Chefs conjure up new dishes and preserve old favorites to satisfy cravings for shrimp and crab.
This article first appeared in the 1 September 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
With a menu featuring crab fritters, shrimp and grits, crab-encrusted grouper, shrimp au gratin and shrimp-and-crab fettuccini, Magnolia Court restaurant in Foley, Ala., serves a lot of shellfish.
Executive Chef Greg Buschmohle estimates that he goes through 200 pounds of Gulf shrimp and 40 pounds of local blue crab each week for the 2,000 or so guests who visit Magnolia Court, housed within The Hotel Magnolia.
“The tourists who come, they want seafood,” Buschmohle explains. “And if you think about it, the locals in the area, they have the knowledge and experience and discriminating taste for fresh seafood.”
So does Buschmohle, who has run seafood-focused restaurants for more than 20 years. He knows better than to take for granted that the restaurant is only 10 miles from the Gulf Coast.
But just how important are shrimp and crab to menus outside the Gulf states?
“On one level, they are very important,” says Bill King, vice president of culinary development for Portland, Ore.-based McCormick & Schmick's. “They are the most popular seafood items in the country. Kids love shrimp; nonseafood eaters will eat shrimp. And crab is a premium product everywhere.”
All the same, the duo's popularity doesn't mean that chefs can load shrimp and crab onto menus wherever they might like to.
“In most cases, shrimp is frozen,” King notes. “Our restaurants focus on fresh seafood. For that reason, we might not always have [as much] shrimp on the menu.” Also, he says, “crab is one thing that is never cheap.”
Yet product-sourcing limitations and price challenges haven't stalled crustacean innovation among chefs. More-economical alternatives to jumbo-lump crab cakes—a perennial consumer favorite—are proving popular on menus; at Serpas in Atlanta, the Texas Crab Toast is a hit with guests and is food-cost-friendly. At the same time, shrimp's recent drop in price has given chefs more freedom to experiment with that protein, the result often being bold new shrimp applications. And when shrimp and crab are combined, as they are in the seafood pockets served at Akai Lounge in New York City and in Englewood, N.J., the flavors can be difficult for seafood fans to resist.
When Atlanta chef Scott Serpas wanted to put blue crab on the menu at his namesake restaurant, he had two reasons for forgoing crab cakes. First, high-quality crab cakes (made with little in the way of a binder) are expensive to make—wholesale crab prices can vary from $12 a pound for Venezuelan product to more than $18 a pound for domestic. Second, he wanted to prepare something new.
“If you're a chef, you want to make it exciting and fun, not just for the guest but for the staff as well,” he explains.
So he developed Texas Crab Toast. Serpas tops a ½-inch-thick slice of Texas-style toasted, buttered bread with jumbo-lump crab mixed with scallop mousse. (The mousse, a combination of puréed scallops, egg whites, shallot, lemon zest and a splash of cream, adheres the crab to the toast.) He sears the toast seafood-side-down until the crab is heated through. Next, the toast is quartered and served with spicy sambal syrup.
“I had in mind that I needed to make it to where it was recession-proof,” Serpas says. Three scallops are enough for 1 pound of crabmeat, which generates about eight orders at a 28% food cost.
Making exceptions for banquet and brunch menus, Buschmohle, too, strays from crab cakes, preferring to serve crab fritters. His customers aren't complaining about his best-selling small-plate item. “The word fritter interests people,” he says.
Buschmohle makes the batter by folding crab into a mixture of flour, water and eggs. To order, he forms the batter into balls with an ice-cream scoop and drops them into the fryer. After they've been lightly fried, the fritters are finished in the oven. For 2 pounds of batter, Buschmohle uses 1 pound of crab.
For Chef Rodney Scruggs, eliminating classic Maryland-style crab cakes from the menu isn't an option. At Occidental Grill & Seafood, a century-old restaurant in Washington, D.C., Scruggs knows that classic dishes are what many diners want. Besides, “I'm kind of a traditionalist,” he says.
That doesn't mean he doesn't also offer out-of-the-ordinary alternatives; Scruggs menus an open-faced salmon-and-crab-cake sandwich that's less costly than traditional crab cakes to produce. Made with chunks of poached salmon belly and crab meat, a 4-ounce cake is served on toasted brioche with Bibb lettuce, herbed aïoli and sweet-pepper coleslaw.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., students occasionally see crab cakes on Executive Chef Carmen Allen's menus. “But instead of making [a crab cake] and serving it with a sauce, we make it into a panini,” she says.
Allen ensures that crab stays within her budget by using recipes in which only a small portion of crab is needed for impact. For example, crab serves as a flavorful accent in a creamy, lightly sherried corn chowder that's garnished with diced tomatoes.
Additionally, Allen is selective about when she buys the premium ingredient, waiting for periods such as late summer, when vendors often have stockpiles of frozen crab that they need to move. “You can pick up crab inexpensively that way,” she says.
