Blue ribbons for red and white crab soups


THE WORLD of crab soup is divided into two camps, red and white. Those in the red camp believe crab soup should have a tomato base, contain more vegetables than your average backyard garden and have a judicious amount of spice, a prodigious amount of crab meat and occasionally some shell.

I have heard this crab soup called by several names, among them "traditional Maryland vegetable," "the working man's crab soup," "home-style crab soup" and "the real stuff."

Those in the white-soup camp advocate a crab soup made with fresh stock, more cream than your average cow and gorgeous lumps of crab meat. I have heard this soup called "cream of crab," "fancy-pants crab soup," "restaurant-style crab soup" and "the good stuff."

Like a candidate running for office, I find good things to say about the red and the white soups. I like them both. But I usually prefer the red at lunch and the white at dinner.

When I'm wearing a flannel shirt, I hanker for red soup. When I put on a white shirt and tie, I want white.

Recently, I spent time sampling both styles at the 11th annual Old Bay Crab Soup Stakes held in the Inner Harbor. Eight Baltimore-area restaurants entered the red soup side of the competition; 12 entered the white.

Five judges, myself among them, sampled 20 bowls of soup and picked winners in both divisions. The eating public also sampled the soups and cast their ballots for the People's Choice.

The judges' pick for the top red was the soup made by Wayne's Bar-B-Que in Harborplace. The People's Choice was the soup from McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in the Inner Harbor.

When it came to the white soup, the judges and the people agreed. The cream of crab made by Bistro 300 in the Hyatt Regency Hotel finished first.

After the contest, I called the winners and asked them to share some of their soup-making secrets.

The crab soup at Wayne's Bar-B-Que frequently has won top prize. Two keys to the success of the soup are its crabs and its potatoes, said Chris Philyaw, assistant general manager of the restaurant. Wayne's plops soup crabs, with the shells still on, into the soup pot, Philyaw said.

"The shells are what give the soup the crab flavor," he said. The potatoes offer a clue to how long to cook the soup. "When the potatoes are soft, the soup is done," he said.

Conversely, the red soup served at McCormick & Schmick's is made with crab meat but no shells, said David English, a sous chef at the restaurant. He said a key step in making the red soup is using fresh, not frozen, vegetables. This, he said, produces a "basic crab soup, one that appeals to the masses."

The Hyatt's cream of crab, which appealed to both the masses and the judges, uses a lot of cream -- 2 quarts of cream to 1 gallon of stock -- and big pieces of fresh lump crab meat. The lump crab meat is added to the soup just before it is served, said Mike Rehm, executive sous chef at the Hyatt.

Adding the lump crab at the last minute means it won't fall apart in the bowl, he said. Rehm said he uses crab shells to make the stock for the soup. But during the soup-making process, the stock is strained and the shells removed.

Rehm explained that when a diner takes a spoonful of the soup, he is supposed to taste the happy union of cream and crab meat. That experience, in one camp, is called white-soup heaven.

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