Wednesday, October 27, 2010

HARD, HOT, AND SWEET IN BALTIMORE

Covered with peppery seasoning, these crabs from Obrycki's crab house are ready to be picked apart.

HARD, HOT, AND SWEET IN BALTIMORE
by Carol Joynt

Though it was 1981, Craig Claiborne’s effusive words remain perfectly clear in memory, largely because they drew us like a magnet to Baltimore. He wrote in the Sunday New York Times: “A week or so ago I shared an experience that turned out to be one of the headiest, most exhilarating and gratifying days of my life. It included ... the finest crabmeat feast I have (ever) been witness to or participated in.” The feast happened at Obrycki’s, which he went on to define as “one of my favorite dining spots on earth.” Restaurant reviews don’t get more enticing than that.

For my husband and me the piece started a years long ritual of jaunts up to Baltimore when Obrycki’s was open, because Obrycki’s is open only when Chesapeake crabs are in season – March to early November. We’d make a spring visit, for the early crabs, multiple summer visits, and then a Halloween visit for the last – and the fattest and sweetest – of the crabs.
The original Obrycki's building. It opened as a tavern in 1875, not serving food until 1944.
Obrycki's, on the left, is in East Baltimore, a mostly residential neighborhood known as Fells Point.
The front entrance of the building that became Obrycki's home in 1986. Eileen Kaminsky greets guests as they arrive to be seated.
The mid-Atlantic region envelopes the Chesapeake Bay, and there are many crab houses in and outside of Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and points south in Virginia, where people are passionate about their favorites. While passing through a few different owners, Obrycki’s has maintained a beloved standard since it started serving Chesapeake crabs in the 1940s. The only big change was when they moved in 1986 from the ramshackle and charming original building across the street to a larger and more modern but also more sterile space. Fortunately, the food remained the same.

The first thing you notice when you enter Obrycki’s is the aroma of brine and spice, a signature of any good crab house. For me it revs the taste buds.

This is not luxury dining. This is crab picking. Instead of white tablecloths, the tables are covered with brown paper. The napkins are paper. The beer arrives in pitchers. By all means, don’t dress up. Come hungry, plan to be called “hon,” get messy, and leave fat and happy. If its your first time the friendly staff will gladly show you how to divide and conquer a steaming hot hard shell blue crab. It’s an easy lesson, driven by desire. Most people buy them by the dozen, at least, and whether the menu offers “small,” medium,” “large,” or “jumbo,” what matters most is if they are “heavy” or “fat,” meaning filled out and thick with the sweet and chunky white meat.
The vanity wall, which displays a lot of well-earned accolades.
Craig Clairborne's effusive write-up in The New York Times.
A love-note from the Travel Channel's Adam Richman.
A visit to Obrycki's is a "bucket list" must.
There are plenty of souvenirs to choose from.
The bar at Obrycki's...
...with a neon sign that makes clear what's on the menu.
The main dining room is one of several dining spaces.
The essential tools for a crab feast: a bib, a mallet and a knife, plus LOTS of napkins.
One thing I’ve noticed about eating crabs over the years is that everyone is chatty during the appetizers, but the conversation subsides when the server arrives with the big tray and the crabs are spilled onto the paper-covered table. Then people get serious and quiet as they focus on cracking open the shell, hammering at a claw, digging at or sucking out the meat – literally – and perhaps dipping it in vinegar (my preference) or butter or nothing at all. The crabs at Obrycki’s are well seasoned and don’t need much fuss.

There are other items on the menu, including shrimp, clams, oysters, scallops, scale fish, and seafood platters in fried, steamed, broiled or creamy versions, and even a couple of steaks, several salads, a chicken dish and a hamburger. I quite love the fried clams and always start with them; ditto the steamers. Or I go for the savory crab soup or the cream of crab soup. I also adore the crab cake. It is packed with big lumps of meat and bound with only an essential bit of egg and breadcrumbs. The mention of dessert brings a sigh – who needs more calories – but the “famous” Éclair Supreme is irresistible and feels like a Baltimore must.
Server Cindi Hargrove brings in the first course, fried clams ... Fried clams up close.
Obrycki's backfin crab cake fresh from the broiler.
The crab cake cut open to reveal large chunks of meat.
Cindy Bacon beside one of Obrycki's four large crab steamers, which run constantly in the evening. Not much to look at but this steamer creates a beautiful meal.
The crabs are done. Bernard Cuthbert removes the lid.
Bernard fills a tray with steaming crabs.
One crab, broken open.
A half dozen crabs, after the picking is over.
Brooklyn newlyweds Sarah Karnasiewicz and Joe Tuzzo.
Does a crab feast guaranty wedded bliss? Sarah and Joe concentrate on the meal.
First stop of their honeymoon and loving it.
Obrycki’s closes for the 2010 season on November 6, meaning ten days remain to have a last crab feast. I made my ritual visit at the beginning of this week, arriving early, feeling quite welcomed by Cindy Bacon, a member of the Cernak family, who have owned the restaurant since 1976. She invited me into the kitchen to watch the steaming process.

While I was there the restaurant began to fill up. Adjacent to me were a young couple, Sarah Karnasiewicz and Joe Tuzzo, who were busy taking pictures of each other and the food. They had just arrived from Brooklyn. “We’re on our honeymoon,” Sarah said. “We’re driving the coast from New York to Florida and Obrycki’s is our first stop.” Were they loving it? “Oh, yes,” they said, tying on their bibs and digging into a pile of hot crabs. Craig Claiborne would understand.
HOW TO EAT A HARD SHELL CRAB:
1. Use your knife to take off the outer shell. It will fall away.
2. When the shell is off, the meat inside is exposed.
3. Scrape away the lungs. Its easy.
4. Crack the crab in half at the center, exposing the chunky backfin meat.
5. With the crab split in half, breaking away the shell to expose the meat.
6. A heavy chunk of backfin, ready to be eaten.
Obrycki’s
1727 East Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD
410-732-6399
The irresistible Eclair Supreme.
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