By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 30, 2014 at 9:01 AM

For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."

Last week, planning to write a feature about crab cakes, I sought out an expert: Zach Espinosa, chef at Harbor House, the Bartolotta Restaurant Group’s seafood place on Lake Michigan that OnMilwaukee.com readers voted the best seafood restaurant in the city in our recent poll.

We ended up having an in-depth discussion of what makes a great crab cake, the sourcing of crab meat and much more, including a discussion of trends in seafood. So, like a great chef does with an unexpected delivery of a new ingredient, I called an audible and am sharing the entire conversation with you here.

And, as a bonus for reading to the end, you’ll get Espinosa’s great crab cake recipe, too.

OnMilwaukee.com: Crab cakes are kind of like wings or pizza or one of those things that people get super passionate about.

Zach Espinosa: I agree. Everyone always knows someone from the East Coast, so they swear by a recipe or they say, "Well, that's not the way to do it." There are always little subtle nuances and techniques, not just ingredients.

OMC: Regionally there's this code. Every region thinks they make the best kind.

ZE: Absolutely, yeah. Like pizza. You know, New York, Chicago. Thick, thin, deep dish, whatever you want. We have a couple of people here on the staff that are from the East Coast and one of them is from Maine. We have another one from Maryland. We fancy ours (is) a pretty good crab cake. It's not basic in a bad way, but it doesn't need to be gussied up. You don’t need to have corn relish. The crab is the star, it's a great cake.

Both those people, they say it's a really solid crab cake. I am OK with that. It is such a personal thing for people. Even though this is Wisconsin and Milwaukee and we don’t necessarily have tons of fresh crab here; crab, now more than ever, is even becoming more of a luxury item, just as the seafood market has trended.

The shrimp price is sky rocketing and crab, as well. It is one of those things that, when people see that price, and sometimes it's sticker shock, and they're like, "This better be the best crab cake ever!"

OMC: So you feel that pressure?

ZE: Yeah, absolutely. We go through a lot of crab cakes. It is one of our more popular appetizers. There is tons of pressure for that consistency. It has to be the same from the first time you have it to the second time you have it.

OMC: Has the price changed how you approached it in terms of portion size or anything else?

ZE: Yeah, it has. We found that we could offer the best experience, instead of doing two smaller crab cakes. I know sometimes people see two, they think it's automatically better because it's more than one. What we've done is without really raising the price, we scaled it back a little bit and do one large crab cake.

We used to do two. When I first started it was two crab cakes and it was a little bit more of "let's see how we can pair flavors that are going to match with crab" and do this, I don’t want to say, fancy more dialed up version, but, it was less about the crab. I think just through my own education and just knowing what the guests’ expectation is, we've simplified it, the sides to as basic as could be.

It gets a little slaw that has a sweet and sour vinaigrette on it and a mustard/mayo. Just because it's about the crab now.

We do, do one larger, it's a three-ounce crab cake instead of doing two, two ounce crab cakes. I don’t foresee there was ever an issue. I mean, there was a couple of people that were, "Oh, you changed it!"

OMC: Well maybe some people like to share an appetizer, and prefer the two so they’re not cutting one in half.

ZE: Exactly and we do have large groups that do that. They are like, "we want to share, can you just cut two of them in half?" No, because I don’t want it to fall apart, but what I will do is I'll reform it. I'll take the crab cake that we have and break it in half and...

OMC: Make it into two.

ZE: Right. So it's a little easier for the guests. Part of the technique used with the crab cake is, you just focus on the crab.

OMC: So you went from four ounces to three ounces instead of raising the price?

ZE: Correct. Yeah, instead of raising the price we changed the portion size. I think the worse thing is, like I said, sticker shock sometimes. That was one internal control that we as a team figured out, "well hey, we don’t need to change the price, let's just change the presentation."

We saw with a very minor exception of a couple of people, pretty much no blow back from that.

OMC: Let's talk about the crab versus the cake. Obviously the crab is the star, but there is the cake.

ZE: That is true.

OMC: Are the other ingredients there just to bind it together? Obviously there are other flavors going on there. How do you balance that, because sometimes you order a crab cake, you can't tell if there's any crab in it.

ZE: Right, which is the worst part, I think. First, and foremost, you got to have a lot of crab. For the recipe we do for the restaurant, it's 12 pounds of total crab meat, and you're getting just a little over, I think it's 70 crab cakes; like 72 crab cakes.

OMC: What is the proportion of crab to binder?

ZE: I want to say it's, crab to binder, probably 85:15, if you're thinking like ground beef, with like the beef to fat ratio, we're probably like an 85:15.

OMC: I imagine that there's a limit to how much you can go, otherwise you don’t have crab cake anymore, you have a pile of crab meat...

