As executiveof City Crab and Seafood Company in New York, Joe Vaina is committed to bringing an authentic Maryland crab house experience to the heart of the Big Apple. And with Maryland blue crabs in peak season, Vaina said business is booming at the 20-year-old restaurant.
“We are true to our concept,” said Julie Orchier, director of marketing and promotions at Branded Restaurants, the restaurant’s parent company. “We are a crab house in Manhattan. We are bringing you the ocean in the heart of the city.”
Vaina, who spends so much time at the restaurant that he likes to say he lives there, recently sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News to talk about flying in crabs from Alaska, his simple preparations, and the importance of wild-caught fish.
Tell me about the Alaskan King crab promotion you held in March.
There’s a local vendor I deal with who deals directly with the people out in Alaska. When we have the opportunity we bring in the live Alaskan King crabs or the live Alaskan Snow crabs. They come directly from Alaska, fly into Newark or JFK [airports], and are driven directly to the restaurant. They range from seven to 10 pounds, and people can come in and pick them out of the tank. They’re difficult to get because they don’t travel well, but we get them whenever we have the opportunity. Next week we’re getting the Snow crabs. We always keep one as a mascot for the tourists.
Do they sell well?
Yeah. We get a limited number, like six or seven, and we sold out of them in three days.
What else is big on your menu this summer?
We’re doing a lot of stuff with the Maryland blue crabs. This is really the month when they are coming into their own — getting nice and fat. July, August and September are the best month for them.
How do you prepare them?
I have a secret recipe, but the standard way of preparing them is with Old Bay and your favorite beer. You steam them in brown paper and then start smashing and eating.
This is clearly a place where you come to eat crab, but what else is selling well?
Salmon is always a huge seller, as is our sushi-grade tuna. It’s a hard question to answer because everything sells so well. And our preparations aren’t with a lot of heavy sauces and aren’t in a French style. It’s a true, authentic New England crab house style. I think that enjoying the ocean’s natural flavors is something that people really enjoy here.
You’re big on getting everything local, right?
Yeah, I try to get everything here. And everything we serve is wild. I don’t use anything farm raised.
Why is that?
I’m a big fan of sustainability and giving back to the ocean so it’s here for the next generation. I’m just not a fan of farm raised. There is a different level of flavors when a species is eating in its natural environment. It’s a little more expensive, but people who understand fish come here to enjoy the flavors from the rivers and the oceans. Not too many restaurants can say they have all wild fish.
News programs often come to you as an authority on seafood. They came to you when the Gulf oil spill occurred, for example. Why do they choose you?
I’m very involved in my field. I work 90-plus hours a week. I really try to stay on top of what’s going on, from sustainability to current events that effect the ocean, and I do my research. I want to give my customers the freshest and best fish and crabs I can. I think that’s my responsibility. I like to keep my customers informed and myself informed. In any business it’s important to know everything about your product.
In your opinion, what is the current state of the seafood industry? Do you have any concerns?
I have a couple of concerns, which is my driving force of staying up on sustainability. I just did a documentary about Chilean sea bass, which is very endangered. They came to me because they know that I don’t serve it all the time. I only serve it when it is in season. I feel a sense of responsibility.
Do you see any exciting new trends happening with seafood right now?
I’m trying to create some trends. I’m really pushing the wild-caught fish. It’s treated more humanely and its freshness and quality exceeds everything else out there. That’s what I really want to see catch on, from earth to table. Also, people are eating a lot of different things with scallops. They are huge right now.
What’s the best thing on your menu?
I’m a huge fan of our scallops. My crab cakes have won so many awards. I have people from Maryland that come here and pull out their driver’s licenses and say this is better than home.
Contact Charlie Duerr at firstname.lastname@example.org.