ST. MICHAELS, Md. -- It's a sure sign of spring when the watermen (a Chesapeake term for those who ply the waters of the bay for their living) leave the oyster beds and reefs behind and set their sights on crabs and clams.
Chesapeake Bay's sheltered mix of freshwater and saltwater creates a low salinity that's nearly ideal for the blue crab, Maryland's most valuable commercial fishery and the Eastern Shore's claim to worldwide gastronomic fame. Local aficionados insist blue crabs harvested in the waters off St. Michaels have the sweetest flavor in the bay, and chefs in St. Michaels treat the crabs with all the respect due the official state crustacean.
Chef Mark Salter of Sherwood's Landing, the white-linen dining room at the Inn at Perry Cabin, likes to eat jumbo lump crab on lettuce, with a wedge of lemon and a little cocktail sauce on the side.
Salter doesn't leave it at that, however. He considers his crab spring roll a signature dish, and he has prepared it for a James Beard Foundation dinner. It is a marvel of contrasts: a crunchy exterior of spring roll wrapper with a toothy center of steamed bok choy, cilantro, pickled ginger, spring onion, and sweet crab. Salter deep-fries the rolls and serves them with pink grapefruit segments, avocado slices, and toasted almonds. He drizzles a honey-pink grapefruit dressing over the plate. The Sherwood's Landing menu almost always includes a jumbo lump crab cake. This time of year, Salter pairs it with a julienne of zucchini, red pepper, and fresh tarragon and finishes the plate with a toasted pinenut-butter sauce. When the chef's garden herbs are ready to pick, he'll offer a crab salad with fresh sorrel foam.
Born in England and trained in Europe, Salter embraces the provender of Chesapeake Bay. He's a big fan of softshell crabs, which start to appear around mid- to late April as the crabs begin shedding their shells to grow new ones.
"Eastern Shore softshell crabs are world renowned," he says. To make a killer softshell crab sandwich, Salter coats the crabs with panko breadcrumbs, fries them peanut-brown, and serves them on toasted brioche spread with citrus aioli.
Beside the dining room even the menu in the cozy bar of Sherwood's Landing goes crabby when the season arrives. Salter provides barflies with a fondue of roasted cauliflower, mascarpone, jumbo lump crab, and Parmesan cheese that can be scooped up with toasted slices of French bread. Some crab lovers prefer to crack into the homely crustaceans in more casual surroundings. The tavern area of St. Michaels Crab & Steak House was one of the area's first oyster-shucking sheds, built in the 1830s. When the weather is warm, it's fun to sit on the outdoor deck overlooking the marina. The extensive seafood menu is long on crab, and paper placemats instruct novices in the not-so-refined art of disassembling a steamed crab to extract every morsel from the shell.
Of course, there are options that require less manual dexterity and perseverance. Miniature crab cakes (called crab balls) or a cup of cream of crab or Maryland crab vegetable soup make fine starters. One of the more popular dishes is Clams Annie, a clam on the half-shell covered with bacon, scallions, cheese and -- of course -- crabmeat. Marylanders once shipped their clams north to New England, but Clams Annie has become a popular way to combine the two main catches of spring and summer. The Crab House offers softshell crabs either sauteed in garlic butter or breaded and deep-fried. Indecisive crab lovers can opt for the combination of a softshell crab with a crab cake.
Sometimes, simple is best.
"It's messy, it's sloppy, that's what it's all about," says waitress Denise Bosley, setting down a big platter of steamed crabs. "You don't use forks, just dig in."