Equinox chef Todd Gray says he received soft shell crabs before anyone else in the area this year.
His seasonally-driven downtown staple has a dinner special starring sauteed soft shell crab, plated atop early spring asparagus salad, pickled fennel, and saffron aioli ($30). The James Beard Award nominee’s 23-year-old restaurant (818 Connecticut Avenue NW) got its first batch of softies two weeks ago from Philly’s Samuels & Son Seafood Co.
“I was thrilled when I got the call they were in. At $110 for a dozen, I was like ‘whoa’ but the price has come down a bit. It’s still very expensive but we love having them,” he tells Eater.
His softies currently come from the South, and kitchens across the Carolinas also started serving them last month. The annual favorite works its way up to the Mid-Atlantic, when Chesapeake Bay blue crabs molt from their hard shells.
Gray shoots a text to regulars whenever he gets the first batches of seasonal delicacies, whether it’s shad roe, white truffles, or black truffles (which just ended their run last week).
“I have a VIP seasonal customer list who are serious food and wine lovers. There are ravenous soft shell people, and one of my customers came in three nights in a row,” he says.
At Lutece, chef Matt Conroy’s cozy “neo-bistro” in Georgetown, a new main coats early shipments of soft shells in masa tempura ($23).
Chef Andrew Markert’s recently opened Newland on Capitol Hill also gets a head start on the season with a barbecue soft shell crab dish that speaks to his upbringing in Baltimore. Featured on his seven-course tasting menu, the seasonal delicacy joins seaweed barbecue, crab fat mousse, toasted milk bread, cultured buttermilk crema and cured yolk.
Spring softies are slowly starting to make sporadic appearances at other D.C. restaurants. Local purveyor ProFish has sold a few dozen so far at chef Matt Baker’s Michelin-rated tasting room Gravitas and his French American restaurant Michele’s in the Eaton hotel. They’ve also been spotted at Ivy City Smokehouse and its year-old seafood sibling The Point at Buzzard Point.
“The market will be at its highest price until the weather breaks and we get into the warmer months,” says ProFish co-owner Tim Lydon.
Soft shell crabs usually bottom out in price around Mother’s Day in early May, he says.
“Just a small amount is available to the local market until more reasonable pricing and availability,” says Lydon.
D.C. chefs typically prepare the late spring specialty with seasonal ingredients like ramps, pea shoots, asparagus, green beans, and tomatoes, appearing in sandwich form, as part of weekly specials, or inside sushi rolls.
Eater will start tracking softies once they start to become more widely available in D.C.