Luke's Lobster and Pearl Oyster Bar: The $15 Lobster Roll Versus the $29 Lobster Roll

Luke's Lobster Roll with pen for size perspective
Luke's Lobster Roll with pen for size perspective

When Fork in the Road caught up with Luke Holden of Luke's Lobster last month, he (very politely) threw down the gauntlet on the subject of fancy $30 lobster rolls:

...seeking a $30 lobster roll was never an intention of mine when I moved to the city. It wasn't until I decided to do this that I went around and visited Pearl and Mary's -- once I did that I realized, 'Wow, I have to do this.' The sandwiches are just different -- they're not a Maine lobster roll concept. Most are mayonnaise sandwiches with a little lobster here and there. It's a different concept -- it's not that one's better than the other, but this is how I like my lobster roll and how most Mainers like their lobster roll.

No one is a fan of shelling out $30 for a sandwich. But is Pearl Oyster Bar really selling a mostly-mayo treat? And how does Luke's lobster roll stand up to Pearl's? We decided to find out.

Pearl's lobster roll, with the same pen for perspective
Pearl's lobster roll, with the same pen for perspective

First, you've got to account for the fact that the two restaurants are very different places--Pearl is a sit-down restaurant with a full menu, wine, and beer. Luke's is a much more casual venture, serving seafood rolls, soup, and ice cream, and offering counter service and a few stools to perch on. Both places do what they do ably.

Pearl's lobster roll comes with a huge mound of shoestring fries, which are nice, but besides the point. It's all about the lobster roll, and in any case, fries are cheap. The whole shebang rings up at exactly $29, although it's subject to "market" price variances. Luke's roll, which is listed as $14 but comes to $15 with tax, doesn't come with sides.

For our purposes, let's assume that you want simply know which has the better roll, and you don't care about a glass of wine or table service.

 

Having eaten both rolls before, but never within 30 minutes of each other, I had never noticed that these rolls are ensconced on opposite ends of the mayo debate, perhaps to both of their detriments.

Here is my position on mayonnaise in lobster salad: It has to be there. But it shouldn't be gloppy or overwhelming. The mayo's job is to lightly bind the chunks of lobster together, and I don't object to a bit of tiny-diced celery mixed in, too. But nothing else! While I'm pontificating, might as well get this out of the way: The lobster salad should be cool, the hot dog bun warm and toasted in butter. It's actually very simple, not that you'd know it.

Pearl's lobster roll is stuffed with a huge amount of lobster, so much so that it obscures the bun. You can't pick it up, and least not until you've forked up the lobster overflow. (Mmmmm...lobster overflow.) The salad is augmented with diced celery and a sprinkle of chives.

But it is also drowning in mayo. It's not as though Pearl's is stingy with the lobster and uses mayo as filler--no, there's plenty of lobster, from both tail and claw. But you can't even see the color of the crustacean for all the white stuff. It's plenty delicious, but when you try to eat the roll itself, mayo squishes out from all sides. The thing lands with a thud in your stomach. It does not feel like summer food.

And it is very expensive, especially when you take service into account. A 20% tip will bring it up to $34.80.

Luke's Lobster, on the other hand, serves a tasty, manageably sized sandwich that's chock-a-block with sweet lobster. The portion of crustacean is a bit smaller than it is at Pearl--probably by two ounces or so--but it certainly isn't half the size of Pearl's, while it is half the price. It really is a bargain.

But Luke's doesn't really doesn't serve a lobster salad roll, in the New England tradition as I understand it, as the lobster is undressed. The bun is filled with excellent quality, cooked, chilled, bare lobster. The roll is properly buttered and toasted, and a bare slick of may is spread on the inside. The lobster needs to be tossed with that bit of mayo for it to be quite right. Otherwise, the condiment moistens the bottom of the bun instead of the crustacean.

The edge goes to Luke's for delivering an extremely tasty roll at extremely fair prices. And because I suppose that not enough mayo is better than way too much mayo. But it really depends on what your position is on the mayo question (and the size of your bank account).

Meanwhile, the search for the perfect lobster roll continues.

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Luke's Lobster

93 E. Seventh St.
New York, NY 10009

212-387-8487

www.lukeslobster.com


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