One Dish: The classic crab cake, with a kick

At Steelhead Diner, the cakes are packed with $27-a-pound crab and spiked with habañero, Tabasco and Hungarian paprika.
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A Steelhead Diner crab cake, packed with Dungeness crab

At Steelhead Diner, the cakes are packed with $27-a-pound crab and spiked with habañero, Tabasco and Hungarian paprika.

A dedicated catch-and-release fisherman who ties his own flies, Kevin Davis promises you'll never find steelhead on the menu at Steelhead Diner. You'll find plenty of succulent seafood, though: a transcendant crab cake, a moist and flaky kazu-marinated black cod, spice-rubbed Alaskan king salmon, exquisite oysters from Taylor Shellfish, beer-battered cod & chips, the sorts of dishes you'd expect from a guy who spent five years running the kitchen at Oceanaire, two years behind the stove at Sazerac and five years before that as executive chef at Arnaud's in New Orleans, so he's into things like a complex gumbo, juicy po'-boy sandwiches (he calls his a "Rich Boy"), meltingly tender short ribs, pecan pie.

It takes nothing away from Tom Douglas, who chronicled Seattle's love affair with crab cakes (and wrote a cookbook with 50 crab cake recipes), that the best example in town comes from a competitor's kitchen. It's the highest ingredient-cost item on the Steelhead Diner menu, $15.95. Most restaurants start with lesser grades of crab (a couple of ounces at most) and typically extend it with cracker-crumbs or other filler; not here.

Davis developed the recipe when he was at Oceanaire: Start with plain white bread, properly moistened with homemade, whole-egg mayonnaise and Dijon mustard, seasoned with garlic, cilantro, green onion, Hungarian paprika, a touch of habañero, a drop of Tabasco and a splash of lime. For each crab cake, take a handful of Dungeness crab meat — the good stuff (legs and claws that cost $27 a pound wholesale) — and add just enough of the base to hold it together until you've got a hefty, six-ounce wad, about the size of a tennis ball. You won't taste the breading at all; it's only a mortar of flavors to support the briny crab legs.

A prep cook, Juan Allegria, who's been with Davis for eight years, actually puts them together and delivers them to the kitchen. These days, Davis himself is busy transforming the Oceanaire, which he'll reopen as Blueacre Seafood on March 19; his chef de cuisine at Steelhead, the talented Anthony Polizzi, fried up our most recent order, topped with flash-fried parsley and served on a bed of traditional Louis sauce. It's a dish you can share as an appetizer, or make into your main course.

Davis himself is not a fussy innovator. "There's a reason for culinary classics, dishes that stand the test of time," he says. "When it's done right, a crab cake can be as good as anything you'll ever eat. There's an emotional response."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).