I would just like to warn readers ahead of time that I will interchange the term "crawfish" and "crawdad" throughout the writing of this piece. They are interchangeable, and they describe the small crustacean you Northerners oddly call "crayfish." With that out of the way, seafood lovers will be happy to know that in the beginning of June, Bessie Zhao opened What! Crawfish! in Henrietta, which serves boiled crawfish by the pound, and patrons can enjoy the treat in both Southern and Eastern styles.
Eating at What! Crawfish! reminds me of the crab feasts I had in Baltimore. We would cover the dinner table with newspaper, arm ourselves with nut crackers and tiny forks, dump a heap of seasoned, boiled crabs on the table, and go to town, cracking claws and legs and bodies and scooping out the meat. Our unofficial goal was to stack as many empty shells as we could. Everyone had their own "special" dipping sauce that was just some ratio of butter and Old Bay seasoning. That was some wholesome family time.
Now imagine my joy when I found out there was a similar ritual in Louisiana with crawdads. A pound of them boiled in Cajun seasoning and cooked with andouille sausage, red potatoes and corn on the cob, presented at the table for folks to share. The only difference is that Louisianans use bowls, because I suppose they think they are fancier than us Maryland philistines. They pull a steamy, hot crawfish from a big metal bowl, extract as much meat as they can, and put the empty shells in another bowl.
Either way, it is a good time. Oh, how I miss living on an Atlantic shoreline. But there is no more need to rely on nostalgia with What! Crawfish! in town, and the venue offers inlanders the pleasure of a proper crawfish feast.
Until now, the only time I had seen crawdads in Rochester was as already-peeled frozen tails, so it surprised me that anyone could find so many whole frozen crawfish in Rochester. But as it turns out, all the crawfish at What! Crawfish! are shipped live daily to the restaurant.
The restaurant is in the middle of a plaza on Jefferson, between the International Food Market and the Goodwill. The interior is interesting in a good way: Upon entering What! Crawfish!, I noticed dozens of red parasols suspended high above the front half of the dining area. The seating area looks like a cross between a Nantucket bed & breakfast and my grandmother's house, but with East Asian art replacing sleepy oil-painted landscapes. To the right is one of those glass cabinets that looks like its sole purpose it to display porcelain figurines or your auntie's "good" china, and atop it is a big jade cat sculpture. Butterscotch-yellow walls are adorned with photos of tigers and seaside pictures of what looks like the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic coast. Wood tables and chairs look like they were made for dining outside while watching the tide roll in, as the setting sun slowly dims your view. It is a nice touch for a restaurant that specializes in usually seaside meals. Zhao noted proudly that she assembled those tables herself.
The crawfish boil choices (each are $14.99/lb) are the Cajun, a traditional Louisiana boil with choice of corn, red potato, or andouille sausage; the Mala, a spice blend inspired by home recipes from Zhao's native northern China; and the garlic parmesan, which speaks for itself. In my opinion, the Cajun tastes like home. I will take anyone down south with me in order to better explain that. The Mala is reminiscent of a Sichuan spice; it is bold and spicy, yet still soothing to the tongue. Zhao's recipe for the garlic parmesan is tasty and mild. The garlic is not overpowering, and there is a hint of ground pepper in it to play against the smoothness of the parmesan.
Some people say, "Crawfish are the M&Ms of Lobsters." (Okay, no one says that). Eating a crawdad is a little work, but worth it. Truthfully, if you have ever eaten a lobster, you know how to tackle a crawdad. It is up to you to crack that tail and get out the meat. There is also good meat in the claws, and some hiding in the body. Depending on the size, there may even be some worthwhile meat in the legs. After consuming all the edible parts and dispensing the empty hull, it would be a good idea to soak up and enjoy the remaining spice blend with an order of Cajun fries ($2.99). Some may not want to invest the time it takes the eat a crawfish boil. Not to worry; the spice blends provided are available with the shrimp boils ($8.99/.5 lb.) as well.
The business's name is admittedly odd. Zhao says she came up with it based on her first experiences with eating a crawfish bowl. Friends asked her on the phone if she wanted to get some crawfish, and she asked, "What?" to which her friend repeated, "Crawfish." As misunderstandings in phone conversations go, they repeated this pattern until they were yelling "What?!" and "Crawfish!" to each other. Fortunately for us, that introduction inspired her to make this business, and with good fortune, more people in Rochester will be exclaiming about crawfish soon.