combination a try.
After arriving at the familiar surroundings of Mockingbird Station, it only took a few minutes for my food to arrive. For half of what I spent at Oceaniare, I got not one, but three cakes at Rockfish. Sure they were smaller in size, but overall the weight was probably a few ounces more.
The cakes were served with two sauces, one tartar, the other seemingly remoulade, both presented in an unappetizing puddle on the plate. Regardless, I grabbed my fork and made my way into the middle of the fist cake.
I was a bit disappointed, and perhaps a bit spoiled. Instead of large lump (as promised by the bartender) there were flecks of crab, which suggests improper handling or an inferior grade of blue crab. In sampling the cake I found it to be heavily bound, perhaps by an egg wash, something that would give the cake a rubbery texture and thereby making it stray from my "21" Club icon.
In making this comparison I had hoped to find a less expensive version of the crab cake, one that would compete with a fine dining experience. My search continues.
For their amazing use of the delicate blue crab in a near Wiccan-like fashion, we award Oceanaire today's Toque to Toque bragging rights for being the thoroughbred of our Crab Cake Conundrum. Their cakes could easily be picked as product placement in the next remake of Rear Window.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room 13340 Dallas Parkway 972-759-2277
Rockfish Seafood Grill 5331 East Mockingbird Lane #160 214-823-8444