“ Address: 458 Forest Beach Road / Annapolis / Maryland 21401 / Tel: 410-757-1311 „
BACK ON THE CRAB
A recent trip to the USA for a three day conference near our corporate headquarters presented an eagerly anticipated opportunity to indulge in some shameless nostalgia. I spent most of my formative years and early adult life in New York and at various other cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, most notably Boston and Washington DC. It was the proximity of our offices to the latter that had me particularly excited, as the agenda promised a trip to Maryland's state capital, Annapolis, home of the US Naval Academy and, perhaps more importantly for me, Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, a local institution rightly famed for its Maryland Blue Crab, freshly hauled in from the waters of the Chesapeake.
Crabbing is an experience that first timers will either love or hate. The concept is as simple as it is rustic. You get a bushel of freshly steamed crab, seasoned with a local spice called "Old Bay" (a heady mix of several ingredients including mustard, paprika, bay leaf, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt, and ginger) a mallet for cracking the shell and not much else other than cold beer and fries. My first experience of crabbing was over 20 years ago in a dock-side establishment in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, so I was very much looking forward to more of the same.
ECHOES OF DELIVERANCE
Getting to Cantler's is as much of an experience as eating there. Having spent an hour or so walking the picturesque streets of downtown Annapolis and trying the local beer, we boarded a mini-bus, which took us on Route 450 across the Severn River (quite a bit smaller than its namesake in Wales) onto the 648 for a little while, before turning down Forest Beach Road. At this point, I could hear faint strains of "Duelling Banjos" take hold in my overactive imagination as we travelled down a single lane road that offered a wide variety of scary looking accommodation, interspersed with some lush looking houses. Before long, we pitched up at Cantler's on Mill Creek and clambered out of the bus. The trip took no more than 15 minutes, and given its location, you really need a car or taxi (or boat, should you be so lucky!) to get there. Cantler's is a family run business that has been around since 1974. It's eponymous owner worked as a waterman on Chesapeake Bay.
First impressions confirmed my expectations. We passed through a small porch impressively decorated with both local and national awards and acknowledgements, into a cosy dining-room lined with bench-like tables covered simply with plain thin cardboard table cloths. The restaurant has an outside area right on the creek, but given the size of our party and the forecasts of rain, our organiser opted for prudence and booked us an area inside. In the event, it didn't rain. The restaurant has an obvious nautical theme, and its wood interior and low ceilings give it a real faux-shack feel. The area to the left of the door is dominated by a large bar (which serves food and snacks at bar side stools) and the constantly swinging door in and out of the kitchens. There is a natural bustle and busy-ness to the place that just adds to the atmosphere.
Service was immediate and attentive, with several young ladies in Cantler's T-shirts (yours for only $17.95 in a variety of fashionable colors!) making the rounds on our tables - there were eighteen of us - to explain the system. We had signed up for one of their "Feast" packages, which included the aforesaid crabs, generous helpings of steamed shrimp (prawns to us Europeans), giant, olympic-sized onion rings, lashings of French fries and tubs of coleslaw, along with buckets of canned beer on ice, including the unlikely-sounding Yeungling's, which put me in mind of an Oriental Jedi Padawan learner, but is in fact, the oldest continuously operating brewery in the US, operating up the road in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (and anglicised from the German name "Jüngling"). This was all to be polished off by a selection of home-made deserts. A swift crab-cracking tutorial followed before service commenced and we were left to our own devices. Incidentally, those in the party not partial to seafood or alcohol were offered suitable alternatives, so everyone was more than adequately catered for.
HARD WORK FOR SCANT REWARD
You soon realise that you'll most likely never have to work harder when you've paid to eat. Maryland Blues are around five to seven inches across and getting into them requires a bit of muscle and graft. That said, there is something oddly primeval and satisfying in taking a large wooden mallet to a crustacean, and you kind of get into the flow of things. What they don't tell you is that you'll end up making an almighty mess, so make sure you don't arrive in your Sunday best. My sense of vanity and propriety disappeared after five minutes when I saw my boss elbow deep in crab remains hacking away with real purpose. The crabs themselves, once you get into them, are perfectly cooked and seasoned, so that dipping them in the little pots of drawn butter provided almost seemed like sacrilege.
Given the crustaceans are the main event, its easy to forget the sides. The onion rings were delicious - real, giant rings of onion covered in a delicate and flavourful batter that didn't overwhelm them. Even the standard French fries were a cut above the ordinary. Only desert was a teeny bit of a let-down, with the archetypical local version of death by chocolate being wheeled out, and proving a little too rich and sickly sweet after three or four forkfuls. I finished the meal with both my belly and my inner Neanderthal thoroughly satisfied, and even succumbed to the subtle marketing by snapping up a dark green T-shirt to mark the occasion. There is a display of the "merchandising" in a glass cabinet between the toilets, which, incidentally, were quite small and cramped for a restaurant the size of Cantler's, and as such, not particularly clean.
As I was on a corporate junket, I didn't get a peek at the bill, but if you go a la carte starters go for around $10, sandwiches around $12, and mains from around $20. Soft drink refills are free, and as mentioned before, they also do a limited menu of steaks, ribs and chicken for "land lovers". This being the US, tipping is expected, with 18% added for service to groups of ten or more (we easily qualified). If you're planning on going, their web site (www.cantlers.com) is a must visit, providing directions, booking details, opening times, recipes and several how-to guides on buying, preparing and eating crab. Parking on-site is limited, so car-pooling is suggested, and if you're lucky enough to be going by boat, there is free mooring for patrons. They are open seven days a week, and will not take bookings during their busy season, so its first come first served.
A CRACKING EXPERIENCE
So is Cantler's worth the diversion? Absolutely. Its reputation as a local institution had me worried as in my travel experience, you either end up with a overrated tourist trap, or, if you're really lucky, a place that's worth every accolade and moniker attributed to it. I'm happy to report that Jimmy Cantler's fine establishment is very much the latter. Sure, your hands will be stinking of crab and you'll be sweating out Old Bay for a few days, but it's well worth the experience - and that's what it is really - a social experience that's perfect for a fun night out or as a work jolly, provided no one is too fussy to join in.
Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
© Hishyeness 2011