ZE: Right, if you don’t have somewhat of a binder, it is like free-falling crab and it's breaking apart and it looks sloppy on the presentation. You need to have something there to hold it all together.

You make it so that's the two separate components of the dish. It is like baking, it really is. It is a cake and it's half the word. You got your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients. Your dry in this case is the crab and your wet ingredients are your eggs, the little bit of mustard, mayo that we use and seasonings.

We will mix all of that in a separate bowl and then we just little by little, we will have the two different types of crab meat, because that allows the smaller bits of the crab meat to kind of act as a binder in sorts in place of the bread crumbs.

OMC: So you don't use any kind of flour or bread crumbs?

ZE: We do a very small amount of bread crumbs. We have a panko, the really fat kind of killer Japanese bread crumb, but there's no flour in it. We'll throw that dry right into the wet. It is still liquid, our wet component.

OMC: Because the egg is cooking and holding it together.

ZE: Absolutely. It is like the mortar and the bricks of the building.

OMC: It is the glue.

ZE: Yeah. It is the glue. It is what's in there to help it hold its form. Some people they love those crab cakes that are just falling all over the place, because, they are like, "Oh, look at all of the crab!" There is also the guest expectation of something I just paid $13, 14, some restaurants charge a lot more. You want it to look nice, too.

OMC: Right, and you're ordering a crab cake, so you want it to be a crab cake, otherwise it's some other...

ZE: A crab cocktail, or it's a pile of crab meat.

OMC: What do you look for when you order a crab cake?

ZE: When you break into the crab cake, I think one of the best things and it just popped into my head, the good analogy, it should be like a chocolate chip cookie. When you break into it, you should see those big chunks of white crab meat, the big lumps. If you're not going to see lumps of that beautiful white crab meat, right there is probably a tell-tale sign that they're either over working the crab, handling it too much, or they're using a lesser grade. It might still be a great quality brand name crab meat, but, it might just be more claw than super lump which is what we use.

It should have that when you break into it or cut into it. I want to see, and even better if there's big lumps that are still together. That is the best part.

OMC: Do you like a crunchy outside?

ZE: Yeah, I think you need a little of those crunchy bits on the end.

OMC: I don’t see the bread crumbs strictly as a filler...

ZE: Yeah, it gives it a little texture, as well.

OMC: How do you guys cook them? Do you cook them in the oven?

ZE: We do, yes. We will start with a little butter and olive oil mixture, crab cake goes in. They go in the pan, let it brown for a minute or so over medium-high heat. We sear the one side, we'll flip it, baste it a little bit, and then we throw it in the oven to finish for another three or four minutes. We do a, I wouldn't say it's super thick, but, it's got some size.

OMC: It is not going to cook entirely in the pan.

ZE: Right. The worst thing is doing it on the stovetop. Again, you're going to be flipping it and flipping it and flipping it. So, you flip it once and put it in the oven, that way it's going to cook through, it's going to crisp underneath.

OMC: If you leave it in the pan too long, your outsides are going to get overcooked while your insides are raw.

ZE: Exactly. We pull it out, baste it a little more, check the bottom. In a perfect world, our prep guys that are doing it have seasoned it perfectly, and then we just do our plate, which is cold components with it. We will have our set plate ready to go and then the crab cake goes out.

OMC: Where does the crab come from? What kind of crab is it?

ZE: It is blue crab. Right now with the crab market being as wacky as it is... we've locked down a really great product. Would I like to be able to get that same product here domestically? Yes. I mean, it's not a little bit more expensive, it's a lot! It is like making the jump from whatever meat is behind the counter to going to the butcher and sourcing the certifiable beef...

It is all about the perceived value. I think we did our homework. We found the best crab we could get. We tasted one night on the patio when Paul Bartolotta was in town, and I remember dreading it, because crab was a hot topic this past summer. He wanted to try crab, so we got in all these different samples of crab and we're tasting crab and he was pushing this aside, shoving that aside.

Me and him are sitting there like gemologists staring at these lumps and fragments of crab meat. He weighed in with his opinions and I think what we settled on, what we now can get is the best crab. It is smooth. The meat is sweet, it's got great texture, it holds its form. It is a good product. I feel comfortable using it. If it wasn't a good product, we wouldn’t have it in the house.

OMC: Where does it come from? Is it Asian?

ZE: Yeah, it actually is. I don’t think there's anyone that is in the state of Wisconsin that is affording themselves the luxury of using domestic, pasteurized crab meat. The market is so out of control right now.

OMC: Tell me a little bit about the stuff you do on the side. Did you go through lots of different ideas?

ZE: We did, yeah. Since I've been here -- almost four years -- we've probably played with the crab cake presentation the most of any one dish. When I first started, maybe it was because I was younger and more idealistic, and I had all these visions of grandeur, we would try to pair as much stuff as we could to get this great composed dish. I don’t think there's anything wrong with that, but we were ignoring the crab.

OMC: Were you overthinking it?

ZE: We were. Absolutely. We had bacon vinaigrette and a corn hash. It doesn't really need to be all of that. We morphed it a couple of times, made seasonal changes, but kept this really intricate plating for a while. Probably about a year and half ago, it was probably just after the holiday season and I had been here two years, and I think, in my head, I finally figured out the direction this restaurant needed to be going, through constant gentle pressure via my ...

OMC: Joe.

ZE: Yeah, exactly, from Joe (Bartolotta) and Adam (Siegel), but in a good way.

OMC: Sure. You're still here, right?

ZE: Absolutely (laughs). Through this constant gentle pressure, we figured out that, hey, it's not just the main entrees, it's not just the persona that this restaurant needs to have, it's not this overlooking the little things. Those little things have to be what are our staples.

We went back to the books and totally redid our chowder, and I think our chowder recipe right now is the best it's ever been and I think it stacks up with anyone's chowder anywhere. I am really proud of it. I think the crab cake, as well. We looked at it and it was like, I felt almost ashamed.

OMC: Did you wake up and look at it one day and wonder...

ZE: Yeah. It was one of those things, of "what did we do?!" It was this ridiculous presentation and I'm looking at it and I said, "this is ridiculous." Then, Adam and Joe again, they were like, "we appreciate all the hard work, but this dish right now screams that we're trying to hard."

So we went back to the drawing board, and it think it is one of the most popular presentations we ever did, was the crab cake with a really small salad that had just lemon oil and this mustard/mayo. That all of a sudden went from being the No. 4- or 5-selling appetizer to our No. 1.

OMC: Did anybody complain?

ZE: Not one person complained. It was one of those things where we didn't hear anything other than good things, positive things. Then we really looked at the crab cake itself and we said, "OK, now we need to work on the cake."

OMC: You can't hide behind any of the sides...

ZE: Right. Now that the crab cake is just a crab cake with very minimalistic approach to it. Then we went back to the drawing board on that recipe, and, again nothing wrong with anything we had been doing up to that point, but we said, "all right, if this is the mentality of less is more, then we got to go back to the books and redo this recipe because it's not where it needs to be."

OMC: How many crab cakes did you make? Was it a long process?

ZE: Through trial and error and many different products, the recipe a long time ago, it was sauteed vegetables in it, and red peppers and onions, and stuff that had no business being in there. We figured out, oh, it's got to just be a crab cake.

That is the nice thing about having a big group. Everyone is doing their own different thing, but at the same time, there's, "oh, they have a really good crab cake there, they have a good crab cake here," so we took what was good about Mr. B's crab cake, we took what was good about the crab cakes that Lake Park Bistro uses for brunch.

We did a little other research, did some internal testing and now we are the ones that in the company they are saying to us, "why don't you send Joey Gerard’s your crab cake recipe?"

OMC: So, other restaurants in the group are serving a similar crab cake?

ZE: Similar versions. I would say the recipe is probably 90 percent throughout the group.

OMC: With their own little touches?

ZE: Yeah, a little bit here, a little bit there. I think Lake Park, I'm not sure because I haven't worked there for a long time, but I know when we were there, it was pretty similar to what we're using. We do here use a little different crab meat because we want to feature that more of that lump, jumbo lump crab.

OMC: And a French restaurant will want a somewhat different approach.

ZE: Right. I have been to France, and I don't think I saw a crab cake once, but it's a great brunch option.

OMC: In general, I guess as a diner, I think when I go to a seafood place, I want "less is more." Give me a beautiful piece of grilled halibut and you don’t have to put anything on it. A little salt and a little pepper. Maybe a little dollop of a sauce alongside or something.

ZE: Totally. Absolutely. I think for steak, the best things you could ever do to it are salt and pepper and that's it.

OMC: Yeah, and don't overcook it.

ZE: And don’t overcook it. Right, seafood, it's butter and a small amount of lemon. I think that's as much as you ever really need. Now, obviously you look at the menu, there's a lot of composed dishes.

From the day Harbor House opened until now, that is something that's evolved. When we first opened, I remember from coming here to the practice party, it was almost like, "these are the fish and then you would get a side," and then there were maybe two or three composed dishes. Almost five years later, what we've done is adapted to what our clients want. They want to see more composed dishes, but those simple compositions. Nothing we're serving is drowning in sauce. Most of the time the sauce is on the plate, away from the fish. The fish is there to be tasted.

OMC: So there is still demand for the composed dishes; my taste of not necessarily wanting composed dishes is not necessarily the tastes of the general public?

ZE: Yeah, but one of our top three entrees every month is our branzino. Whole roasted fish. It is what it is on a plate. It is a whole roasted fish and, literally, the sauce is what's in the pan it's cooked in. We throw in some Anaheim peppers just for color, a little texture, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and we get all those good bit, the little caramelized, the little flavor pieces.

