Obrycki's in Baltimore
- Bruce Smith
Before I begin my rant about the much-touted Obrycki's in Baltimore, please allow me to give you some personal background information.
I live north of Boston, MA. For the past twenty years or so, I have spent many, many hours on Cape Cod catching thousands (I do not exaggerate) of blue crabs by jumping into the water, crab net in hand, and chasing them around. Blue crabs, while not found in this area in numbers large enough to support a commercial fishery, are nonetheless often plentiful for the recreational crabber, especially one who knows where to look for them - like me.
During this period, I think it would be reasonable to say that during the summer months blue crab has been the mainstay of my diet. I will eat it for lunch, dinner, or both. I eat 'em hard, soft, as cakes, in salad, imperial-style, and any other way I feel like preparing them.
I have even used a little portable gas stove to cook them soon after they were removed from their briny habitat. That experience yields the best, sweetest-tasting meat of all.
I have also caught and eaten the local rock, calico, green, and even the small mud crabs - all of which are excellent and all of which require varying degrees of skill and patience to extract the meat. And FTR, I've tried San Francisco's heralded Dungeness and Florida's Stone crabs - pretty good! What I'm getting at here is that I think it's fair to say I'm no naif regarding what is or isn't good crab.
So, given that my wife and I happened to be in Baltimore on the day of the Preakness, and given all the raves I'd read here and elsewhere about Obrycki's, AND given that we were on vacation and had a few $$ to spend...well, it all added up to a trip to Obrycki's, and damn the expense.
My wife is not as fond of crab as am I, so she ordered the fried shrimp. Me, I just didn't much feel like taking the time to mess with a dozen crabs, so I went for the crab cakes at two for $25.
About the shrimp, I will not say say much other than the six or so on my wife's plate were at best totally ordinary and at worst bland and somewhat greasy. As for the crabcakes - well, judging by them, Obrycki's MUST be surviving on reputation alone. Although they were plump enough, these feeble excuses for crab cakes were bland and tough. I have no doubt that either the meat used for them was from crabs cooked a couple of minutes too long (as many of you probably know, that makes a world of difference in crab cookery) or it was of the packaged, pasteurized variety. They weren't worth HALF what I paid for them and of course were but a pale shadow of the ones I make myself (I use mayo for binding) from truly fresh crabmeat.
So, while Obrycki's may have its fans, I'm not gonna be one of them. I'm not particularly receptive to plaints that, "maybe they were just having a bad day" - not at THOSE prices, I'm not!
BTW, my first experience with hardshells occurred many years ago at a crab emporium (it long ago ceased to be such) in Silver Spring, MD, called Kushner's.
Sorry to sound so negative, but I *had* to get it out! The good news for me is that I the Cape Cod crabs ought to be out in a week or two. I can hardly wait!
I for one am with you on this. I have heard about their reputation, but people I trust continually complain about the price vs. quality. I personally have never been, preferring to spend less money at humbler places. I was thinking of giving it a try this season, but your review has cinched it for me.
Obrycki's is essentially a one-dish restaurant: steamed hardshells by the dozen. At which they are unsurpassed. You didn't happen to order the one dish--what you are doing is in essence no different from complaining about the hamburgers at Nathan's, the chilidogs at Gino's Steaks or the ham and cheese at Carnegie Deli.
Hmmm...I don't remember seeing "Order only the crabs" anywhere on the menu. Besides, I'd seen recommendations - here! - for some of their other dishes. They have SOME nerve charging 25 bucks for those two sub-par crabcakes. If they're truly a "one-dish" restaurant, then that's all they ought to serve.
I can direct you to a restaurant on Cape Cod that is justly renowned for their fish and chips. It is their signature dish. However, their other seafood is also impressive, even though it's not what they're famous for. If only Obrycki's would adopt a similar philosophy!
I dont happen to like eating steamed crabs (too messy, uncomfortably peppery), but thats what people order at Obryckis. In many experiences there, I have had the best luck with their soft shells as a steamed crab alternative. Definitely better than the crab cake, but it has been years since I had a crab cake anywhere that really thrilled me. Nothing else on the menu is at all special, though some folks like the ice cream extravaganzas they serve for dessert.
re: jen kalb
Now that you mention it Jen, I can't remember the last time I had a decent crabcake in a restaurant, either! That doesn't excuse what they served me at Obrycki's, but it's certainly worth noting. I -do- like eating steamed crabs, just didn't want to take the time for it that day. I -almost- got the softshells, maybe they would have been better. Oh well! Thing is though, even the softshells I've had at restaurants don't compare to the ones I occasionally catch myself.
In a very general sort of way, I think it's reasonable to say that really good seafood of any variety is not easy to find. A few weeks ago, I -did- have what I'd call a very creditable crab salad sandwich at a place on Cape Cod. This version was made with local rock crab meat and was mainly crab with some mayo, on a roll.
