Alan Moore of Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant slips up.
“On Christmas Day …” he says, quickly noticing his mistake. “I mean, the first day of stone crab season.”
The error makes sense.
“It is like Christmas Day,” he says of the yearly Oct. 15 start of stone-crab season.
The phones ring nonstop. Hoards of Sarasotans and tourists make the pilgrimage to Longboat Key. The quiet, peacock-laden, clapboard-house-filled, historic Longbeach Village bustles beginning Oct. 15. The waterfront restaurant, which is open limited hours just four days a week in the off season, opens daily. A normally quiet dining room is full of patrons donning bibs.
Santa Claus, who in this scenario is a tall and laidback Moore, can be seen hustling around the restaurant delivering claws to good boys and girls. Like Santa, he doesn’t sleep the night before the big day. And, instead of cookies, you might find him pulling a steaming hot claw from the cooker and indulging — for quality-testing purposes, of course.
Moore has been in this business since long before he was even a thought. His grandfather on his dad’s side, Jack Moore, started the stone-crab industry on the Gulf Coast of Florida in the late ’40s. Jack Moore and his wife ran seafood markets. And in the late ’60s, Moore’s late father, Pete; mother, Mary; and late uncle, Hughey Moore, built what is now the oldest family-owned restaurant on Longboat Key. Moore says it’s the oldest in Manatee County. Currently, Moore, his brother, Paul, and stepbrother Robert Hicks own it — and have run the staple for 20-plus years.
It’s the week before stone-crab season begins, and Moore ambles in a little before 4 p.m., donning a black short-sleeved button-down with an appropriate fish-and-crab print. He’s drinking tea from a mug with the restaurant’s big red crab logo. Moore says he spends the off-season fixing up the building, and he will occasionally get out on the water himself.
He remembers being on his dad’s boat as a child, pulling traps and getting pinched by crabs — back then, they had to pull the traps by hand. But Paul Moore was always more of a crabber, and Moore and Hicks ran the restaurant side of things.
In the ’70s, the Moore family had a boat and ran 3,000 to 4,000 traps. They have since sold the boat, and these days, the family works with a number of loyal crabbers.
“They’re a strange breed, like most commercial fishermen,” Moore says fondly. “They do it because they love it. They like being on the water, don’t have to answer to anybody and just have to pull traps.”
He becomes slightly downcast, and explains one of his longtime Bradenton-based crabbers — Michael J. O’Leary — died last month. Moore went to high school with him.
It speaks to the deep roots at Moore’s. And, with that history, comes a carefully honed knowledge of the product. Moore says that’s why Moore’s does it the best in the area. His family has put the time into developing their knowledge.
For instance, he has his crabbers take the water temperature where each crab is pulled. The crabs are then cooked according to the water temperature. And, the claws are removed from the ice and washed daily to prevent any spoils. It’s a careful science.
The catch is pretty steady year to year — he doesn’t remember any particularly bad or good years.
Although some articles reported that last year was a “bad season” for stone crabs, Moore reports that it wasn’t bad — there just wasn’t a variety in the size of claws. They were mostly medium-sized.
He’s not worried.
“It’s cyclical,” he says.
This season, he says the catching is a little slower here and in the Everglades, but that it’s good up North — and he expects that with a few cold fronts, it will pick up in the next couple of weeks. But he has observed an unprecedented occurrence in his 48 years in the industry.
“There are no medium claws to be found, which is very, very odd,” he says.
Usually, in a 100-pound load, he’ll have 50% medium claws, 30% large and 20% jumbo. This year he’s seeing 60% large and 40% jumbo claws. It increased the market price slightly, but people didn’t seem to mind the pricing. They still arrived in legions. And Santa always delivers.
“It’ll shake out,” he says. “The crabs (we’re getting) are beautiful; they’re fresh; and everybody loves them.”
What is a stone crab?
This culinary delicacy is indigenous to the West Coast of Florida and the Florida Keys. Stone-crab season runs Oct. 15 through May 15. Its name comes from its hard shell, and because the species hides in rocks. You harvest only the claw, and return the crab to the water. The crab has two types of claws — one with molars for crushing food; and a serrated claw used for ripping. They are scavengers and filter feeders that can’t swim — so it’s frowned upon to take both of its claws, although it is not illegal. The crab can regenerate its claws in a year, and the claw regains 95% of its original size. They are nomadic and move in groups, like lobsters.
What’s it taste like?
This crab claw tastes like a cross between Maine lobster and Maryland blue crab. The mild slightly salty and sweet crab has a distinctive, meaty texture that’s flaky (not firm like a lobster). Moore says some Northeasterners only eat warm crabs with butter sauce, and, because the customer is always right, he’ll serve it that way upon request. But, the best way to eat it is cold with mustard sauce.
Alan Moore will gladly share his top-secret family recipe for mustard sauce. He quickly rattles off the ingredients: It calls for mayo, spicy mustard, lemon juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and a touch of horseradish. And, just when you think you’re getting the gold — “I won’t tell you how much of each, but that’s it!”