SHRIMP GETS BOLDER
Chefs haven't been as cost-pressed with shrimp as they have with crab. “Shrimp prices are way down,” says John Carver, executive chef and partner of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Eddie V's. “I haven't seen prices like this for a long time.”
At the company's Eddie V's and Wildfish Seafood Grille units, Carver is responding to the low prices by adding more shrimp—often supplemented with crab—to appetizer menus. Among the new selections: shrimp pot stickers served in a light soy broth and thin, deep-fried crab-and-shrimp rolls that are seasoned with ginger and cilantro and served with red-pepper jelly.
Asian seasonings and spicy dipping sauces tend to be welcome additions to shrimp, which (more so than crab) can stand up to robust flavors. “Shrimp is a stout animal, so it holds up to more-aggressive treatment,” King explains.
Yet favorite flavor profiles vary by region. On the East Coast, traditional American dishes often take the lead. “We serve crab-stuffed shrimp all over, but it tends to sell better on the East Coast,” King says.
Similarly, at Occidental, one of the top-selling appetizers is President Obama's Shrimp and Grits, in which sautéed shrimp are served with Swiss chard, grits and a shellfish pan gravy.
Less-traditional combinations tend to perform better on the West Coast. At McCormick & Schmick's, a Pacific Northwest favorite is grilled shrimp with either a hot-and-sour Thai glaze or a blackberry barbecue sauce. Large Gulf shrimp are wrapped in bacon, skewered and then basted on the grill with one of the sweet-tart sauces.
Bold shrimp dishes also are winning over college students. At Dartmouth, Allen occasionally spices up winter dinner menus with Mexican barbecued shrimp. To avoid serving overcooked seafood, Allen prepares shrimp only in small batches, sautéing them with onion, garlic and herbs before tossing them in a house-made sauce of tomatoes, mustard, brown sugar, honey and dried Mexican chiles.
Pairings of shrimp and crab can be cause for celebration for diners and operators alike.
Lakewood, Wash.-based Ram Restaurant & Brewery found this to be true over the summer; the chain counted a shrimp-and-crab corn dog and shrimp-and-crab enchiladas as its best-selling summer items from May to July during an annual seafood celebration.
The event came out of a need to draw attention to the seafood section of the menu, explains Banger Smith, sales and brand leader for parent company Ram International, and it has led to keeping more seafood dishes on the menu year-round.
The shrimp-and-crab enchiladas, featuring flour tortillas stuffed with snow crab, rock shrimp, bell peppers and pepper-Jack cheese and topped with ancho cream, sold so well that several Ram locations continue to menu them.
At Akai Lounge's two locations in New York City and Englewood, N.J., a shrimp-and-crab appetizer also takes inspiration from Latin America. Partner Lillian Pien says that idea for the Japanese-fusion concept's seafood empanadas came from Latin American line cooks.
“It was really about using the Latin American flavors that our staff is already comfortable with,” says Pien.
It was also about finding ways to use the pieces of king crab that were too small to serve as sushi. For the empanadas—called seafood pockets on the menu—a cornmeal dough is filled with a mixture of king crab, chopped tiger shrimp and a sauce made with sriracha, Japanese mayonnaise and ancho chile. The empanadas are fried until crisp, finished in the oven, and served with a side of Thai sweet-and-sour sauce and pico de gallo.
While the dish presents intriguing flavors, its fried preparation and use of shrimp and crab—familiar seafood favorites—mean it also boasts easy accessibility for consumers who might be hesitant to try more-exotic fare.
“When you have a Japanese restaurant, there are people who come in who don't eat raw seafood,” Pien says. “[We can say] hey, if you don't want raw, try the seafood pocket.”
TEXAS CRAB TOAST
Executive Chef Scott Serpas, Serpas, Atlanta
Yield: 8 servings
In a food processor, purée scallops and egg white. Pulse in cream, parsley, chives, zest, dry spice and salt.
Fold crab into scallop mousse.
Brush each piece of toast with butter; in a nonstick pan, toast both sides. Spread crab mixture on one side of the toast. Sear crab-side-down; cook 2 to 3 minutes.
Cut into triangles or squares. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.
Makes about 2/3 cup
Mix together; store in a sealed container.
GRILLED SHRIMP WITH BLACKBERRY BARBECUE SAUCE
Adapted from McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant Cookbook (Arnica, 2005)
Yield: 4 servings
To make the sauce, in a food processor, purée the blackberries, onion, barbecue sauce, chutney, vinegar, sugar, sambal and lemon juice. Pass through a sieve to remove the blackberry seeds.
Wrap bacon around each shrimp. Thread 6 shrimp onto one skewer.
To cook, place the shrimp over a hot fire and grill, basting often with the sauce, until the bacon is cooked (the shrimp will be done as well).
* Sambal oelek is a spicy Indonesian chile paste.