Dissecting Old Ebbitt’s Jumbo Lump Crab Cake
The cold prep team, which is sequestered in the basement at Old Ebbitt Grill, is bringing up clear plastic containers into the kitchen. Four of them are filled with these beautiful discs of freshly made crab cakes, more crab cakes than you've ever seen at one time in your life.
By General Manager Kyle Gaffney's count, those containers hold more than 280 crab cakes, which he expects to blow through those in no time. Ebbitt purchasing agent Noaman Derakhshanrokni says that the restaurant goes through 160-200 pounds of jumbo lump blue crab meat a day.
When I first asked chef Robert McGowan where he sources his jumbo lump crab meat, he answered, "Vietnam." Derakhshanrokni later clarifies that the blue crab actually comes from Mexico. Maryland blue crab meat, the purchasing agent adds, is prohibitively expensive for a restaurant in Old Ebbitt's price range. It can run $15 or $16 a pound. Derakhshanrokni has seen it as high as $21 a pound.
The recent increase in the Maryland blue crab population might help lower the price, Derakhshanrokni says, but probably not by much.
So how much does Old Ebbitt pay for the Mexican stuff? Derakhshanrokni can't say because the restaurant buys in huge quantities, which lowers the price. He also can't say because his supplier would kill him. The supplier, Derakhshanrokni says, might suddenly have to quote the same price for everyone.
Whatever the price, the Mexican jumbo lump is quite flavorful. Derakhshanrokni doesn't think it's as sweet and plump as the Maryland stuff, but it's sweet enough. And McGowan doesn't mess with the meat too much; he uses a light cracker binder, sears the cakes on the griddle in butter, and finishes them in the oven. The resulting cake is sweet, a little salty, and a little rich. Its seared exterior gives it just a slight edge, which contrasts well with the moist, soft interior.
The cake doesn't need the accompanying lemony mustard aioli at all.