There are stories of excess and there are stories of gluttony. This is a story that reflects the indulgence of both along with expansive girth. It is also the story of a bushel or more of crabs that gave their lives for our search for the holy grail of crabcakes!
This morning, with rain pouring and warnings of road closures and impending floods, we decided that it was a perfect day to drive the 170 miles one way to the Mecca of crab divinity, Crisfield, Maryland which immodestly refers to itself as the seafood capitol of the world. It is also home to a restaurant which a number of years ago no less a deity than the New York Times proclaimed the source of the "world's best crab cake."
What prompted this trip was a friend (whose opinion I trust) that really liked Captain's Galley as I did ten years ago. But he told me on Saturday that his realtor, a rather rotund Crisfield native obsessed with crab, had a different restaurant that he felt he should be going to, The Cove. When I saw the Cove's menu on the internet noting that virtually everything in the house was homemade I couldn't resist.
Fifteen minutes outside of Crisfeld on Highway 13 we stopped at an information stand where the local chamber of commerce was trying to promote their area o the Eastern shore. The girl behind the counter who had at first told me that every Crisfield restaurant was good, when hearing we had driven from Reston for crabcakes, confessed that there was really one place better than all the others, the Cove. And, she added, she had eaten crab cakes everywhere-for all of her life. I guessed her age at 55 or 60 and was impressed by this statement.
Still, considering the possibility of her and my friend exaggerating we decided to eat at BOTH the Cove AND Captain's Galley.
And, of course, the Suicide Bridge Restaurant on the way back.
Crisfield is a small, gritty town with a ferry terminal as it's central business along with crabbing. There are a half dozen seafood restaurants, probably a half dozen crab picking and packing houses spotted near its center. There is also a relatively enormous area of subsidized housing adjacent to the ferry terminals, almost out of place with the several five and six story condiminiums under construction.
On a side street a block from the water is the Cove. This restaurant has been in Crisfield under a number of owners for perhaps as long as thirty or more years. The present owner purchased it two years ago. The small dining room has a frayed feeling with about a dozen four seater tables, all looking out into a parking lot or across a lot to the water beyond. Upstairs is an outdoor deck where hard shell crabs are served.
We started with cream of crab soup and tomato based crab soup. The first had little crab and a lot of flour for thickness. The second had water instead of broth and no depth of flavor. Both were homemade but this is really not a meaningful statement considering what they tasted like. A small loaf of warm bread was brought to the table along with packaged butter and packaged margarine. It's texture tasted like it had been frozen.
Twenty minutes after sitting down we were pretty convinced that we had wasted an incredible trip only to find that the Cove was going to come up short of our expectations.
Until our platters were served.
For $19.99 the Cove serves two baseball (literal description) sized all lump (yes, all lump) crab cakes along with three home made sides, homemade tartar sauce and homemade cocktail sauce. The crab cakes were incredible. Most overpowering physical presence of any crab cake I have ever seen on a plate! (This includes Jerry's $32 crab bomb in Seabrook, G & M, Angelina's, Stoney's and so on.) The 15 inch long platter MUST have weighed five pounds. There MUST have been almost a whole pound of lump crab in the two cakes.
And, yes, they tasted good, too. Real good! No, not on the level of the Narrows or any of the four mentioned above but they were close. Real close. But what this was about was the incredible mass of bound crab that was filling my plate. It was truly impressive! The sides, despite being homemade, were pedestrian with the exception of the good homemade minced slaw. Stewed tomatoes with cinnamon was also good but a side of peas were obviously frozen and had been doctored with some doughy substance.
We also ordered crab imperial "for the table" as it were. This was awful. There was a lot of crab and there was a truly prodigious amount of mass, ten inches wide, in its foot long plate. Probably an inch deep, too. Incredible portion. Just bound with some of the cheapest, least flavorful mayonnaisely glop that I've ever had!
For dessert (yes, you read this correctly), for dessert we order two slices of the local specialty, ten layer cake (what else did you expect?) from nearby Smith Island. Of course we ordered it to go. I should also tell you that we only had a few bites of the crab imperial and packed that to come home also.
Although thoroughly sated and begin to bloat my wife tolerated my driving the few blocks to the wharf and the "world famous" Captain's Galley where I had decided to go in and order carry out. My plan was to order a lump crab cake there along with a cup of cream of crab and a cup of vegetable crab. Assuming none of this was worthwhile we would donate to the seagulls (do they eat crab?) after a few bites in the interest of comparative analysis.
Captain's Galley was almost crowded in its several dining rooms, one of which opened directly onto the water. Still, like the Cove, it appeared tired, a relic from another era if you will. Their prices were about the same; after fifteen minutes or so the food arrived and we walked outside and sat down on the bench of an adjoining pier. Pakced in styrofoam the crab cake had been broiled as those at the Cove. We each had a bite, then a second. Remarkably, I was convinced that the Captain's Galley used the exact same awful mayonnaisey glop on their crab cakes that the Cove did on their otherwise interesting crab imperial. Really bad mayo. Really a lot of lump crab, though. Still a very distant second we both agreed to the Cove. The soup was another story. There was even more flour in the cream of crab soup with much less crab, mostly claw. In the red vegetable what little crab there was seemed to be dark and stringy. Freshly chopped veggies floated in the watery, flavorless soup. After a couple of spoonfuls of each we threw the rest away. The two thirds of the crab cake that was left was left in the styrofoam and put into the back of our car along with the remains from the Cove.
