Shelfish hunter: Getting to the bottom of Charlottesville’s best crab cakes

Shadwells Restaurant serves up a filler-free crab cake that, according to owner Matt Kossin, even Maryland natives love. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter Shadwells Restaurant serves up a filler-free crab cake that, according to owner Matt Kossin, even Maryland natives love. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter

Why do crabs have shells? I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing it’s because their flesh is so effing delicious. If there were nothing hard and spiny to protect that sweet, briny, creamy white meat, crabs surely would have been eaten into extinction long ago.

Which is not to say we humans haven’t come up with strategies for extracting as much pleasure from the glorious crab as we can. Crab consumption, for me, breaks down into two categories. One: crack them yourself—your purveyor of choice brings you plate after plate of steamed crab parts, and you employ rudimentary tools to get at as many bites of seafood goodness as you can before tiring of the battle. Two: someone does the work for you, expending far more energy cracking your crabs than you could ever extract from their caloric content.

Unfortunately, neither of the two camps is particularly well represented in Charlottesville. And the latter more often than not results in a crab cake, likely because the blue crab, the nearby Chesapeake Bay’s single largest fishery product, is the ideal crustacean for cakes.

My question is: Why serve delicious crab in cakes in the first place? Again, my expertise is limited here, but it’s probably because someone at some point decided it was uncivilized (and uneconomical) to simply serve a heaping pile of crab meat smothered in drawn butter. This, to me, is a mistake. Crab is delicious. It should be served in simple preparations and allowed to be the star of the dish.

To this end, instead of serving crab alone, restaurants line up to proclaim their cakes contain the least “filler,” typically crackers or breadcrumbs used to bulk up the cake and bind it together. The effect, in the best cases, is a simple preparation with few adornments that everyone is, nevertheless, still compelled to call a “cake.”

This was the source of my cynicism as I recently listened to restaurateur Matt Kossin talk about the crab cakes at Shadwells, the new “farm-to-table” project on Pantops. The crab in the cakes is sourced from the Chesapeake Bay, Kossin said, and brought fresh to you here in Charlottesville.

“There is no filler,” he told me. “They’re lump crab cakes with no other fillers. They’re all crab.”

Did he mention there were no fillers?

Kossin said Shadwells’ cakes are bound together with mayo and folded with fresh parsley, along with one other “secret ingredient,” before getting a quick sear to brown the outside of the cake. The result is, indeed, the best crab cake I have come across in the city.

“We have had people come down from Maryland and say these are the best crab cakes they’ve had,” Kossin said. That may be a stretch, but yeah, it’s a tasty cake.

By contrast, examples of marginal crab cakes abound around Charlottesville. Both Rhett’s River Grill and the Virginian put out takes on the cakes that come highly recommended; unfortunately, the results are similarly disappointing in both places. The Virginian’s “signature crab cakes” come to the table looking and smelling delicious, their golden exterior looking right at home alongside the diner’s other cozy flat top dishes like burgers and patty melts.

But the cake itself is filler as far as the eye can see, lending it a mushy texture, and the taste of crab is nonexistent. The dish really could be any type of seafood in the ocean and you’d never know the difference, particularly when slathered with the Virginian’s dilly remoulade. I was too frightened of the answer to ask my server if this “signature” dish was in fact straight from the freezer.

Rhett’s version of the crab cake is slightly lighter on the filler, properly seasoned, and crabbier than the Virginian’s, but the crab is overworked to the point it becomes one with the binder, making the texture of the cake just as unpleasant.

Other than Kossin, no one is going to liken C’ville to Baltimore anytime soon when it comes to crab. But at less than three hours from the Chesapeake, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be treated to a few decent crab-based dishes. Shadwells’ crab cake is a good place to start.

Where’s the best crab cake in town?