It is a known fact: I judge a restaurant by its crab cake. Without apology. If your crab cake falls short, the whole restaurant is right out. Call me a crab cake connoisseur with stringent standards. So when Chef Antonio suggests I try the Kanaloa crab cake, my nostrils flicker, my eyes start to glow, and I hand him the challenge: Bring on your best crab cake, chef.
The crab cake arrives with a flourish. Much rests on this moment. Much, indeed. What do I expect? A crisp exterior, possibly a twist of lemon, and then a heavenly sauce that I can dunk in with abandon. The inside of the crab cake should be moist, creamy, and the crab should be real crab, not that fake stuff that lurks in many would-be crab cakes.
But I should know by now that Chef Antonio never brings the expected. He always has some element of flavor that elevates a dish and takes it just a step beyond what you think it will be. This crab cake arrives as a an inch-thick prince swimming in a lake of sweet chili sauce. He says, “I use rock crab and blue crab mixed with peppers, garlic, and Old Bay seasoning. So it’s a stronger crab flavor, and the seasoning matches it.” Panko bread binds the crab cake, and it is fried quickly in butter and then baked, so that the outside is crunchy and the inside is creamy smooth. Yes, I nod, scooping up a big bite, but what about the sauce? “The sauce is Thai sauce,” he says, “so it’s Thai pepper with butter and heavy cream.” The result is a creamy sauce that is crazy good. As Chef points out, most restaurants offer one or two sauces that they reuse for most of their dishes. The Thai sauce for the crab cakes was made particularly for the dish. And you will find that this is true for all of their dishes; each sauce is special. “Before I make a recipe, I imagine the food,” he says, “And I ask you trust me to take you on that flavor journey.”
On top of the crab cake sit a little crown of thin-sliced cucumbers marinated in rice vinegar. Although I consider this the ultimate adult-pleasing dish, Chef Antonio often recommends this for his younger customers. It is a substantial appetizer and makes a great meal for a younger diner. It comes with a side of the house salad, which is far better than anything that a normal restaurant calls a house salad. Golden beets, goat cheese, roasted macadamia nuts, lemon vinaigrette, and thin red onions nestle in romaine.
Chef Antonio is gleefully waiting for the crabby foodie to concede. I finally wave the white flag. “You win,” I say with my mouth still full, “This is good. Really good!”
Angela Borda is a Santa Barbara food writer who is delighted to be blogging about one of her favorite restaurants, Kanaloa Seafood.