There are more than 4,000 varieties of crab in the world. Among the most delectable are the Alaska king, the Chesapeake blue, the Florida stone, and the Louisiana soft shell, but the Dungeness has its own unique cachet for us locals. Found along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Alaska and particularly in the Bay Area, it's tastiest and most plentiful from November through April, but especially during January and February, giving us something to live for during these dark and drizzly months.
When the oil tanker Cosco Busan spilled 58,000 gallons of toxic gunk into San Francisco Bay last November, fears were widespread that Dungeness would be off the table during its most toothsome season. Happily, the California Department of Fish and Game has since declared the crustacean suitable for boiling, cracking, and dipping. And local restaurants are serving up the crab cakes, crab bisque, and cioppino like the automobile had never been invented.
One of the best places to scarf down crabmeat — as well as many other sea critters — is Maritime East, a two-month-old seafood establishment in downtown Berkeley. Like its sister restaurant, San Francisco's Café Maritime, Maritime East only purchases seasonal line-caught or sustainably farmed seafood from here and abroad, and as a result the fish and shellfish served there are impeccably fresh. Best of all, practically all of it is prepared with a deft, imaginative sense of wit, contrast, and balance.
Chef Sophina Uong, whose credits include stints at the Left Bank, Globe, and 900 Grayson, has impressed her culinary personality on Maritime East despite joining the restaurant only five days before its opening date. "At first, the concept was to open an old-style Spenger's-type place with a menu identical to the one served at Café Maritime," she says. "But part of my agreement to join the restaurant was that I'd be able to create my own menu and experiment with dishes that would be a little bit lighter, more organic, and more refined; dishes that would fit the neighborhood. More like Spenger's meets Alice Waters."
The combination is working. Take the aforementioned crab, which is prepared here in a number of ways but is at its best as it materializes from the restaurant's wood-fired oven fragrant with garlic, chilies, and fennel. Roasted in this fashion, the meat emerges from the shell moist, sweet, and redolent of smoke and heat. To expedite matters, it's accompanied by nutcrackers, warm damp towels, and dipping bowls of clarified butter and a zippy Meyer lemon aioli. Another Dungeness dish, the linguini, is by contrast bland, heavy, and tepid, with only a few shards of crabmeat to recommend it. But the Dungeness crab gratinée is an ideal meal-opener, a beautifully balanced palette of crisp apple, lush avocado, juicy blood orange, and luscious crabmeat.
Other appetizers are equally impressive. One salad combines braised fennel, ripe persimmon, and fresh mint leaves with tender chunks of smoky grilled octopus in a sprightly vinaigrette touched with cumin, cilantro, and Tunisian chili peppers; the result is sublime. On a simpler yet equally satisfying level is the seafood chowder, a warm, restorative, winter-friendly bowl of clams, mussels, whitefish, bacon, and potato swimming in a light, creamy leek-infused broth. The chewy wood-fired flatbread isn't quite so impressive despite its sprinkling of Maldon sea salt, seeds, and spices, but the accompanying yogurt dip is pleasantly tangy.
Another product of the wood-fired oven is the roasted whole fish of the day. Our tai snapper was presented with head, bones, and tail intact, on a large platter dressed with fennel, orange slices, shell beans, and a bright Picholine olive-based relish. The meat, which fell easily from the bones, was perfectly moist, tender, and flaky, and the flavors and textures of the accompanying produce offered a complementary zing to the proceedings. Even better was the pan-roasted sturgeon, an incredibly supple, buttery hunk of fish that more or less melted on the tongue. It came with sautéed cauliflower, a lively seabean-grape salad, and a caper-edged brown butter sauce that perfectly supplemented the dish's savory nature.
Desserts change on a daily basis, but the miniature coconut cream pie is an ongoing presence. Topped with a brûléed meringue, layered with vanilla pastry cream, and set into a buttery short crust, it boasts a pleasant coconutty flavor but is a little too goopy in texture. A much better bet is the pot de crème, a deep, dark, intense teacup of bittersweet, fudge-like chocolate lightened and brightened with a dollop of crème fraîche, shards of fresh grapefruit, and strips of candied orange peel. One serving of this potent and intoxicating meal-closer is plenty for two people.
In addition to a fairly eclectic and reasonably priced wine list brimming with fish-friendly Pinot Grigios, Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings, and Chardonnays (ten of them by the glass), the bar serves up an imaginative selection of specialty cocktails. The Man Overboard was my favorite: a zingy, bracing concoction of orange, pineapple, Tuaca, two kinds of rum, and a sprinkle of toasted coconut, just the thing for an ocean voyage.
Vegetarians can assemble a surprisingly balanced and satisfying meat-free meal from Maritime East's aqua-centric menu. Two salads and the flatbread are available as starters; the wood-fired oven offers a pizza draped with leeks, spaghetti squash, and blue cheese; "sage roasted sweet dumpling winter squash" with couscous, parsnips, and celery root is among the entrées. The all-veggie side-order menu is an especially rich no-flesh resource with its root vegetable gratin, couscous risotto, Meyer lemon linguini, creamed winter greens, and Brussels and pea sprout hash.
The restaurant's setting is eye-catching in a soothing sort of way, evoking the retro-chic grotto of an Eames-era Captain Nemo. Swimming-pool tiles, a large bubbly wall hanging, brass fish scales, and cabana-stripe shades of cerulean, sapphire, and turquoise enwrap the diner in a pleasant subaquatic milieu. And the service, though occasionally overattentive, is also smooth and adroit. Example: On my second visit, our waiter recognized me from a few days earlier, said "It was nice seeing you the other night," registered that I was dining with a different companion, and without a flicker concluded the sentence: "... when you were here on your own." Bravos all around.