When, in the very first week of March, soft-shell crabs appeared at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, they seemed as unnatural as two-headed kittens. These molted creatures, normally a summer treat, have been appearing earlier and earlier. (The Oyster Bar folks claim they’ve cornered the winter market.) Are they a product of global warming? And are these freaks any good? We asked David Pasternack, executive chef at Esca and our adviser on all things briny.
“The crabs shed by the cycle of the moon and the water temperature,” Pasternack tells us. “They don’t know what time of year it is. So if the water is warm enough in Florida or Alabama, they’re shedding.” And indeed, the water is warm enough. (The oil companies would like you to know that this may not have anything to do with what we’re calling “global warming.”) Our fish-expert friend nevertheless says it’s “too early” to be enjoying the delicacy: “The first ones are usually pretty small. I like the bigger crabs; they’re much juicier. My local guy, Tommy Crab, he got me some three-quarter-of-a-pound crabs last summer! Those are the ones that are worth waiting for.” When we point out that not everybody has a “local guy” named “Tommy Crab,” and that it’s awful tempting to mosey on down to the Oyster Bar for a soft one, Pasternack admits that many of those eager fishermen have been steadily improving their catch. “Some of these guys,” he says, “have it down to a science.” So there you have it: While Esca’s head chef hasn’t yet indulged this season, you might as well. Just don’t tell them Tommy Crab sent you.