Baltimore, with its elegantly restored harborfront framing the Chesapeake, has become somewhat of a destination in recent years. What many of its recent discoverers are surprised to learn, however, is that it has long been a city famous for good eating. A good deal of that reputation is due to the blue crab.
With all respect to Dungeness lovers, nothing beats a Maryland crab boil on a hot summer night, when buckets of blue crabs are steamed to a reddish pink and spiced freely with "old bay," a fiery mixture of red pepper and other seasonings. A crab boil is a sensual, euphoric celebration, heightened by the presence of frosty mugs of cold beer. Hot crabs are dumped onto a paper-covered table and then everyone is handed a wooden mallet.
"Bawlmer," as the locals drawl it, has plenty of restaurants specializing in this summer fun, and they are often filled with half-crazed crab fanatics. It was only a matter of time before this addictive madness spread to California. Four years ago, it did. Transplanted Marylanders Herb and Judy Cohen missed the crab houses and reasoned others shared their nostalgia. They brought a truckload of crabs, bibs and wooden mallets west and opened a restaurant in the summer of 1982. Today, there are three crab houses in Los Angeles.
The first, Maryland Crab House of Santa Monica, has an air of cozy unpretentiousness. You can smell the sawdust on the floor as it mingles with the aroma of boiling seafood. Blue crab, the specialty, is sold by the half dozen in season. Also featured are soups, salads, sandwiches and hot crab dishes.
Some of these items are prepared skillfully and with moderate success: Soft-shell crab, served sandwich style on white bread, is as tender and succulent as you'd find on Maryland's Eastern shore; deviled crab is a creamy, mustardy delight. Others are less satisfying, like an overcooked combination seafood platter. The crumbed and deep-fried crab cake is also disappointing. It has very little punch, and at over a dollar an ounce it should be world-class. Much cheaper ones at Pope's Tavern in Oxford, Md., or those at Washington's Eastern Market are the stuff dreams are made of.
So when Herb Cohen asked how everything was, I'm afraid I was dreaming of a picnic on Capitol Hill. "Go to Washington," I said, "and steal a recipe for crab cakes." At that, he bristled and walked away. Crab lovers get steamed easily.
Actually, Cohen is quite friendly, and he obviously takes pride in what he does. He even admitted that his competitor in Sherman Oaks, the Chesapeake Crab House, is owned by his daughter Leslie. He said that after a family dispute a year ago, Leslie went off to open her own business.
This made me eager to try the competition, and after talking to Leslie's friendly husband, Elio Danille, on the phone, I really wanted to like it. Elio is the chef, and he told me he has changed many of the recipes.
While the recipes aren't bad, the restaurant isn't worthy of them. All I found there was promising chaos.
For starters, no one came to the table to demonstrate how to open the crabs. Maryland Crab House has a little diagram on every table, a good idea, so that if the waiters are busy you have some idea of how to proceed on your own. Secondly, although we asked for their biggest crabs, they turned out to be small. (They were much larger at Maryland.) But worst of all, they didn't taste very fresh.
Fresh crab gets most of its flavor from its fats and oils. The crab meat oxidizes on prolonged contact with air, depriving the crab of its natural taste. That's why some crab meat tastes like a Styrofoam coffee cup in a convenience store.
In fairness, some of Chef Elio's recipes are quite good. I especially liked a steamed, spiced shrimp, and I thought his crab cake was superior. Unfortunately, portions were small. The cute gimmicky menu filled with Maryland trivia and a little crossword puzzle is a nice touch, but no one eats a menu.
The Chesapeake had the Valley to itself for a short time, but now the crab wars have intensified, and the Maryland Crab House has recently opened a branch in Encino. To my mind, the new place is the best of the three. Dark wooden tables and cream colored walls give it a beer hall gemutlichkeit that suits the spirit of the menu. And while the restaurant was crowded, we were seated almost immediately.
Food is also served more rapidly here than in the other two restaurants, and what comes out somehow tastes better too. Rolls are warmer and beer is colder. Crab soup here is zippier, pickles snap with a more garlicky crunch and the crab-stuffed shrimp are fluffier than any I've eaten in a long time. Chocolate raspberry mousse pie tastes as good as it sounds. It's as if they've gotten their act together and taken it on the road.
If there is a rivalry, then at the moment Maryland Crab House has the better of it. Things could change rapidly, however. Right now, the Chesapeake is in need of a little more seasoning--and not the kind you sprinkle on food.
Maryland Crab House, 2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 450-5555; also at 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 783-CRAB. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. Beer and wine. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two (food only), $25-$40.
Chesapeake Crab House, 15023 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-0066. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. Beer and wine. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Dinner for two (food only), $30-$45.