A Tale of Two Softshells

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris May 21, 2022 22:00 in Dining Diary

There are few delicacies in this part of the country that create as much excitement as softshell crabs when the season rolls around. It is a brief period of time, only a few months, but there is a lot of good eating in that time. But this season is different than most, and restaurateurs have another reason to lament a shortage of workers. No one wants to harvest softshell crabs anymore.

Producing this wonder of nature takes time and precision and patience, all things currently in short supply. There is a small allotment afforded to each restaurant, and it is a tiny percentage of the product from years past. 

That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite it all, softshell crabs are here, and delicious as ever. Last week I had two in one day. Two separate restaurants, two separate meals,  and two distinctly different preparations. Both delicious.

Lola in Covington is a place we frequent, but not enough. Keith and Neely Frentz are a married couple who worked in New Orleans A-list restaurants and moved north to raise a family. It’s a cool place in the old train depot in downtown Covington, and the food they turn out each day reflects their gourmet creds.

Lola is where I go when I want to eat healthy and deliciously. The salmon salad is divine. Keith has told me that when he sees me in the house he automatically grabs salmon to begin preparation. 

But lately, I have him confused. His specials board each day is so appealing I just can’t make it back to my salmon salad. His sandwiches on basic brioche bun are literally eye-popping, but none more so than the softshell crab sandwich described on the specials board on our last visit.

There was a fried softshell crab, some bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and terrific housemade pickle slices stacked high on the bun. Asian slaw was a large part of this pile-up. The five-inch-tall sandwich was surrounded by shoestring fries. I specifically asked for the fries to be untruffled, since I am not a fan of that flavor. It suddenly occurred to me a few weeks ago that I should just ask all restaurants serving truffle fries to skip the step of tossing them in truffle oil. I’m still not a huge fan of these Lola thin and crispy shoestring fries, but I like them well enough.

When the sandwich was carried through the threshold to the patio, I was thrilled with my choice. The sandwich was spectacular looking. I cut it in half and wondered how I’d eat it. 

After one bite that thought was irrelevant. It all fell apart, laying on the plate like a large mound of salad ingredients, the softshell buried somewhere in there. It was not a large softshell, and not a Buster crab either, but somewhere in between. I spoke to Keith when he passed by and he told me he has a small delivery of them each week, and he was using them to create this sandwich masterpiece. (My words, not his.)

That said, I wonder why there is any preparation of softshell crab that offers strong tastes to compete with the divine but subtle flavors of nature’s local seasonal delicacy. The small softshell crab on this sandwich was crispy golden brown, greaseless, and delicately fried in a light batter. 

On top of it were two stiff slices of thick smoky, meaty and delicious bacon. A lot of the best housemade pickles anywhere sat atop the bacon. And there was a massive amount of coleslaw with a hint of Asian flavor, though not enough to offend me. The bun had a housemade condiment slathered on it, and together these flavors exploded in the mouth. I will definitely get this sandwich again while softshells are in season, and I will continue to complain about all the great tastes overwhelming our delicate softshell crab until every last bite is consumed.

Later that same evening Tom and I made our way to Cafe Lynn, the most underrated restaurant and the best deal on the north shore, and maybe in the whole metro area. The food at Cafe Lynn is enough of a draw to make it a destination restaurant, but I like its neighbors very well indeed, so dining there has a bonus attached to it that other places don’t. I have often mentioned Marsh and Bayou Outfitters, but Drive Thru Crawfish entertains me too. We always sit outside, which has no appeal at all except these neighbors. Al fresco dining here is literally just tables in a parking lot.

I wasn’t really hungry that evening, but hearing the specials made me reconsider eating. Softshell crab with linguine in a Grenobloise Sauce got my attention, and before I knew it I had ordered it. 

Tom got his oysters with spinach appetizer and an entree of duck confit, but I got only the softshell. It arrived and I mentally compared the two softshells from the day, which together averaged $25 each. This one could not have been any more different than the earlier one.

Here was a large, fat softshell crab perched atop a pile of pasta studded everywhere with capers. The softshell was crispy fried stiff, its claws sticking out on both sides. Greaseless and golden brown, this crab is plumper than any I have seen, maybe ever. The body was a full inch in thickness, and dense with crabmeat. I couldn’t stop eating this.

The capers in the Grenobloise Sauce are a strong flavor too, but the size and meatiness of the crab made it harder to overtake the delicate crab. 

Softshell crab needs only a melted butter sauce for its goodness to unfold. Brown butter with toasted almonds is best, but even covered in perky slaw these peculiar creatures are always impossibly delicious. This delicacy may be harder to come by this season,  but they are as good as ever, reminding us again why we look forward to them each year.