The New England favorite is newly popular, and with the price of lobster up, they cost around $20 each. Where can you find them locally? Which should definitely be avoided, and what does it take to make a lobster roll great?
The lobster roll: It is lobster, on a roll. How controversial can it be?
Those who know their lobster rolls tend to be intensely partisan. The lobster on the roll should always be mixed with mayonnaise; the lobster should not be dressed with anything but butter. Celery is essential, or celery should never, ever be involved. Lettuce is acceptable, or, alternatively, an abomination. The roll itself is perhaps the only point of general consensus: A flat-sided, New England-style hot-dog bun made of soft white bread, its exterior should be buttered and grilled.
But as a West Coaster, I don’t know my lobster rolls. If you are from Maine, or anywhere in New England, I defer to you; lobster is your culture, not mine. (If you want to talk crab, we can get into that some other time.) The lobster roll, as I understand it, came into being because you people have had, at points in time, such a glorious plethora of lobster that you might as well stick it on a sandwich. I hear McDonald’s in Maine makes lobster rolls in the summertime (and that they don’t grill their buns).
Out here, lobster has largely remained a luxury. (Some of us in Seattle might still rather eat crab — but again, another time.) Now comes a surge in the popularity of the lobster roll, with the longtime New England favorite available in (at least) 18 variations in Los Angeles. Seattle’s not got nearly so many, but on the occasion of the opening of local purveyor Bar Harbor Finestkind Provisions, I undertook to educate myself in the ways of the lobster roll.
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A lobster roll may count as an affordable luxury — it costs far less than the live lobster at a fancy seafood restaurant — but it still comes at market price, and market prices for lobster are currently high (due, in part, to the demand from new lobster-roll places). Right now, this means you’re paying approximately $20 for what’s essentially a sandwich. It’d better be worth it.
People from all across the land line up at Pike Place Chowder, but not for the lobster roll. Last week, it cost $22.95, and it was a terrible disappointment. The bread failed in every respect: A dense, dry sandwich roll split down the middle, its architecture made getting a bread-and-lobster bite almost impossible, with far too much bread-cushion on each side (and “cushion” being too kind of a word). The pieces of lobster, mixed with mayonnaise and fine-cut celery, tasted on the salty side, rather than oceanic-sweet. Shredded lettuce didn’t bring anything to the sad party. Stick to the award-winning chowder here.
At the Ballard Annex Oyster House, the lobster roll comes with an explanation: They’ve got a tank of live lobsters (exciting!), and you’re required to order a whole one (pricey! In my case, $45). Cooked to order, it arrives on your plate 20 minutes later in the form of a roll made with the tail meat, plus the two claws for you to crack and eat separately. Setting the possibly prohibitive cost aside, this iteration’s formatting doesn’t do it any favors: The meat is lodged along a romaine lettuce leaf that rests in the cut of the bun, sort of a long lobster lettuce-cup incidentally lying on bread. The roll itself is a bit thick and slightly dry, though nicely toasted; the lobster’s undressed, with some melted butter on the side. My lobster tasted sadly neutral for something that’d been so recently alive, and was on the chewy side.
For a lobster-roll date, the dimly lit bar and a couple glasses of bubbly at Frank’s Oyster House in Ravenna are romance’s ally. Two dainty-looking, smaller-size lobster rolls come per order, the better for sharing; they’ve each got a pretty, unintrusive lettuce leaf lodged along one side, plus a little “X” of chive-lengths placed carefully on top. The roll-to-filling ratio is right, and so is the buttery-toasting of the bread; if there’s maybe a touch too much mayo in the mix, the indulgence doesn’t seem out of place. For $18.50, these twinned pretties seem just right.
But brand-new Bar Harbor in South Lake Union raises the lobster-roll bar. Lodged in the ground floor of a new building, it’s got a spare, shipshape look, with a tidy open-air kitchen; Edison bulbs hang from ropes like jaunty, nautical good ideas. Proprietor Ben Hodgetts grew up in Maine but has logged many local restaurant-industry hours, most recently at Matt’s in the Market alongside his Bar Harbor chef Lindsey Hayter.
The lobster roll is at the heart of the menu, and Hodgetts has put his heart and soul into edging it as close to perfection as he possibly can. He says the bread is the most important part — his is custom-made by Mario’s in Kent (they also make El Gaucho’s brioche hamburger buns), which patiently provided him 40-plus prototypes. They will not make the end result for anyone else. Light and squishy, the roll’s proportioned exactingly as a vessel for the filling — you get your choice of lobster with butter; or mayonnaise; or mayo, celery and chives. (The price is hovering around $20 at the moment.)
I first tried butter, and it was delicious — the crispy-browned richness of the outside of the bun augmented by the modicum of butter applied to the lobster meat, which is all “knuckle and claw,” Hodgetts says. He maintains that tail meat’s more likely to be chewy, and every Bar Harbor lobster roll has a showboat whole claw sticking out the top, a beautiful sight. After you admire it, he advises using a fork to heartlessly smash it down into the bun for better roll-to-lobster balance. The butter preparation lets the taste of the lobster — properly not salty, but sweet — shine through.
The second Bar Harbor lobster roll I had was the stuff of conversion: one of those moments where you know you’ve found a new food favorite, a sudden reminder that life can be this good. The chive and celery, finely chopped and incorporated sparingly, added just a little spice and crunch. The mayonnaise, house-made, was less a sauce and more of a suggestion, just enough to say a quiet hello and imbue the whole thing with a little more tastiness. Too much mayo, Hodgetts notes, quarrels with the toasty butter on the roll, and no one wants that.
Of course, the right way to have a lobster roll is the way you want it. The fact that you can get it three different ways at Bar Harbor is part of the place’s deep thoughtfulness about the form. Mainers will also be pleased to find that the lobster rolls come in the proper little paper boats, with Cape Cod potato chips; there’s also Moxie (a regional soft drink with a Dr Pepper/cough-syrup taste that outsiders may never acquire), briny East Coast oysters on the half shell and house-made whoopie pie. Hodgetts says that fellow natives of his home state are already finding their way to Bar Harbor, and they’re already coming back — the best compliment of all.