I'm a big fan of soft-shell crabs, and some equally enamored friends and I have been talking for a while about putting together a soft-shell crab crawl, hitting as many restaurants as we can to see what all the chefs are doing with this seasonal treat.
Once we start seeing them show up on menus around town, we decide our epic soft-shell crab tour is a go. We can't wait too long because soft-shell season blows by fast. My partner in crime is Harry Root, who owns and operates Grassroots Wine Distributors. Harry's the big catalyst for making this happen. He's helped plan this inaugural attempt, and we settle on a tight itinerary of 15 stops. We bring photographer Jonathan Boncek along to help us eat and to take some pictures too.
It's late afternoon, so we start at Bacco for soft-shell crab two ways: a sandwich, which Chef Michael Scognamiglio serves on his lunch menu, and the dinner-time soft-shell bruschetta, which is similar to the sandwich but served on top of one slice of bread instead of in between two. It is a great start to a big adventure. For the sandwich, he fries his pizza dough to make a soft and moist bread, which provides the perfect texture for the soft-shells. It's tender and easy to bite through and get all the components. Lemon aioli caper sauce and peppery arugula garnish both dishes, and Harry and I happily give ourselves a thumbs up for such a great idea. Six hours, 24 crabs, and many glasses of wine later, we'd have a far different opinion, but in these early, giddy moments, we feel like real geniuses.
Our crab crawl swings by Kimberly's Crabs in Mt. Pleasant to get a glimpse of her operation, and we are already behind schedule. If we are to eat at 14 more restaurants and be done by 11 p.m., we need to spend about 45 minutes — at most — at each spot. Time is of the essence.
We leave Jonathan with Kimberly to get some more pictures and rush across the peninsula to West Ashley's Glass Onion and arrive in that weird time between lunch and dinner. A few ladies-who-lunch linger at one table, but the place is quiet, and the staff tells us they've been following our #softies crab crawl on Twitter (our itinerary is also on the City Paper's Eat blog to give everyone a heads up. Plus we have sent out tweets, emails, and texts to various places to confirm they have crab and let them know our crab crawl plans). At the GO, we sit outside at a picnic table sipping a fabulous rosé wine that Harry's brought along in his cooler and digging into a hearty plate of breadcrumb-encrusted soft-shell on a bed of grits with a pile of delicious butter beans. It's hard not to lick all those filling grits up, but we have a lot of eating to do, so we leave them behind. At this point: Crab Count: 3. Wine bottles: 0.75. We are feeling pretty optimistic. To keep our schedule, we've dispatched Jonathan directly to Two Boroughs Larder to place us an order. On our way downtown, Chef Kevin Johnson of the Grocery texts us to see how many are in our party. When we answer three or four, he sounds disappointed in us. "That's it!!?? Figured y'all would have a party bus full." The fact that we don't have a party bus full is yet another inkling that we might not be as smart as we think.
We arrive at Two Boroughs on Coming Street to see what Josh Keeler and his crew have come up with. An innovative kitchen, Two Boroughs does not disappoint. They serve us a bright plate with a fried softie on top of ramp puree, fresh sweet corn and spring peas, and spicy padron peppers from Compost in My Shoe. Keeler, a James Beard semifinalist, has been getting his crabs from Crosby's. We down more pink wine and take off to 39 Rue de Jean. There, we find the kitchen not serving lunch or dinner quite yet, so we plead our case and see if they can't get us one plate of crab, which of course they do. It's the heartiest plate of the day. The fried softie comes out on a big bed of potato puree with sweet corn and snap bean hash and a tomato tarragon cream sauce. Fearing a full stomach so early on our adventure, we avoid as much of the potato as possible and start wondering whether this whole thing was a good idea or whether we've been lured into some comic culinary crab trap.
Next up is The Ordinary, where Mike Lata presents a soft-shell sandwich that's sort of like a big messy burger. The tempura-fried crab comes on a soft benne seed bun from Brown's Court with a fat slice of a Cherokee purple tomato, arugula, mayo, and bread and butter pickles. Lata says he might be changing the bread to a white, but we think the bun is the bomb. Then comes the soft-shell frites. No flour on this one. Instead, they sauté it in a pan and serve it with a most enchanting spring garlic compound butter and a side of fries. I try to avoid the fries but Lata insists it's part of the experience, so I eat a couple. And immediately curse my willpower. There are nine more places to go.
