The Best Thing I Ate This Week: Duck Gumbo, Soft-Shell Crab

Washingtonian’s food team shares favorite dishes from their past seven days of dining.

The lobster roll at Hank's—a little bit of New England in Dupont Circle. Photograph by Flickr user kmberlykv.

Todd Kliman

Soft-shell crab at Central Michel Richard

’Tis the season for soft-shells, and though I, like most soft-shell lovers, tend to like them best when they’re pan-sautéed—a simple preparation that tends to preserve the delicate sweetness of the meat—there are times when fried will definitely do. This is definitely one of them.

These are exceptionally fresh, meaty soft-shells with not a trace of the muddy flavor or internal runniness that sometimes mars the product. Chef de cuisine Sebastian Posada fries them to such a marvelous crispness you would hardly guess they had passed through oil. The surprise here—and a characteristic bit of cheeky ingenuity from executive chef Michel Richard—is that they’re stuffed with fresh crabmeat, plumping them up to something you might consider for an entrée (they’re billed as an appetizer) and doubling your dining pleasure. Actually, that’s the first surprise. The second is that the transition from fresh crabmeat to soft-shell is so seamless.

No sauce is needed, but it’s a good one nonetheless, a Mediterranean-style emulsion heavy on sweet red peppers and dotted with vinegared chickpeas.

Ann Limpert

Duck-and-oyster gumbo at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

I have an ambivalent relationship with spicy food. Don’t get me wrong—a properly numbing ma po tofu or the hurts-so-good Thai salads at Little Serow are a wonderful thing. But too often, a cook will go so nuts with the habaneros or chili powder that the flavor of everything else in a dish is obliterated. This big bowl of gumbo, with its cubes of housemade tasso ham and slightly briny oysters, hits what I think is the perfect spice level—it’s assertive without steamrolling everything in its path. A pile of rice and rich, tender pieces of duck confit provide a good amount of relief. Buttery, garlicky slices of toasted baguette on the side help too.

Jessica Voelker 

Naem khao tod at Little Serow
While we probably don’t need another love letter to the oft-lauded Little Serow, I have to say my recent dinner there fairly blew me away. Among the many treats that crowded our two-top: the peanut-and-sour-pork-sausage-studded naem khao tod, a spicy-sauced salad featuring fried rice nuggets that have an impossibly crispy crust and a soft sweetness inside. Also: When you go, please get the drink pairings. The playful accompaniments—from house-made vermouth to hoppy beer—add so much to the joy of eating at Johnny Monis’s basement Thai place.

Anna Spiegel

Maine lobster roll (with a side of mac) from Hank’s Oyster Bar

This isn’t the lightest of orders. Still, when in the throes of a bachelorette party with your college roommates, a stomach-padding meal is a good idea. We found ourselves in the cruise-ship-esque upstairs room at Hank’s this past weekend, feasting on lobster rolls before a night on the town. The buttered split buns stuffed with Maine lobster and bound lightly with Duke’s mayo and celery for crunch are better than versions I’ve found in New England. Though generous, the portion isn’t so overwhelming that you can’t fit in a side of gooey (in a great way) mac and cheese, rich with white cheddar, smoked Gouda, and a crunchy crumb crust. The bride-to-be originally wanted our gathering on the Cape, but decided on a Washington celebration to make it easy on her guests. Turns out we didn’t even have to leave the city to get the same vibe.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.