Whither crabcakes? The sweet lowdown   

I've been stalking the wild crabcake again, tracking it down to what you'd think was a natural habitat (a Ninth Street seafood market, crab bushels stacked out front), and up to the rarefied 19th floor of the city's most classic hotel, and here and there in the suburbs - at a Cherry Hill stalwart, and surprisingly, a bustling Chinese duck house in Wynnewood.

I'm not talking the Chesapeake, or even the Shore. Or the coastal route de crabe along Delaware Bay. And certainly not the land (the sea?) of the sweet peekytoe crab, whose domain is in rocky Maine.

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Crabcakes at Sang Kee come with a tangerine dipping sauce.

You play the hand you're dealt. And so I've been on the perennial, bumpy trek hereabouts. You find an absolute paragon - say the sauteed, lemon-butter-sauced baby at Odeon on 12th Street - and the joint shuts down. Or a chef re-creates his mother's recipe from the Eastern Shore, then moves on. Or the golden crabcake of memory breaks bad.

I had a pan-seared delight at the Waterworks Restaurant overlooking the Schuylkill last summer. Went back recently; didn't recognize it: The thing was limp and doughy.

You fear retracing your steps: Had a big, meaty blob of a crabcake at Oceanaire on Washington Square not long ago. Hope it's hanging in there (along with Susanna Foo's singular One-Hundred-Corner Crabcake).

A recheck of Striped Bass turned up a sweet, tender rendition, unbreaded shreds of Dungeness crabmeat packed in a ring mold, paired with julienned green apple and fennel frond. (Note to chef: Lose that feathery fennel; it's like chewing wet fur.)

So you try a few newcomers. At Honey's Sit 'n Eat, the retro-chic eatery in Northern Liberties, the crabcake is a mistake - a vile, inedible pancake. At Knock, the refitted, straight-friendly dining room at 12th and Locust, on the other hand, the baked crabcakes are hefty, tasty scoops, kicked up a notch with creole mustard.

Which brings me to Sang Kee Asian Bistro, the busy Wynnewood duck house. Owner Michael Chow says crabcakes were an afterthought on the otherwise Asian menu. But they've turned out elegantly, two tall plugs (about the size and look of diver scallops) seared to a crispy edge on the top; sweet, creamy and crabby inside. They're animated with tangy tangerine dipping sauce.

Sang Kee's cakes, like most locals, are made from canned pasteurized crabmeat from Indonesia. But that's hardly the whole story: At Anastasi Seafood, the warm Italian Market fish house (where the hard-shells don't make it into the cakes), the broiled crabcakes had a mildly metallic aftertaste. Not so at Devon Seafood Grill on Rittenhouse Square, which uses three parts super-jumbo-lump "premium, pasteurized" crabmeat to one of regular backfin in its pristine, virtually all-meat broiled cakes.

Nor was there any chemical hint in the beautifully seasoned and presented (though disconcertingly under-heated) mini-crabcakes at Nineteen (XIX), the dining room atop the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. Chef Marc Plessis says he looked to the Old Bay spicing and flavors of a Louisiana crab boil (with added garlic, peppers, onion) to season his cakes, using a shrimp mousse - reminiscent of the style of the Le Bec-Fin classics - as his binder. Dotted with sweet-tart tomato-pepper jam and on a dab of tarragon mayonnaise, they're the most flavorful contenders I've had in the city.

It is in Cherry Hill, though, that one of the steadiest Eddies is still coming out of chef Bill Fischer's kitchen at Caffe Aldo Lamberti. For most of the year, the crabcakes are made from fresh jumbo lump Louisiana (or Mexican or Venezuelan) crabmeat, lightly bound with egg, mayo, chives, chervil, and fire-roasted red pepper. Fischer, who was once a commercial fisherman himself, dusts them with herbed panko, sautes them in olive oil, roasts them to order, and serves them with a citrus-wine sauce.

I'd say their triumph is their off-speed originality, the sweet meat sandwiched between layers of crunchy, julienned zucchini. But, no, that's quite not it.

Their triumph is that (if their long-time devotees aren't gilding the lily) they haven't lost a step in close to 10 years.

That, my friend, is a crabcake worth the stalking!


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.