A great crab cake is one that's all about the crab, not the cake.
Golden and tender on the outside, it should be lush and light within, the pieces of sweet meat bound by nothing more than magic - and, perhaps some mayo (or other creamy binding agent). Maybe there is egg involved. And a little mustard, Old Bay Seasoning and finely chopped vegetables. Bread or cracker crumbs? A little, enough to hold everything together without calling attention to its presence.
Bottom line: If you need a knife to cut your crab cake, you may not want to. Here are a dozen of our favorites:
15 Main St., Southampton, 631-283-6443
THE CAKE At this lunch-only Southampton institution, chef-owner Garrett Wellins fashions first-rate crab cakes with jumbo-lump and blue-claw crabmeat. The crabmeat is mixed with chopped scallions and red bell peppers, then loosely bound with mayonnaise and just enough Japanese bread crumbs to hold it together. The crab cakes are baked in a very hot oven, then plated with a sweet, Thai-style chile aioli, on dressed organic baby greens and tomatoes.
THE COST $28 for two.
THE CAKE Chef-owner Nader Gebrin uses colossal crabmeat in his delicious quarter-pound crab cake. He adds fresh red pepper, shallots, tarragon, light mayonnaise and panko bread crumbs. It's baked and served with a house-made spin on fresh salsa. The appetizer often is ordered for dinner as a main course, which includes two crab cakes. Gebrin also prepares a smaller crab cake with jumbo lump crabmeat the same way, at a lower price, at his more casual eatery, Fish on the Run (217 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-423-6300).
THE COST $16.95 for a crab cake. $9.95 crab-cake sandwich.
THE CAKE Executive chef Jeff Haskell and culinary director Lisabet Summa offer a grand, jumbo-lump, barely bound crab cake that's sauteed in butter and olive oil and then finished in the oven. Minimal breading and a blend of mustards with mayonnaise hold it together. The crab cake is drizzled with brown butter and served with a dill-and-lime tartar sauce and a green salad vinaigrette.
THE COST $16 at lunch; $14.50 dinner appetizer, $29 main course with two crab cakes.
630 Old Country Rd., Garden City, 516-248-4600 and
THE CAKE The two Long Island branches of Boston-based Legal Sea Foods send out a classic jumbo-lump crab cake that's flavored with Old Bay Seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder and saltine crackers. The rustic crab cake is oven-baked and served with mustard sauce, according to chef Stephen Rosenbluth of the Garden City restaurant.
THE COST $14.95 appetizer; $27.95 main course, which includes a salad and either two crab cakes or one crab cake and grilled shrimp or scallops.
THE CAKE Jose Luis Falcon's superb crab cake, made with fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, is seared and then pan-roasted in the oven. Spices: a blend that includes coriander, cardamom and smoked paprika, and salt and pepper. The cake, with chives, chopped shallots, celery and carrots, is bound with Greek yogurt and toasted, house-made whole-wheat bread crumbs. Served with Greek tartar sauce, which is made with yogurt, honey, olives and pickled cucumber; and a salad of white beans and black-eyed peas.
THE COST $16 appetizer; $30 main course, with two crab cakes.
THE CAKE Chef Noah Schwartz's excellent crab cake binds jumbo lump crabmeat with lemon aioli, a fine dice of fennel and celery, lemon zest and a blend of Old Bay Seasoning. It's crusted with panko bread crumbs, pan-seared gently in clarified butter, and finished in the oven. Schwartz serves the crab cake as a "small plate," with microgreens, chive oil and a celery root-local apple variation on sauce rémoulade.
THE COST $12
THE CAKE One doesn't expect such plump, delectable crab-intense Maryland crab cakes at a barbecue house, but owner Francisco Gonzalez goes beyond. He combines jumbo-lump crabmeat with chopped onions and peppers, mayo, eggs, Old Bay Seasoning and a touch of Japanese bread crumbs. Then, he pan sears the cakes before finishing them in the oven.
THE COST $12 for a single 6-ounce cake, served over mesclun with red pepper tartar sauce.
THE CAKE At this dockside Freeport seafood house, chef Brad Rubano's memorable crab cake emphasizes crab and spice. Rubano starts with fresh Maryland lump crabmeat, which he combines with chopped tarragon and thyme, mayo, mustard, salt, pepper, Worcestershire and Tabasco, along with a small amount of diced white bread to absorb excess liquid. Wet and dry ingredients are mixed separately, combined and fashioned into cakes that are pan-seared and finished in the oven.
THE COST $16 for two 31/2-ounce cakes, served with a mixed green salad, tartar and rémoulade sauces.
THE CAKE The first-rate crab cake at this fish house/fish market is creamy and light, oh so good. Current chef Chris Fusaro uses original chef "Billy Bob" McLellan's recipe, which combines blue claw crabmeat with a mixture of mayo, Dijon mustard, green onions and parsley. The only bread crumbs involved are dusted on the surface of the cakes before they're pan-fried.
THE COST $6.95 for a 6-ounce cake, served with cocktail and tartar sauces and a wedge of lemon.
THE CAKE Chef-owner Jack Mutell makes a terrific moist crab-intense crab cake using a mix of lump and claw meat combined with Old Bay Seasoning, lemon juice, egg, parsley, a pinch of baking powder just enough bread crumbs to bind everything. The mixture, lightly crumbed, is pan-roasted in the oven.
THE COST $9 for two 21/2-ounce cakes, plated with rémoulade, roasted red pepper puree and tomato salsa.
THE CAKE You'll need a boarding pass in order to eat at this airport branch of Phillips Seafood, a long-standing and popular Maryland chain. An appetizer of crab cake miniatures is made with backfin meat combined with a mustard-mayo-egg mixture to which a little cracker meal is added. The "premium" crab cake, an entree or sandwich, is made with jumbo and lump crabmeat, Ritz crackers and a mix of mayo and parsley plus a little mustard. It is loose-textured, with a buttery flavor.
THE COST Minis, an appetizer, costs $9.99 for five .75-ounce cakes. The 4-ounce premium crab cake entree or sandwich, served with two sides plus a toasted bun or hush puppies, costs $13.99 for one, $23.99 for two. Tartar or cocktail sauce on the side.
DISSECTING A CRAB
There are grades of crabmeat based on size, texture and, in some cases, color. In the top categories, the terms overlap. It's a matter of degree. Colossal and jumbo lump are easily identifiable. All producers, however, don't use each classification and may, yes, lump a couple together.
COLOSSAL refers to the largest, firm whole, pearl-white, sweet pieces taken from the leg muscles or swimming fins. Colossal usually is served on its own but can be made into a crab cake.
JUMBO LUMP means unbroken pieces of sweet white meat, not as weighty as colossal. High-end crab cakes typically are made with jumbo lump.
LUMP AND BACKFIN may include broken pieces of jumbo lump and small, fine sections of meat; similar texture. Also used in good crab cakes.
SPECIAL includes broken pieces of crab meat, shreds and flakes. Used in some crab cakes.
WHITE MEAT is composed of flakes, generally from the front of the crab, and used in mixed-ingredient preparations, including crab cakes.
CLAW MEAT has a dark pink to reddish-brown hue, with very flavorful shreds of meat. Often used in stews, soups and mixed dishes.
CLAW FINGERS are pink-red and include the pincers. They're used as garnish and sometimes in cocktails. - PETER M. GIANOTTI