We finish off our bottle of wine (and pick up another crawler who — suspiciously— only has time for the Ordinary visit), and check Twitter to see that Kimberly has just delivered a shipment to Cory Burke at the Green Door, which is coincidentally our next stop. It's 5 p.m. and we are on schedule. As we drink more rosé and wait for Burke to get our crabs ready, the wine and pressure start getting to me. I pop my head in the kitchen window and semi-joke with Cory that he's holding up our crawl and better get a move on. We go back to chatting with the crew and learn that our waiter Mike is donating his Wednesday tips to the 213 East Bay Street crew who lost their jobs after a big fire. Burke finally sends out the only elephant bowl we'll see on this journey. Piled inside is a spicy little softie. The crabs are dusted in cornmeal and flour that's seasoned with salt, pepper, and cayenne. They're fried and served on a pile of cool potato salad, garnished with pickled asparagus spears (which have a serious kick), pickled ramps and radishes, and topped with a sriracha aioli. This is a big pile of delicious. I make my notes: "SPICY! CRUNCHY! Fish sauce hot!" That about sums it up. We try to tip big, but the iPhone Square doo-dad limits us to 20 percent, and we head off for The Grocery, where we pick up some more crawlers just in time, because Harry, Jonathan, and I are feeling like we got a male crab on our back squeezing the joy out of this mission. Joining the crawl at this stop are Angel Postell, former executive director of the Wine + Food Festival, her husband Arnold, along with my and Harry's spouses — Blair and Nicki, respectively.
They've saved the bar's community table for our group, which has swelled to seven, just in time for the big platter of family-style crabs we order. A trio of presentations arrive: Old School, Old South, and Old World. The Old School is sautéed in lemon butter sauce while the Old South is deep fried in a cornmeal crust with vinegar slaw and deviled egg sauce. My favorite was the Old World, which was roasted in the wood oven and served over asparagus and potatoes. The technique turned the softie into a smoky, crispy delight.
At this point we are 16 crabs and 2.5 bottles of wine in and feeling a bit pinched in both our brains and our pants. We worry that we won't have the stamina to last all night. We fret about all the other restaurants we're missing as we pass by Stars and Rarebit on our way to Macintosh. We feel a little sick when a bunch of restaurants tell us via Twitter to crawl on by their spot for some softies. We are going to let somebody down tonight. At this point we don't know if it will be ourselves or the tiny sliver of Charleston that's following along on Twitter.
At the Macintosh, front man Steve Palmer is ready for us when we arrive, and we are seated outside on the patio. We crack open a bottle of wine and wait for our big, cornmeal crusted crab to arrive. When it does, it's pretty gorgeous, sprinkled with flowers, fennel, and pea and asparagus pistou. I'm thankful to have these new crawlers on board because I am starting to feel about 25 to 35 percent larger myself. Aware of our need to hit six more places at the height of dinner hour, we stuff ourselves into a cab and take off for East Bay Street. We have yet to walk sideways on this crab crawl. But it's coming for sure.
High Cotton welcomes us and — despite being extremely busy — seats us at a prime table, and we crack a bottle of Txakolina Rosé. Their softies come out battered and fried and surrounded by fresh local mussels, something I've become quite obsessed with after foraging for them out on Capers Inlet. From here, we skip over to SNOB, and despite being friendly and eager to accommodate us, they are jam-packed and have no place for our big group. We promise to come back in 30 minutes, but as the clock ticks by, our schedule grows ever tighter. Unfortunately, we never make it back to SNOB.
But we do get to try Cypress' version: a tempura fried softie with candied ginger and a spicy papaya salad, which we pair with a nice Riesling. Both are a refreshing pop of bright spice. Three more places to go, and we soldier on to McCrady's for a flavorful fried soft-shell with wild ramps, spring veggies, and citrus. The count is at 21 crabs and the wine bottles are quickly accruing. Luckily we have a big group, so one bottle doesn't go much farther than a glass each. At this point, a shot of espresso seems like a wise choice, so we throw back our caffeine and head off to finish up this crab crawl at two of the hottest restaurants in town.
Husk is on our list, but it's prime dinner time and we have not called ahead to reserve a space. The hostesses sadly inform us that they have no table and would not be allowed to serve us in the bar. Not willing to give up so easily, we ask manager Jeff Miller if he might be able to work it out for us to eat it in the bar so we can include Husk. Of course, he makes it happen because that's how the service is at Husk. And boy, are we ever glad. The dish here is surprisingly McCrady's-esque in its presentation. The crab is coated in a light rice flour and garnished with nasturtium flowers, shaved carrot and asparagus with a note of bright citrus. It's quite a palate cleanser, considering this is our 23rd crab of the day. We pair it with a bottle of Foggy Ridge Cider, a perfect choice for this part of the evening.
After thanking our hosts at Husk, we stumble off to the last restaurant of the crawl — FIG, where we finish up with a big platter of crabs (don't they know we've been eating crab since 1:45 p.m.?!). And by big platter, I mean three. FIG's brown butter-basted softie preparation has long been a favorite, and tonight they don't disappoint, serving it with bacon vinaigrette, potato puree, green garlic, and asparagus. We are not so full that we can't appreciate the delicate handling of these crabs by Chef de Cuisine Jason Stanhope.
As we wind down our night, we tally up the damage — 26 crabs, 13 bottles of wine/cider, nearly $500 in expenses — and take a moment to reflect and consider what we discovered on our crawl. The story of the night? First, we will probably not eat another soft-shell crab for a year. And second, Charleston's chefs are a talented, innovative lot. No two crabs were alike, and each chef put their own spin on the local, seasonal ingredient. While we each had our favorites (I'm looking at you, Green Door), we didn't encounter a bad peeler along the way. In the end, our inaugural soft-shell crab crawl was a success, even if we had to peel ourselves out of our tight clothes later that night.