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Behind the LIne: Dungeness crab ascends
Regional chefs gush about the crab that’s a top menu trend
By Lauren Kramer
November 01, 2013
Pacific Northwest chefs have long championed Dungeness crab, so they were likely not surprised when Bon Appetit magazine ranked the species No. 20 on its list of 25 food trends for 2013. Dubbing Dungeness “The King of the Crustaceans,” the magazine helped extol its culinary virtues around the country. But will it catch on outside the region?
In the Pacific Northwest, diners actively seek Dungeness crab, says Jeremy McLachlin, corporate chef at Salty’s on Alki Beach in Seattle. “It has to stay on our menu because it’s a Pacific Northwest-centric item. People travel here and they want to see it on the menu.” Over the 15 years he has worked with Salty’s, he’s watched the price of Dungeness increase from $4.99 a pound up to $27. This month he’s paid $21.05 for picked Dungeness, $11.70 for live and $6.78 for frozen sections. McLachlin uses 3 ounces of Dungeness meat in a crab cake dish that sells for $17. “People will pay that price for beautiful, fresh Dungeness crab,” he says.
Salty’s features Dungeness in its mac-n-cheese, crab and prawn cocktails, shrimp salad, grand seafood tower, in an open-faced crab melt sandwich and as a 2.5-pound entrée. “It’s one of those things where, if you want to sell something, you just put crab on it and people will love it because they love Dungeness crab so much,” McLachlin says.
Dungeness comprises 10 percent of the menu at Salty’s at Alki Beach and during an average brunch weekend the restaurant goes through about 600 pounds of it. “It doesn’t have the perfect food cost we’re looking for, but we bank dollars, not percentages,” he says.
The crab’s culinary prowess in the Pacific Northwest is due to its harvest area: Last year California landed 24.2 million pounds of Dungeness, Oregon landed 18.2 million pounds and Washington landed 13.8 million pounds. The domestic market is holding strong for Dungeness crab, says Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
Jeffrey Lunak, VP of culinary at Madison Holdings, menus a Dungeness crab California roll at Blue C Sushi, a six-location interactive sushi restaurant in Seattle.
“We really like the natural sweetness of Dungeness meat, and the integrity of the meat holds up well,” he says. “You’ll deal with a lot of crab where it turns into mush and doesn’t have a lot of texture, but with Dungeness crab the meat has texture and sweetness, with just a hint of saltiness. It’s really popular.”
Lunak sources Dungeness from Kanaloa Seafood in Santa Barbara, Calif., but often buys live crabs at Pike Place Market in Seattle for $12.99 per pound.
“We’re not serving an entire crab, so it’s easy for us to offer it in a very approachable price point while still making money,” he says. He likes that it’s a sustainable species, listed as a best choice on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list. “But more importantly, it’s one of those ingredients that really stands up on its own. There are few ingredients that you can utilize in a lot of applications without requiring a lot of manipulation, and Dungeness is one of them. Simply prepared is the best approach.”
For a fun juxtaposition of fancy and casual, Americano Restaurant in San Francisco’s Hotel Vitale serves Dungeness crab butter as an accompaniment to seafood dishes and at its annual crab and champagne dinner in January. Executive Chef Kory Stewart pulverizes whole Dungeness crabs, combines them with shallots, jalapeño peppers and butter and then simmers and strains the mixture. “You get a very flavorful butter that we serve as an accompaniment to cracked crab,” says Stewart, a Pacific Northwest native who grew up picking Dungeness off the beaches of Whidbey Island. “To me, there’s no better-tasting crab out there,” he says. “I love the texture of the crabmeat, the consistency and the fact that you get nice, solid pieces of meat.”
In mid-September he was paying a wholesale price of $10 per pound for whole, fresh Dungeness. But when the season opens in late November, he says the prices drops to $3.50 to $3.75 per pound. That’s when the species is prominently featured on the menu and diners eagerly anticipate it.
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia