Best Bets: Crabmeat Justine

Albert Musca, executive chef at The Inn at Hunt Phelan, had the daunting task of recreating the iconic appetizer  Crabmeat Justine, and he has done it justice.Michael DonahueThe Commercial Appeal

Albert Musca, executive chef at The Inn at Hunt Phelan, had the daunting task of recreating the iconic appetizer Crabmeat Justine, and he has done it justice.Michael DonahueThe Commercial Appeal

Eating delicious rich food in a beautiful antebellum house is a great experience. Most people who dined at the old Justine's restaurant will concur. Southern-inspired French Creole cuisine made with lots of butter and eggs was served in the restaurant located in The Coward Place, an early 1830s Italianate-style house.

Justine's signature dish was Crabmeat Justine, a legendary, almost iconic, appetizer among people of a certain age in Memphis.

You can approximate the Justine's experience at The Inn at Hunt Phelan. Crabmeat Justine is on the menu at the restaurant located in an early 1830s Greek Revival house.

When he took the helm as Hunt Phelan executive chef three weeks ago, Albert Musca had no idea what Crabmeat Justine was. No one left a recipe, so he had to ask other cooks and customers what was in the dish. "I even went online," he said.

He moved to Memphis in 1998, so he missed out on the experience of dining at Justine's, which closed in 1996.

Musca discovered "10 different ways" to make Crabmeat Justine. "Everyone has their own opinion."

The general consensus was it had crème fraiche, sherry, crabmeat and lemon zest. Musca said, "Aw, I can do that."

Musca's method of coming up with Crabmeat Justine was similar to how longtime Justine's cook Maudie Walker Horton devised the dish. She never visited France or tasted true French cuisine, but during her nearly 40 years as the restaurant's head chef and kitchen manager, Horton created many dishes, including Crabmeat Justine.

In an interview in 2006, Maudie told me her recipes "came from hints." Customers requested dishes they'd eaten around the country. "They described it, what it's like; I came up with it," she said. "I prayed about it. It's just my God-given talent. Just tell the Lord to show me, teach me."

A customer requested what eventually became Crabmeat Justine. "He sent somebody to buy the crabmeat in a pound can, and I picked the lumps off. I melted my butter and a little lemon juice with the Lea & Perrins, Tabasco sauce and French toast and put my hollandaise sauce on it."

Musca's version tastes about the way I remember Crabmeat Justine tasting, but I told him the recipe is in "Justine's -- Memories & Recipes" by Janet Stuart Smith, daughter of the restaurant's owner, the late Justine Smith.

Beneath the recipe, Janet wrote: "No one ever got tired of Crabmeat Justine."

Musca said he wanted the book's recipe because he wants to "stay true to the roots" of the dish.

The original doesn't have crème fraiche or lemon zest. The hollandaise sauce supplies that lemony, creamy taste.

So, next time you order Crabmeat Justine at Hunt Phelan, you're probably going to get the real enchilada.

The Inn at Hunt Phelan is at 533 Beale; 525-8225.

-- Michael Donahue: 529-2797; donahue@commercialappeal.com

© 2011 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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