Executive Chef Peter Levine of Waterfront Seafood Grill, on Pier 70 in Seattle, is once again offering his annual March celebration of all things crabby with his 2010 Cult of the Crab menu. This year, he has chosen to focus on sustainable crab fisheries for his menu, including Northwest Pacific Coast Dungeness crab, Maine Peeky Toe crab, Maryland lump and soft shell Blue crab, and King crab from the Barents and Bering Seas and Japan’s Hokkaido Bay. “People don’t realize that seafood is one of the last hunted proteins on the planet,” said Executive Chef Peter Levine. “Through our sourcing, we can bring in wild seafood that has been sustainably harvested and guests get to experience all the rich flavor of a wild product.”
To showcase the 2010 Cult of the Crab menu, Chef Levine invited a bunch of us food writer types for a fun evening of hangin’ with our peers (on a pier, no less) and sampling five courses of his special crab menu — on the house, mind you, as a matter of full disclosure.
We started off with A Little Fancy Crab Louis, a lovely little salad that was at the same time both crabby and eggy, as it should be. Chef Levine always impresses me with his innate ability not to overpower delicate flavors like crab and lobster with other ingredients and sauces, and this dish is a classic example of that. Sure, the egg that is standard to a Louis stands out, but it does not get in the way of the star of the dish, the Dungeness crab. Indeed, all the elements of this dish get their fifteen minutes of fame without blocking the camera shot of the others.
The second offering of the evening turned out to be my favorite: Crab & Sweet Pea Panna Cotta, or as Chef Levine liked to call it, Peas & Carrots. In this dish, a sweet pea panna cotta (essentially the Italian form of flan, sans all those eggs the Spanish use) filled with Dungeness crab and topped with Peeky Toe crab is surrounded with a drizzle of spiced carrot broth and accented with fried taro root chips. Besides being drop-dead gorgeous, this dish presented a wonderful collection of balanced contrasting flavors. The bright sweetness of the peas in the panna cotta paired beautifully with the briny sweetness of the crab, and the smoothness of the panna cotta further balanced the delicate texture of the crab. The spiced carrot broth played off of the pea panna cotta like, well, peas and carrots. And the two taro chips simply added an extra little visual component that amusingly made the dish kind look like a rabbit’s face, which is fitting for peas and carrots, right?
The Dungeness “Banh Mi” Sandwich seemed to be the favorite of many of the other food writers around the table, as well as Chef Levine, though just to prove I am a free thinker, it was not mine. Dungeness crab, pickled daikon and carrots, head cheese, cilantro and jalapeno mayo wedged between a chewy banh mi roll comprise this dish. And while I like the idea of it, and I didn’t dislike it, I found that the wonderful flavor of the Dungeness crab, which is truly one of the greatest flavors on earth, was kinda lost amongst the other flavors here, in stark contrast to what I am used to from Chef Levine. I hate to pick on a dish my buddy actually favors, especially when he feeds me a lot, but hey, I promised you my honest opinions here in spite of the fact that my meal was bought for me by the place about which I am writing. And again, this dish by no means sucks. I just personally like to have the star ingredient be the star ingredient in all the dishes on this menu. Sue me.
Chef Levine knows I loves me some of his ravioli, and his Maryland Blue Crab Ravioli did not disappoint. Fish off, it is lovely, isn’t it? Shaved asparagus and butter braised leeks give it a freshness, while lemon-zest gives it a, well, zestiness. The crab within and atop the ravioli present their briny sweetness pleasantly amongst the buttery, peppery sauce and zesty, sweet accompaniments. Honestly, a serving of that panna cotta and this ravioli, and I would be a happy camper. (Lucky for me, I got all the other dishes, too!)
Our final dish of the evening was the Maryland Soft Shelled Crab. Served pan-fried over a salad of green beans, cucumber, almonds and shaved fennel, I found this dish to be a bit of a throw-back treat to my college days in the Mid-Atlantic. There is just something wonderfully primal about eating a crab in its entirety — legs, body, face and all — and you do that with a pan-fried soft shelled crab. Most people are probably used to getting crab this way in a spider roll at a sushi bar. Of course, those are not Maryland blues. They’re from who knows where, or how they’ve been harvested. But these Maryland beauties have a special sweetness to them, especially when they are shipped live, overnight, from the East Coast, like these suckers were, that you just don’t get from their frozen, over-harvested Pacific cousins. Mind you, I still had that feeling that this crab would be better between two slices of white bread with some mayo, like how we eat them in the Mid-Atlantic, but I did love this dish.
Ben Fleck is the resident lounge pianist at Waterfront Seafood Grill, and he adds to the stellar atmosphere of the place. Sure, Waterfront has great views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound, service that is unrivaled in Seattle, a beautiful, open dining room tastefully decorated, and stuff that gets set on fire at your table side, not to mention (though I’m going to anyway) a general manager, Chris Sparkman, who owns Sparkman Cellars in Woodinville that makes brilliant wines. But having Ben Fleck there cranking out tune after tune, from the 1920s to 2010, just puts a smile on my face every time I go there. And the piece de resistance for me was when I heard him first play No Quarter by Led Zeppelin. That elevated him to god status in my book.
Again, Chef Peter Levine is a buddy of mine, and he feeds me. But trust me, he feeds me well. Hey, you might not want to buy a used car from a guy with that disarming a smile, but let him cook for you any day.