OMC: Do people know what to do with it when they get it?

ZE: Some do, some don't. I will say for every five that go out, one person sends it back and asks for it to be filleted, which, I have made my peace with that. I know it's not the servers' fault. And we're always going to give them what they want.

Some people are savvy enough to say when they order it, could you please filet it? They are very nice about it. That is totally okay. Then again, I would say, the other three or four people out of the five, you look out in the dining and it's like...

OMC: They are working it out.

ZE: You will see it in the back, in the dish pit, and it's like Tom and Jerry. The whole rib cage and tail, and the head, and it's like, the old school. It is really cool to see that. That is a very minimalistic approach. You do, not a lot to it.

It is good to see that, that has a place in the city. If I'm not doing it, I'm happy that someone else is. It was nice to see. It was one of those things, when I put it on the menu, it was like, OK, this could be professional suicide. I don’t know. Then, we couldn't keep up, we were running out every night.

OMC: Which seems incredible considering it's not a place where people generally want the shrimp served with the heads on.

ZE: Right. That was one thing we use to do for a really long time with our prawns. I was like, "yeah, that's how you know it's fresh and people are going to see it." Beautiful presentation. It is something that would be great to see here a little bit more, but I think we're maybe a generation or two behind on that.

OMC: Yeah, maybe so. Then maybe three generations behind on sucking the juice out of the heads.

ZE: Right. What is great is you'll see those guys. When we run a special, you'll see people in the dining room and they get it. Even if it's that one person out of 30 you might sell to tonight, it makes it worth it because you're like, one person got it. One person got it.

OMC: I have to ask you about this, as an aside. You mentioned anchovies. Do you ever cook fresh anchovies?

ZE: We have yeah. We have gotten in anchovies.

OMC: There is nothing like it. You can't explain it to people. They can only think of those salted strips in a tin.

ZE: Right.

OMC: The ones that you get if you're in Liguria, they go on a boat at night with a light and pull them out and you can eat them the next day. They don't even taste like the same fish.

ZE: No, they're beautiful. Yeah, we've done them. We used to, and we still do, but, it's a little more planned and methodical. Back when I first started and it was chaos -- in a good way; it was controlled chaos -- it was like, "let’s do a special. I don’t know why, but I've got 50 pounds of sardines tomorrow," and my chefs would be like, "you're insane, it's sardines." We would maybe make a couple of and sell them that night.

OMC: You’ve got to call the anchovies something different. Call them alici or something.

ZE: Yeah, yeah. That is the thing. I would call Juan (Urbieta, chef at Ristorante Bartolotta), and I am like, "Hey Juan, what am I calling these guys? We would talk about it." We got big ones; they were beautiful. They were gorgeous. They were from Spain, actually.

OMC: How did you do them?

ZE: We actually just did a flash pan fry. They were in the pan for 15-20 seconds. We did this beautiful salad that had crispy artichokes and pine nuts and it wasn't like a heavy oil vinaigrette, but it was a lighter herb vinaigrette. Then we did just an off to the side a little swoosh of romesco.

OMC: Very Mediterranean.

ZE: Yeah, exactly. I figured, you know what, I'm going to keep it in its wheelhouse. I am not going to try to beer batter it and serve with fries and try to make it like Milwaukee. I am going to pay tribute, homage to where it's from. Keep it very Mediterranean. It sold pretty good. The feedback, whenever I would go out and talk to tables, the feedback was always super positive.

We planned it very strategically, like a Thursday, Friday special. The busier days, and we eventually sold out. It was really cool to see that. Sometimes those oily buggers like mackerel, it's a tough sell. You’ve not got too many people that are looking for a mackerel entrée.

Again, go figure, we did actually I think cured mackerel; it was a saffron and orange cured mackerel. That sold well.

Crabcakes

  • 1 pound lump brab
  • 1⁄2 pound backfin crab
  • 2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 Tbl. Dijon
  • 1 Tbl. mayonnaise
  • 1 whole eggs, extra large
  • 1 tsp. chopped parsley
  • 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1⁄4 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • Mustard mayo is a 2:1 ratio of mayonnaise to Dijon, season with fresh squeezed lemon juice

Procedure:

  • Whisk eggs with all wet ingredients and seasonings
  • Quickly mix in panko (30 seconds)
  • Gently fold in backfin meat in 2 batches. Mix well.
  • Gently fold in lump crab meat in two batches
  • Portion into three-ounce cakes
  • Gently pan sear on in olive oil in an oven-proof pan over medium/high heat until golden brown. Flip and place pan into a preheated oven at 350 degrees for an additional 4-5 minutes. Both sides should be crispy and golden brown. 
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.