Starting in the spring, usually around mid-April, soft-shell crabs make their way onto restaurant menus for their short-lived summer season.
The crabs are soft after molting their exoskeletons, and if they're removed from the water immediately after shedding to prevent hardening, almost all of the crab can be eaten.
Novices may be alarmed when the entire crustacean, usually lightly breaded and fried, appears on a plate — especially if they're used to cracking and picking for crabmeat.
But if you can get past any initial discomfort at biting into a whole crab, legs and all, the result is a perfect textural blend of velvety and crispy.
The town of Urbanna, located about an hour east of the city on the Rappahannock River, is the place to go for the freshest softies. Lucky for us, there are Richmond chefs willing to save us the trip, getting their crabs straight from the source.
Here are some of our favorite soft-shells around town, with more appearing on menus every week.
- Scott Elmquist
3410 Semmes Ave.
The soft-shell crabs at Laura Lee's are about as fresh and velvety as they come.
Part of the reason undoubtedly is their pedigree: Chef Scott Lewis gets his from the same Urbanna waterman who supplies Acacia Mid-Town's Dale Reitzer and Alewife's Lee Gregory, going through as many as 14 dozen in four days.
But how Lewis chooses to serve them offers a fresh twist on the mid-Atlantic delicacy. Lightly pan sauteed, the two soft-shells have a stellar supporting cast in crispy fried potato cubes, colorful chopped kale, fat little squares of bacon and assorted mushrooms, all tied together with a curry aioli that announces itself subtly but unmistakably.
The combination of the meaty crab and the delicacy of curry on the finish ensures that while it may not be a familiar preparation, when the crab's this good, a chef's creativity is the only limit to finding new ways to savor soft-shell season.
- Photo courtesy Julep's New Southern Cuisine
Julep's New Southern Cuisine
420 E. Grace St.
Granted, it's been a few decades since Andy Griffith was shilling crackers on television, assuring viewers that everything tastes better when it sits on a Ritz. But that's exactly what a stranger said to me when a Ritz-cracker-crusted, fried soft-shell crab touched down before me at the big wooden bar at Julep's.
There may be scores of ways to get some crunch on your soft-shell, but few are so pleasingly familiar — lightly salted, buttery tasting, despite being vegan — and satisfying as crumbs from the iconic, scalloped-edge cracker.
Available in appetizer or entree portions, Julep's soft-shell crab proudly proclaims its Southern allegiance by virtue of the fresh-tasting corn and pepper salad underneath and the swipe of red pepper romesco, which provides an unexpectedly sassy kick to the dish.
Thinking of trying a soft-shell for the first time? Julep has the ideal entry-level version.
- Photo courtesy Heritage
1627 W. Main St.
Chef Lee Gregory made an early run to Urbanna to supply his restaurants, and Heritage owner and chef Joe Sparatta got in on the action to become one of the first in the city to offer local soft-shell blue crabs.
Sparatta made his mark on Richmond by relying on seasonal, local ingredients, and his soft-shell plate busts out every spring move. Our two crabs are bathed in a light tempura batter, fried until crispy and served atop a bed of savory sauteed morel mushrooms laced with asparagus, floating on a light green spread of ramp-infused sauce.
The tempura batter is a fresh take on the normal cornmeal dusting and pan-fry treatment for soft-shells. It softens the crab's hard edges, offering a more mellow presentation for those who want crabby flavor, but not the visual reality of a crab on the plate.
Pea flowers and nasturtium leaves accent the colorful dish — refreshing details to spark winter-weary palates.
- Scott Elmquist
Sugar's Crab Shack
2224 Chamberlayne Ave.
There's something to be said for savoring soft-shells under a sunny blue sky while vintage R&B music plays. At Sugar's Crab Shack, the soft-shell crab platter is nothing short of an instant classic, using that Southern staple cornmeal to provide the crunchy coating on a pair of crabs with fries and coleslaw. Buttered toast rides shotgun.
The straightforward, quintessential preparation shows off the kitchen's crowd-pleasing skills and allows the crabmeat to shine.
Sure, you could take your platter home to enjoy, but a better idea is to score one of the shaded outdoor tables at Sugar's and dig into your crabs while they're still at maximum crispiness. If you're anything like us, you'll find yourself whiling away a good part of the afternoon devouring every bite, listening to old-school soul music like Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" and wishing soft-shell season was year-round.
- Scott Elmquist
2601 W. Cary St.
Chef and owner Dale Reitzer drives to Urbanna twice weekly to bring back soft-shells during the season, keeping a fresh stock ready. Unsurprisingly, this old-school fish expert goes full traditional with the velvety blue crabs, and we had high expectations.
We order two soft-shells in the classic, simple preparation — dusted with seasoned cornmeal flour and pan-fried. They are more on the oily than crisp side, and the drizzle of grilled-lemon butter falls short on the promised citrus.
Although soft-shell crabs have a delicate, nuanced flavor, ours take center stage. They are flanked by creamy grits and bright green beans — both mildly seasoned, slipping into the background while we dig into the crabs.
Like many restaurants offering these spring favorites, Acacia mixes up its presentations — we miss out on the crabs with slaw, ramp remoulade and gazpacho salad. Fortunately, the season continues and more crabs await.