Eating in Mendocino: Little River Inn’s Crab Cakes

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Eating in Mendocino: Little River Inn's Crab Cakes

This is the second in a series of sponsored posts about our trip to Mendocino county.

So, I’m in Mendocino sitting on a barstool at Little River Inn. I decide maybe it’s time to do a little whale-watching. After all, I’m in Mendocino. It’s possible to spot whales all year-round. A steady stream of California gray whales migrate south from Alaska to Baja from November through February, and return north from February through April. The rest of the year– summer and fall– you can see humpbacks, blue whales, and sometimes even sperm whales. Or so I’ve read. And so I hope to find out.

I could get on a boat. There are plenty of whale-watching tours on this part of the California Coast. Or I could could sit right where I am. Because the bar at Little River Inn is known as Ole’s Whale Watch Bar. You can sit here, look out through the large windows just behind your friendly bartender, and see the ocean. 180 degrees, covering many miles– both north and south and as far as the eye can see westward.

As I sit, waiting for the tell-tale waterspout that all of the locals at the bar seem to have experienced, I notice I’m starting to get hungry, and my mind is slowly turning from whale watching to eating in Mendocino.

Eating in Mendocino

Fortunately for me I don’t have to decide between the two. Little River Inn has one of the best restaurants along this stretch of Highway 1. I could get up and walk 10 or 12 paces east and sit in the well-appointed dining room. It’s a lovely spot, there are large picture windows that frame garden vignettes. These views are as beautiful as any painting you can imagine. I could do that. Instead, I raise my glass of locally brewed Anderson Valley Saison 75 (a special beer developed for the inn’s 75th anniversary) and toast the gardeners and their artistic skills. I’ve heard the entire menu at Little River Inn’s restaurant is available right here on the whale-watching stools. Since I haven’t seen a whale yet, I think I’ll stay where I am and order the (local and sustainable) Dungeness crab cakes from a bartender named Sue. After all, eating in Mendocino is one of the reasons I’ve come to this beautiful stretch of the California coast, and why I pulled up a stool here at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar in the first place.

Eating in Mendocino- Little River Inn

When I was researching eating in Mendocino I saw several ALL-CAP shout-outs about the crab cakes at Little River Inn on sites like Yelp, and I knew they’d won awards at Mendocino’s Crab and Wine Days annual festival (which incidentally starts later this month, get info here). I also hoped to get the courage to ask Chef Marc Dym for the recipe. So I kept my stool, ordered the crab cakes and another beer for courage.

Though I’d already decided beforehand that I was having the crab cakes, I couldn’t help but take a peek at the menu. It’s nice and concise, yet the choices are quite varied. Of course fresh oysters make an appearance (as they should in this part of California). There’s also Sole Almondine and Slow-Braised Lamb Shanks as proof of five star chef Marc Dym’s interest in classically prepared food. However the pine nut crust on his salmon and the choice of flat iron for his Steak Diane show his modern flourishes as well.

Eating in Mendocino- Little River InnAs I wait at Ole’s Whale Watch Bar for my crab cakes to arrive I begin to scan the horizon again– still hoping for a whale sighting. The buzz at the bar says this is prime-time whale time. Cool.

That’s when the crab cakes arrive. I love crab cakes, but lets be honest– crab cakes are everywhere: virile steakhouses, flirty cafés, and every waterside restaurant in the nation. They can be disappointing. I’ve even seen crab cakes at Japanese restaurants, where they’re fried in tempura and served with rice and avocado in a gyoza wrapper. Fancy, huh? However, I’m eating in Mendocino, where Dungeness crabs flourish. I expect cakes that will let the pure, sweet flavor of the Dungeness crab shine.

Well, I’m pleased to say that Little River Inn delivers a plate of shining crab cakes. So, with my sights set firmly on the delight in front of me, I pick up my fork just as the oohhs and aahhs become audible all around the bar. Are my comrades celebrating in a chorus of glee for a slow-poke sperm whale lollygagging just outside the window? Maybe. But it’s also possible these exclamations are directed at the crab cakes in front of me. Oohh! Aahh!

Yes, I’m sure that’s what it is. GREG

More about my experience at Little River Inn

Eating in Mendocino: Little River Inn's Crab Cakes

I received accommodations and other expenses in order to bring the Mendocino Coast & Anderson Valley Wine to this blog. All opinions are my own.

Dungeness Crab Cakes with Mustard Dill Aioli

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 12Source Adapted from Little River Inn, Mendocino, CAPublished

I never did get the courage up to speak to the chef! Luckily his crab cake recipe was available online. I adapted this version from that source. The photos you see here are the results of my efforts.

Mendocino Crab Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1 ½ pound cleaned and drained Dungeness crab meat (about 2 whole crabs)
  • ½ cup fresh corn breadcrumbs
  • 1 large egg (lightly beaten)
  • ¼ cup crème fraiche
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon lime zest
  • 1 teaspoon orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • ¼ cup finely diced red bell pepper
  • ¼ cup finely diced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced chives
  • 2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • sea salt and white pepper (for seasoning, as needed)
  • 2/3 cup Panko bread crumbs (for coating only)
  • ¼ cup butter (or more as needed to sauté crab cakes)
  • fresh dill sprigs (as garnish)

Directions

Make the mustard dill aioli: In a medium bowl beat mayonnaise, dill and mustard powder until well-combined. Ideally you should let it rest at least an hour before using. Though this is optional.

Make the crab cakes: In a large mixing bowl combine all the ingredients except the panko breadcrumbs. Season lightly with salt and white pepper. Gently fold the mixture until well-combined, but still loose in texture. Do not over mix and do not compact. Try to keep the lumps of crab intact.

Pour the panko into a shallow bowl and season lightly with salt and white pepper; set aside.

Shape the crab mixture into 12 cakes, about 1-inch thick. Gently roll each cake in panko, carefully patting crumbs so that they adhere. Once they’re well-covered set them aside on a large plate, spaced so that they do not touch. The cakes will be difficult to form and easily fall apart while you work. This is a good thing. Resist the temptation to compact them too much or add more binders. The results will be tough crab cakes.

Melt butter in a large cast iron or non-stick skillet set over medium heat. Once it’s melted and foamy, but before it begins to brown, sauté the crab cakes rotating them in skillet as necessary, until lightly browned and crisp; about 5 minutes per side. Do not crowd the skillet, work in batches if necessary. Transfer each crab cakes once cooked to a paper towel lined plate to drain for a moment; serve hot garnished with dill sprigs and mustard dill aioli on the side or drizzled on top.