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Backfin Blue knows the art of making Maryland crab cakes

By KATHY SAUNDERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


GULFPORT -- We phoned the Backfin Blue Cafe on a rainy Saturday night on our way home from a youth soccer game. It took a few minutes for the waiter to hand the phone to the bartender to take our carryout order. When we arrived at the Gulfport restaurant, we understood the delay -- the place was packed.

We flagged down a busboy, who said he would try to find our takeout order. Most of the dinner was already packaged, but the bartender said she did not want to wrap the Key lime pie until we arrived. We were grateful for her thoughtfulness.

Dinner was still hot when we got home about 15 minutes later.

The salads were large enough to fill a dinner plate and were fresh with mixed greens -- hardly a leaf of iceberg -- and plenty of red onions and tomatoes. The balsamic vinaigrette came on the side. We enjoyed the tangy dressing and could identify oregano and a few other fresh herbs.

Our entrees were delightful.

The Portobello Imperial ($14.95) is one of the house specialties. Backfin is known for its Maryland-style crab cakes.

"With a good crab cake you don't have to have a lot of filler, just crab," said owner Harold Russell, whose wife, Beth, is from Maryland.

The crab is mixed with mayonnaise, piled on the large mushroom and topped with a fire-roasted red bell pepper cream sauce. The dish was spicy and filling and about the size of a dessert plate.

We chose the sauteed vegetables as a side dish. The fresh vegetables, summer squash and zucchini, were lightly cooked and crunchy.

In the restaurant's signature dish, jumbo crab cakes ($14.50), the filling has more crumbs than mayonnaise, unlike the portobello mushroom, Russell said.

The macadamia nut crusted grouper ($15.50) was fresh, flaky and not overcooked. The grouper was baked and topped with a crumbly, buttery, macadamia nut coating that was sweet and crunchy.

I grew up in Hawaii and have tasted many macadamia nut dishes, but Backfin's is one of the best I've sampled.

Backfin is in the Art Village district of Gulfport in a house built in 1927 that seats about 50. Russell and his wife take turns cooking and managing the restaurant and caring for their 4-month-old twins.

Russell, former chef at Shula's Steak House in Tampa, opened Backfin more than three years ago. He said he brought some of his Tampa dishes to Gulfport, including bacon-wrapped, basil-stuffed barbecued shrimp ($10.95).

Backfin also offers a five-cheese lasagna ($9.50), homemade meatloaf ($8.95) and slow-roasted prime rib starting at $11.95. The prime rib is available after 5 p.m.

We also purchased a loaf of molasses bread ($1.50), which Russell buys from a Bradenton baker. The multigrain bread was soft and sweet with a smooth molasses flavor.

Desserts (all $3.50) also are provided by local bakers. We ordered a slice of Key lime pie, which was fresh and yellow, as it is supposed to be, not lime green like the pretenders. Cheesecake and chocolate suicide cake with cocoa pudding, cream cheese icing and raspberry puree were on the menu the night we called.

Puree of corn and crab meat soup is $3.50 a bowl.

Appetizers include a crab cake with lemon and remoulade sauce ($6.95), a portobello mushroom with gorgonzola cheese ($5.50) and smoked fish spread with crackers ($4.50).

Besides the house salad ($3.50), Backfin Blue offers sliced tomatoes with gorgonzola, red onion and vinaigrette ($5.95) and a spinach and mushroom salad with sliced chicken ($6.50) or with the bacon-wrapped, basil-stuffed shrimp ($7.95).

Sandwiches are $6.95 and $7.95 and include grouper, chicken, grilled portobello, meatloaf and the Backfin specialty, crab cakes.

Backfin also offers a children's menu with hot dogs, spaghetti, peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Backfin Blue Cafe

  • 2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport

  • Phone: 343-2583.

  • Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesdays.

  • What we got: portobello mushroom stuffed with lump crab meat with roasted red bell pepper cream sauce and sauteed vegetables; macadamia nut crusted grouper with mashed potatoes; two dinner salads with balsamic vinaigrette; one loaf of multigrain molasses bread and a slice of Key lime pie.

  • What it cost: $37.93.

  • Time it took: 15 minutes.

  • Pay with: Cash and credit cards.

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