What: soft shell crabs
How much: $12-$15, depending on size
Elaine's on Franklin
454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
First the bad news for seafood lovers: The R months are over. (For the uninitiated, these are the cool months of the year -- coincidentally, those months whose names contain an "r" -- when oysters are considered to be at their best.)
Now the good news: As it happens, the end of the R months coincides neatly with that time of year when soft shell crab season is just picking up steam.
I can't think of a better place to get your soft shell fix than at Elaine's on Franklin, which will be serving them up as an appetizer special every weekend, as long as they're available. Depending on which way inspiration takes him, chef-owner Bret Jennings typically offers one of two presentations. In the first, he fries them up Southern style and pairs them with Tabasco aioli and a colorful creamy slaw of cabbage, carrots, red and green bell peppers, and local arugula. In the second, he serves up tempura-battered softies (that would put to shame the frozen specimens offered year round in most Japanese restaurants) with spicy Chinese mustard aioli and a distinctive Asian slaw shot through with cilantro and baby mustard greens.
Your best bet of scoring these ephemeral delicacies is on Thursdays, when Jennings gets his delivery of live soft shells harvested from North Carolina waters. But the chef assures me that he usually has them in sufficient quantity to last well into the weekend. Of course, it never hurts to call ahead and ask about availability, especially since the soft shell harvest depends not just on the season but also on the weather, and even the lunar cycle.
The season, by the way, usually lasts into September -- which, as luck would have it, is the next R month.