Experts from 10 local restaurants on appreciating stone crab claws and what’s going on with new regulations that include shortening the season.
| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Florida stone crab season, starring one of our state’s most famous foods, starts Thursday with restaurants across Sarasota and Manatee counties eager to serve the delicacy.
The demand for stone crab remained strong locally last season through the spring despite the coronavirus and state-ordered restaurant shutdown. But season will be shorter now due to new regulations approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Local restaurateurs, commercial fishermen and seafood distributors are looking to capitalize on the popular and pricey crustaceans as soon, and as much, as possible, which should be good news for area stone crab enthusiasts.
“We’ll have them opening day,” says Brett Wallin, the fourth-generation owner of Sarasota’s Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant & Tiki Bar, which opened in 1918. “I’ll personally be running my own traps.”
While Wallin also contracts with local commercial fishermen he takes quite the hands-on approach to harvesting stone crab claws. That means the claws he takes are often cooked right at his Siesta Key home and then brought to his restaurant and market on South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.
“When I’m steaming my crabs they’re still moving, the claws, that’s how fresh they are,” Wallin says. “It’s an eight-minute drive from my house so you’re eating them within 15 minutes of me leaving my house.”
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Wallin recommends pairing stone crab at Walt’s with their Linda’s Margarita or perhaps a local beer from Calusa or JDub’s. And he insists on eating the claw meat cold, perhaps with hot drawn butter and his restaurant’s signature mustard sauce.
“That’s the way stone crab should be eaten,” he says. “They’ve already been cooked so you don’t want to reheat them.”
Adam Ellis, who disagrees a bit on how stone crab should be consumed, lives in the historic fishing village of Cortez and spent about 20 years as a mate on local fishing boats before opening his Blue Marlin restaurant on Anna Maria Island in 2011. He’ll be back on the boat this week in search of stone crab.
“I hope we’ll be serving them Thursday,” Ellis says from his Cortez home last week. “If we can catch some. I think it’s probably going to be a pretty decent year from what we’re seeing, and what we saw last year. But it’s fishing, so you will never know until the day.”
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At Blue Marlin, stone crab gets served a whole bunch of different ways.
“We’ll probably have some stoney mac and cheese and just serve them cracked,” Ellis says. “We do all kinds of stuff, we probably have 10, 15 recipes that we use. The best one is our Stone Crab Parfait that comes with some Old Bay mashed potatoes and a big jumbo stone crab lollipop all picked out for you.”
Ellis recommends pairing the stone crab with a bottle of Albariño white wine, Calusa Zote IPA, or perhaps a tumbler of the high-end bourbon Blue Marlin keeps stocked, such as Blanton’s or E.H. Taylor Jr. When it comes to personal consumption, though, Ellis prefers his stone crab a bit more basic.
“I like mine fresh off the boat, warm, and simple as you can give them to me with a nice cold beer,” Ellis says.
Captain Brian Bochan is also a stone crab and cold beer kind of guy, although he disagrees with Ellis on the temperature at which the claw meat should be served.
His restaurant and market, Captain Brian’s, is located on Tamiami Trail just north of the Sarasota-Manatee County line and should be serving stone crab claws “by 3 or 4 in the afternoon” on Thursday.
“That day my guy will come off early, unload the crabs to his wife to bring them here, and then go out and finish the day,” Bochan says.
A graduate of Riverview High in Sarasota who worked the Southwest Florida waters as a commercial fisherman and skipper before opening his Captain Brian’s market and then restaurant in the mid 1980s, Bochan will be offering a regular dinner with six stone crabs, a mix of medium and large, with choice of two sides including salad. The claws can be served a la carte as well.
“We’re a wholesaler, too, so we’re buying them directly from the fishermen,” Bochan says. “Our price point is much better than most and we guarantee the freshest around.”
And how does Captain Brian like to enjoy his claws?
“Personally, with a cold beer,” he says. “But a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio is good, too. And I recommend serving them cold with mustard sauce. Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, that’s the only way they serve them is cold. They won’t serve ’em hot.”
Ed Chiles – owner of The Chiles Group that includes the the waterfront Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key – fine-tuned his appreciation for claws while working at Joe’s Stone Crab, the world-famous Miami Beach restaurant that opened in 1913 and recently reopened just in time for season.
“I cut my teeth in the restaurant business starting as a dishwasher at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, and working my way up from there,” Chiles says via email. “Joe’s was doing 1,600 meals a day back then and brokering more stone crabs than anybody in the world. In my opinion, and I feel strongly about this, the very best way to eat stone crabs is cold. We recommend them cold with lemon and mustard sauce and we’re happy to bring you melted butter on the side. Our mustard sauce is the original Joe’s recipe.”
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Chiles enjoys the local stone crabs with his locally sourced Gamble Creek Farm organic salad or some stuffed Gamble squash blossoms, and a cold bottle of Lola Chardonnay.
“We are hoping for a productive stone crab season this year and look forward to featuring stone crabs in all three restaurants the day the season begins,” Chiles says.
The Columbia, the oldest restaurant in Florida, opened in Tampa’s historic Ybor City in 1905, with Babe Ruth often sneaking from the Yankees spring training camp in St. Petersburg to Ybor City in the 1920s and ’30s to enjoy late dinners at the Columbia. His major league meals, accompanied by copious Café Diablo cocktails, would include six orders of stone crabs.
In 1959, Columbia opened its St. Armands Circle location, making it Sarasota’s longest running restaurant. Stone crabs became a regular dish at the Columbia in the mid-1980s as fourth-generation co-owner Casey Gonzmart Sr., infused more locally sourced ingredients into recipes.
