Get this. I'm trying a new restaurant called the Shellfish Grille in St. Augustine, Florida near my house when the waiter introduces himself and announces the specials. Mussels, Pasta, Fish of the day and then...crab cakes. He said "Crab cakes" just like that. I fixed his gaze on mine and said as I have hundreds of times before, "I'm from Maryland...are they really good?"
Now most servers given this information would begin to backpedal. Knowing I'm a Marylander, born on the Chesapeake with Old Bay seasoning in my veins they would say something like, "Well, many people order them" or "they're popular around here" to quietly steer me away from a mediocre cake.
Our waiter did no such thing. In fact he leaned into me just a bit with a slight smile and said, "They're really, really good." Piffle, I thought. The gauntlet is thrown. Bring on the alleged Crab Cakes!
I sat rehearsing my reaction when he would bring the so-called crab cakes out from the kitchen. So confident...so cocky. As I had so many times before, I would take a small bite, roll my eyes and in a voice loud enough for all to hear announce, "These are okay, but not as good as the ones in Maryland." Triumph! I couldn't wait to put them in their place.
To me the perfect crab cake is loaded with fresh lump meat and light seasoning. Just enough binder to hold it together and heated golden brown. Many of the ones I've tried over the years are like deep fried, crab-flavored turkey stuffing and filled with onions and peppers. Awful.
You must know this about me. I'm a foodie. Not a food snob. I love fresh food prepared with care. Whether it's creme brulee or vanilla pudding. Filet mignon or hamburgers. Make it right. Care about what you do. I have driven two hours out of my way and passed 100 restaurants to get to that one place that makes great BBQ. I know...
The moment of truth quickly arrived at the Shellfish Grille and the plate was set before me. True, the cakes looked good. Golden brown, lump crab meat. I took a generous bite and dropped my fork. Images flooded my mind from long ago. On the pier lifting the crab traps... sitting with my mother at Timbuktu's... at the Narrows Restaurant on the Eastern Shore...Captain Billy's laugh at Pope's Creek.
I quickly wiped a tear from my cheek as the waiter asked again. "How are they?" I wanted to run to the kitchen and kiss the chef. All I managed was to squeak out, "These are the best Crab Cakes I've eaten in Florida." And they were.
I've returned to eat the crab cakes at the Shellfish Grille again and again. Like a father checking on his newborn child, I have to look just one more time. Now I've joined the Cult of the Crab Cake there. The members exchange knowing glances across the crowded dining room and share stories of other, lesser cakes from the past. We all now live in a secret Crab Cake paradise in St. Augustine, Florida. I am content...