On the way outside of Crisfield I stopped at a local packing house, Linton's, and bought two pounds of local lump crab meat to take home. $22.00 a pound. A dozen jumbos were $44, steamed and spiced there. They told me that they sell all over the D. C. and Baltimore area wholesaling a bushel (about 4 1/2 dozen) jumbos for $115. (Next time you go to Cantler's and spend $75 or so for a dozen jumbos remember this!).
We left Crisfield, seemingly stuffed, feeling that we would never return. The Cove had been overall excellent for crab cakes and was a terrific value but not worth driving 340 miles round trip. Perhaps a tenth of this but that would be the limit.
A couple of hours later I made a wrong turn and my wife, studying the map, told me that we were only fifteen or so miles from another restaurant that had really intrigued me: Suicide Bridge near Hurlock, about ten miles generally south of Cambridge. I had read a number of positive things about this, studied their website and said, well, OK, we can get another crab cake and the two soups as long as we're so close.
This is not the easiest restaurant in the world to find. The global navigation system in my car told me that we were within two miles of it and shut down! There was not a sign in sight. And, trust me on this, we WERE in the middle of nowhere. Not a gas station, not a human being anywhere to ask where it was.
I broke down, picked up my cell phone and called to ask for directions. Very matter of factly they described how to find. (Turn right at the side of the post office and go two miles.) A very small post office and again, no sign. No human beings on this road either. Not many buildings, in fact mostly fields; after five or so minutes we wondered whether we again had made another wrong turn.
Finally, in the distance was the "Suicide Bridge" (so named because of four actual suicides along with several other locally notorious incidents over the years). On the far side of it was a large, almost new looking structure with stone, cedar, floor to ceiling plate glass windows, some 25 feet high, and behind this a cluster of similarly styled buildings. Several parking lots held what must have been 200 cars. An adjacent marina had boats as long as 60 feet or more docked in it. When we pulled into the first parking lot I noted that the cars featured many from Pennsylvania, even New Jersey and Virginia in addition to Maryland and delaware.
There was nothing else anywhere in sight other than this remarkable oasis like complex of stylish, modern buildings and enchanting cove and marina.
Inside we found beamed ceilings, stone walls, cedar wall panelling and cedar columns, a ten foot high fireplace, subdued lighting allowing light in off of the water directly outside. There was a warren of rooms, perhaps four dining rooms along with stairs to a night club and upstairs decks. Overall, this was an enormous restaurant with a number of additional buildings outside including one which was an enclosed, screened in pavilion that seemed capable of housing 250 to 300 people for an event or private function or feast.
We later learned that the Suicide Bridge restaurant had originally started in the 1920's as a room in a local farmer's house where he and his wife would sell hot meals to people who stopped by. (Lord knows how they would have found this place!) It had grown over the years and was purchased by its present owner 15 years ago who continued to enlarge it. Today it has seating for 380 people in its various rooms along with pavilion outside and a stage upstairs in a large hall that could hold 300 or more people for rock and roll bands which play several nights a week.
This was also a landmark known far beyond its immediate area. Only seven miles off of route 50 apparently many people regularly stopped at it on their way to and from the Shore.
There is a reason for all of this. There is a reason for the continued growth and this night, 300 or more people having dinner literally in the middle of nowhere.
The food is excellent. And, for all of my criticism about Coastal Flats from Friday night, this restaurant does absolutely everything right when it comes to ambience. This IS what a great Maryland seafood restaurant should LOOK and FEEL like. Whether the walkways outside on the dock, the open stone fireplace, the pristinely beautiful almost surreal on this evening inlet setting which opened farther out to a much larger bay-the Suicide Bridge has as fine of a setting as any Maryland seafood restaurant. It's not Cantler's nor Stoney's but in it's own way it's just as beautiful and just as special.
It's also much more upscale and more about full service dinners. So much so that even though fully sated we decided to go in and, yes, have dinner.
The cream of crab soup had a pure, creamy consistency devoid of the floury texture which I have found so many other places (including Stoney's). Correctly made with a roux then a mix of heavy cream and milk there were many lumps of sweet Maryland crab. The flavor seemed to lack a bit of sherry or "bite" if you will but the silky, thick spoonful was still delicious. Vegetable crab soup was also very good, made in house. It had the bite of Old Bay and more flavor than what we had earlier in the day. Still, it was not made with stock, rather probably with a combination of water and maybe, clam juice.
The crab cakes were filled with lump meat. Far superior to our disappointments at Captain's Galley but, honestly, not on the level of the Cove. But, they were very, very good. Two sold for $24.95 with a salad and two other sides. The house made cole slaw was minced and flavorful, actually outstanding. Tartar sauce and cocktail sauce were homemade although the french fries were frozen.
The menu looked interesting: fresh broiled rockfish stuffed with crab imperial ($24.95), fresh grilled tuna stuffed with crab imperial ($24.95), fresh flounder stuffed with crab imperial (same), crab imperial ($19.95), crab stuffed shrimp ($21.95). There were nine or ten veggies, most made in house; crab dip, crab balls, scallops wrapped in bacon w/ cheese sauce, crab toast (garlic toast topped with crab dip), "Suicide oysters (bbq sauce, cheese and bacon) and on and on.
We did not eat enough at the Suicide Bridge Restaurant to be able to have a real opinion of its food. We do know that what we had was delicious. None was the best of its kind but still the ambience in the rooms, the setting outside, the overall excellence and quality of what we tasted, there is a great deal of hope for this restaurant.
We will return soon.
By the way there was one review on the wall, from John Rosson in the Washington Times, in 1998: he called it among Maryland's best. He also said the Suicide Bridge Restaurant had seafood to die for!