“We became the place to eat stone crab, not just the place to have a Cuban sandwich or the place to have paella,” Gonzmart says in the book “The Columbia Restaurant; Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine.”
At Columbia, the crab claws are served chilled, steamed with butter, mustard sauce and lemon, or broiled. The restaurant recommends pairing the them with CR Generations Sauvignon Blanc, one of the Columbia’s many private label wines, or Finca Nueva Barrel Fermented Viura.
Sarasota’s Michael Quillen and Mike Gowan, co-owners of the Gecko’s Hospitality Group, plan to offer stone crab at their restaurants Dry Dock Waterfront Grill and Dockside Waterfront Grill. Dry Dock, on Longboat Key at Boathouse marina offering a sweeping view of Sarasota Bay, made OpenTable’s list “100 Most Scenic Restaurants in America for 2019.”
“We usually start serving stone crab claws on the day after the season opens,” says Wil Stutzman, general manager of Dry Dock, via email. “We are in touch with our local fishermen whose traps are dotting the bay now. The claws are usually on their boats the first day and then gracing our happy guests’ plates.”
Stutzman says a platter of fresh claws and Dry Dock’s spinach salad are the way to start a perfect Florida dinner. Then for an entree, he recommends the popular fresh grouper dish that comes breaded and sautéed with a citrus cream sauce.
“Since the claws are sweet, we recommend this delicious experience be accompanied by our 13 Celsius Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp New Zealand wine with touches of citrus and with a refreshing finish,” Stutzman says.
Sister restaurant Dockside Waterfront Grill is a casual dining spot at Venice’s Fisherman’s Wharf Marina on the Intracoastal Waterway, just a quarter mile south of the Venice Inlet that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The annual Florida claws season is a special treat for all of us and we hope it is a good year for the crabs and for our local fishermen,” says General Manager Kris Hoinkes via email. “This year the season will be two weeks shorter so we will serve claws as long as we can get them. Our guests enjoy a platter of claws with our Dockside Garden Salad followed by whatever the fresh catch might be for their entree.”
Hoinkes says that while a frosty cold beer is a popular stone crab pairing, he recommends their light and crisp Napa St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc, which Dockside offers on tap.
“It’s the freshest way to enjoy by the glass or start right off corking a bottle of our dry, crisp New Zealand Giesen Sauvignon Blanc and enjoy throughout the meal,” he says.
Third generation Cortezian Karen Bell owns Star Fish Company restaurant and market as well as the large A.P. Bell Fish Co. seafood distributor next door. Both overlook north Sarasota Bay in historic Cortez fishing village, with Star Fish prepared to serve countless claws at their dockside dining area as well as bowls of their cherished stone crab chowder.
A.P. Bell, established in 1940, supplies restaurants across the country and around the world with grouper, mullet and more including stone crab claws. Its owner did not take kindly to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s decision in July to approve changes to stone crab regulations, to help increase the stone crab population, that included shortening the season. It will now end May 1 instead of May 15.
“I sent a letter,” Bell says. “I really didn’t like that they removed the end of the season, getting rid of Mother’s Day. That I wasn’t thrilled with. My issue was I never saw the science as to why they’re doing it. They usually do have a good reason but I just didn’t see it. It’s hard without knowing where they got the info.”
Bell adds, “I pay attention to people who come here for Easter and Mother’s Day and stone crab claws is what they expect, but maybe they will buy grouper.”
FWC will also be requiring an escape ring in stone crab traps before the start of the 2023-24 season, increasing the minimum claw size, and limiting the possession of whole stone crabs on the water to two checker boxes, which are used to hold crabs onboard a vessel before they are measured and the legal-sized claws are removed.
“That’s probably not a bad idea,” Bell says of the escape ring. “Same with the boxes. It’s the size limit we’re concerned about, but we’ll just have to wait and see what it does.”
Bell hopes to have stone crab on the menu at Star Fish Co. by 2 p.m. Thursday but cautions there is no guarantee because of various factors including inclement weather. When the claws do arrive, though, she will celebrate by uncorking a bottle of bubbly. “Usually every year we open a bottle of champagne when cooking our first batch,” she says.
Star Fish Co. serves the claws chilled or warm, with a creamy mustard sauce, drawn butter and lemons. “They have such a delicate light flavor yet they’re still very rich,” Bell says. “A lot of people do like them though with our mustard dijon sauce. But my favorite way to enjoy them is cold with just straight lemons and a bottle of champagne.”
Here’s information on all 10 restaurants mentioned, presented in alphabetical order:
Beach House: 200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; 941-779-2222; beachhousedining.com
Blue Marlin: 121 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach; 941-896-9737; bluemarlinami.com
Captain Brian’s Seafood Market & Restaurant: 8421 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-351-4492; captainbrians.com
Columbia: 411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-3987; columbiarestaurant.com/
Dockside Waterfront Grill: 509 N. Tamiami Trail, Venice; 941-218-6418; docksidewaterfrontgrill.com
Dry Dock Waterfront Grill: 412 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; 941-383-0102; drydockwaterfrontgrill.com
Mar Vista Dockside: 760 Broadway St., Longboat Key; 941-383-2391; marvistadining.com
Sandbar Restaurant: 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; 941-778-0444; sandbardining.com
Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant: 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez; 941-794-1243; starfishcompany.com
Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant and Chickee Bar: 4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-921-4605; waltsfishmarketrestaurant.com
Wade Tatangelo is the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor overseeing the weekly Ticket publication. Email him at email@example.com.