Kushner's! That was a local place-one of the first to use frozen french fries. Back then if you wanted good fresh seafood (and french fries) you went to Silver Spring to Crisfield's. Of course Crisfield's in the '50's was thought of as good cheap seafood not a great seafood restaurant (their reputation was made after Julia Child went there in the '70's and proclaimed it "the best fish house she had ever eaten at." Then Calvin Trilling showed up a year or two later, the prices "launched" and for the next twenty years it became D. C.'s best seafood restaurant. Nothing had changed it was just legitimized.If you wanted really good seafood in the '50's and '60's you went to O'Donnell's downtown or the OLD Bish Thompson's in Bethesda both of which WERE better than Crisfield's then. But Kushner's was just a local place and nothing special. None of these by the way had a decent crabcake.
Now about O'Brycki's. I agree with you. But if you want crabcakes and I have eaten them obsessively everywhere for years (including weekend field trips within 200 miles of D. C. to find the best) the absolute best are in three locations:
1. Angelina's, Hartford Road, Baltimore. Retired to the Baltimore Magazine Hall of Fame after winning five years in a row. Probably $30.00 for two of them now. But worth it. Having said this the crab imperial there is even better. (Makes the Prime Rib's look mealy.)
2. Captain's Galley, Crisfield, Md. On the dock, overlooks water. Probably not quite as good as Angelina's but the ambience is an improvement to the Baltimore townhouse. New York Times called these the best in the world.
3. Stoney's, Off Route 4 in Calvert County, MD. Better ambience than Captain's Galley. You sit outside on a floating barge on an inlet eating all lumpmeat broiled crab cakes 95% as good as Angelina's. The ambience puts this over the top. The Washington Post called these the best in the world several years ago after eating crab cakes everywhere but Baltimore. (Go figure!)
Anyplace that has Maryland crabs in season, is outdoors near water and has jumbo's. Having said this there are three or four that come to mind:
1. Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis. Excellent crabs on the water. Locally legendary.
2. Robertson's, Popes Creek, MD. Locally legendary but not quite as atmospheric as Cantler's still on the water though. Neither of these has good crab cakes.
3. Crab Claw, St. Michael's, MD. On the dock not quite as good as above but atmospheric for Eastern shore.
4. Gunning's in Baltimore.
5. Bo Brooks on Bel Air Road in Baltimore Magazine Hall of Fame for crabs.
Then there are a whole bunch of other places such as Happy Harbor in Deal, MD that no one has ever heard about that are just as good as Stoney's, on the water and serving incredible crabs just a few feet from where boats dock. Then there's a converted chicken coop near Cambridge that's suppose to be...
As a general rule of thumb NEVER order anything besides hardshell crabs and beer in a crab house. There are occasional exceptions like Stoney's but Cantler's which, overall, I would rank the best has terrible sides. (Angelina's, curiously, is a neighborhood restaurant located miles from the water locally thought of as an Italian restaurant!)
Still, Kushner's was no big deal.
Wow! Thanks for all the tips. Now all I need to do is figure out how to spend some time on the Eastern Shore.
Kushner's was the FIRST place I ever had hardshells; this would have been in the late 50s or early 60s. That was my introduction to eating crabs and I remember it fondly. French fries never even were part of the scene...it was crabs, crabs, and more crabs, no side dishes of any kind. Still the best way to go.
re: Bruce Smith
The funny thing about Kushner's is that I don't ever remember anyone going there for crabs. Further down Piney Branch Road was a crab house at Dale Drive (Chesapeake?) that we would go to. When I was a kid the really big deal was going down to Maine Avenue to a seafood carryout called Benny's that had incredible fresh fish sandwiches where they would pile three or four perch (?) filets on top of each other on cheap white bread with homewade creamy cole slaw and Evangeline hot sauce for something like 49 cents. They had unbelievable french fries fried in pure lard that were greasy but even better than the old McDonald's fries discontinued in '67. (Still available in Spokane, Washington at Dick's Drive Inn.)
I actually had french fries similar to those a few years ago in Kansas City at Arthur Bryant's on Brooklyn Avenue.
Anyway, those fish sandwiches don't exist today. The Post ran a feature two years ago about a place on 12th St. N. E. (Horace and ?) but they're not the same. The place they are talking about has new owners. The original owners (Boyd's) had the real deal but that changed BEFORE the Post article was written. The reason I mention all this is that without the original around anymore a lesser standard emerges. This is true not just with fish sandwiches but also with McDonald's french fries. If you ever go to Spokane you will not believe how good they originally were. The same with Arthur Bryant's fries.
Also, back then Gifford's which was the standard for years was not the best ice cream. That was Martin's Dairy on Georgia Avenue in Norbeck where we would drive out to in the '50's. Their ice cream probably wasn't any richer but you could smell the cows (!) when you parked. I've found a couple of places in Massachusetts like this.
If you remember Kushner's do you remember the Reindeer Ice Cream stand on Colesville Road or the Polar Bear on Piney Branch Rd. near Walter Reed? They both evoke a discussion on remaining stands with original EletroFreeze machines.
You're doing good, but you've truly missed one of the very best in the state of Maryland. Box Hill Pizzeria,
(and I won't go into boring detail of how it got its name) in Abingdon, Maryland in Harford County serves one of the best all..and I mean all jumbo lump crabmeat. You got to taste it to believe it. Try it, and I guarantee it'll make a believer out of you. Tens of thousands of people from up this way think so!
There is no reason to eat at Obrycki's except for hardshells -- having anything else would be like having the american food at a chinese restaurant.