MANATEE -- The phone at Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on Longboat Key was ringing like crazy Friday.
The voice of restaurant owner Alan Moore, whose family has owned the establishment for 45 years, was excited.
“We expect them at around 3 p.m.,” Moore said. “But call before you come.”
Moore wasn’t talking about a visit at 3 p.m. today by the governor, a movie star or sports hero.
He was talking about the arrival from the nearby Gulf of Mexico of the first Florida stone crabs of the season, which begins today and runs until May 16.
“It’s like night and day,” Moore said, describing the season’s impact on his iconic restaurant where patrons have been eagerly awaiting the magic day. “It’s like someone turns on a switch.”
Although the taste of crab meat is all that matters for many of Moore’s fans, who can get a pound and a quarter “house dinner” for $29.99, the stone crab story is also rich.
Unlike most other seafood, the stone crab is not killed so that humans may consume, said longtime Cortez crabber Bryan Ibasfalean.
“It’s the greenest fishery in America,” Ibasfalean said. “It’s the only one where we don’t kill the animal.”
Crabbers are legally allowed to snap off both claws at a hinge on the crab’s carapace as long as the claws are at least 2 3/4 inches in length, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Harvesting claws of egg-bearing female stone crabs is prohibited.
“Stone crabs tend to eat more vegetable matter without their claws, which causes them to bear eggs twice as often,” Ibasfalean said. “Studies have shown in three months after losing a claw, they have grown one long enough for foraging. In one year it is big enough for us to take and, in three years, they drop it automatically.”
‘Cold with mustard, please’
They call him “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
He is also known as “Stone Crab Al,” the chef at Moore’s whose job it has been for decades to crack the cold claws and place them invitingly on plates, along with a special mustard sauce with a tang not as tart as Dijon.
“We will serve them warm with butter, but most of our patrons eat them cold with mustard,” Moore said.
How to describe that taste?
“It’s really rich,” said Karen Bell, assistant manager of Cortez’s 71-year-old A.P. Bell Fish Company, which is owned by her father and other family members. “It’s dense and chunky. It’s great with champagne.”
“I think the magic of stone crabs is the flavor,” Moore said. “It’s a sweet meat, real tender. Lobster can get chewy. Stone crab is an entity of its own.”
The science that goes into preparing claws for consumption is also dramatic.
“The claws can’t be held raw for any extended time,” Moore said. “You don’t ever want to do anything to a raw claw except cook it.”
Crab processing houses, including one at Moore’s and Bell’s, steam the claws the same day they are caught in order for the meat to be right, Moore said.
“The meat is like jelly,” Moore said, describing why the claws must be steamed.
“If they are iced first, the meat sticks to the shell,” Bell said, describing why the raw claws can’t be iced before being steamed.
The length of the claw’s steaming time is based on the temperature of the water they were caught in, Moore said.
“Some people ignore this, but it’s all essential to getting the meat to be perfect,” he said.
The range of steaming time is 12 to 18 minutes, at which time the claws must be taken out of the steamer and put straight in an ice bath so they won’t overcook.
This delicacy can’t even be placed in a refrigerator with a fan after cooking. The fan would dry out the precious meat, Moore said.
“We have a wet condensed cooler,” said Moore, who also approves of the old-school method of packing the cooked claws in ice then washing and repacking them every day.
Ibasfalean and his fellow fishermen were allowed to lawfully drop their box-like crab traps Oct. 5 and inspect them at any time. But no harvesting until today.
Early inspections were hinting at a scarcity of crabs locally, at least for now, Bell said.
“Right now they are saying that the weather is not pushing the crabs to us,” Bell said. “The weather has been too pretty. Crabs like it chilled a bit.”
Ibasfalean thinks the bulk of the crabs, which normally range from 5 to 6 inches long, might be congregating around Tarpon Springs. Given the scarcity, that might push up the season-opening price per pound.
“It might start a little high,” Bell said. “It will probably be $10 to $20 to the customer.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.