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Restaurants stay ‘True Blue’ with Maryland crabs

ANNAPOLIS — This is the time of year when Cathy Chisholm’s taste buds yearn for Maryland crabcakes. Not Maryland-style crabcakes.

The Davidsonville resident said she can taste the difference in freshness between the home grown dish and those made elsewhere. And even though she knows she’s getting Maryland crab meat when she eats at Vin 909 Winecafe, the Eastport restaurant’s True Blue sticker didn’t mean anything to her.

“This is the time of year when people love to be on their deck and porch eating them. They’re delicious,” Chisholm said. “You have to have visited (Maryland) frequently or have lived here to see the difference in the taste. But I haven’t tasted crabs anywhere else that tasted anything like ours.”

In Anne Arundel County, Vin 909 is among the dozen eateries that received a state certification for using local crab meat. This is the second year for the Department of Natural Resources’ True Blue program, which promotes restaurants that use a majority of Maryland crab meat in their meals.

After submitting an application, DNR officials randomly have them submit invoices to prove that they are continuing to use the state’s true blue crabs. In turn, they get ‘True Blue’ logos to advertise the product. There are more than 100 participants statewide.

Participants said the program hasn’t had any noticeable impact on their customer base. But it allows them to tout the local fare’s sweet, fresh taste as well as support the local economy and watermen. Crabs have not been plentiful this season — which is largely because of the colder than usual spring — so consumers will have to pay more until the supply increases.

For some businesses, that means nearly doubling 2012 prices.

“Too often (customers) might be getting imported crabs and think they’re buying local crab meat,” said Steve Vilnit, the DNR’s fisheries marketing director who runs the True Blue program. “There was a cold spring and the water has to get to a certain temperature before crabs start moving.

“The heat wave we’re having will get the water warmer and get the crabs moving. It’s a little bit expensive right now.”

At A Cook’s Cafe, that is being reflected in the prices. Crabcake entrees there aren’t a daily menu item, but they cost at least $30 when offered. Owner Craig Sewell also uses Maryland crab in the cooking classes he hosts with there through, which offers cooking vacations to travelers from around the world.

Sewell said the same transparency required for medicines should be applied to Maryland crab.

“They’re amazed that here we are in Maryland and most places they’d go and eat don’t serve Maryland crab,” said Sewell, whose restaurant gained the Maryland True Blue labeling last year. “In order to publicize your pharmaceutical, you have to tell everybody all of the nasty things that can happen to you as a consequence of taking this drug. … The information is there. People should know what it is they’re eating.”

Last year, Vin 909 bought backfin crab meat wholesale at $13 per pound, but this year it costs closer to $20 per pound. These days, its only crab feature is the $14 Maryland Blue Crab Toast. They typically sell 20 orders a day of the dish, which is made up of local blue crab, hollandaise sauce and celery root puree.

“It’s been very popular, but how much of that is because of True Blue? I don’t know,” said Justin Moore, Vin 909’s executive chef and owner. “People seem to genuinely care if you’re using Maryland crab.”

At Loews Annapolis Hotel, the West Kitchen & Tavern restaurant sells crabcake sandwiches, crab dip and crab soup. But the rising crab cost has not yet been reflected on their menu.

“(Maryland crab meat) makes our crabcake and crab dip so much better because we can really not doctor up all the ingredients. We can let them shine,” executive chef Kevin Relf said. “People won’t buy a $20 crabcake, which is probably what it’s worth unfortunately. Our crab markup is not as much. We actually don’t make money on our crabcake.”