Several years ago, my boyfriend gave a dramatic seaside speech that may just have saved my life. He implored me to live rather than enjoy a delicious lobster roll. Back then, we were only friends—which is perhaps why I was willing to be talked down from the ledge. I am allergic to crustaceans and we were in Cape Cod, about to go on a whale-watching boat ride for several hours. We stopped at a famous fish shack and market called Clem and Ursie’s. I wanted a lobster roll real bad.
Perched at a picnic table, I watched him and his then-girlfriend bury their gleeful faces in mayonnaise-y mounds of fresh lobster, barely gathered together inside a top-loading hot dog bun—buttered and toasted. Yes, I enjoyed my clam roll, but nobody wants to be the allergy kid. Especially not a person who prides herself on being a fearless eater, like I do. I’ve always maintained the sincere belief that I will grow out of this affliction. In the meantime, I will risk puffy lips and itchy gums, building up a tolerance by eating small amounts of lobster, shrimp, and crabs. Even back in the city, one of my favorite ways to practice is to split a lobster roll with someone.
The great thing about this indulgence is the blurring of the line between fancy food and fast food. In fact, in Maine, lobster rolls are even on the menu at McDonald’s—and they use real lobster meat. But that doesn’t mean they’re good. The best lobster rolls don’t fuss around with too many extra touches from the chef. Big hunks of lobster meat, including plenty firm bites from the tail, should be almost completely unadulterated. A little mayonnaise, a little celery, and a sprinkle of salt is about as ornate as it should ever get, although the original lobster salad was simply lobster meat drawn in butter. At BLT Fish’s “shack” on the first floor, Laurent Tourendol serves a simple version, with one distinct addition—fresh, finely chopped tarragon. While some purists would recoil, it goes quite well.
The next problem for traditionalists would be the bread. BLT Fish’s is an airy, crusty roll, not a hot dog bun as is classic. At The Mermaid Inn, another common departure is made in the bun category. A thick brioche roll stands in, which is certainly not unheard of, though also not the standard. The top-sliced hot dog bun, when stuffed with at least a quarter-pound of lobster salad, should be impossible to seal again. The problem with Tourendol’s sandwich is not the texture of the bread. It’s really a ratio issue—too much bread interfering with the main event just doesn’t seem right. One crucial detail that both of these revolutionaries do stick to, though, is bread that is toasted and warm, with the lobster salad inside slightly chilled by contrast.
Mary’s Fish Camp, which has finally opened its doors to Park Slopers (Brooklyn Fish Camp) after a fire forced them to delay, has become the most popular spot for a lobster roll in town. There, devotees are treated to a mayonnaise-intensive rendition with scallion on the proper, toasted bun. Mary’s version may seem familiar if you’ve experienced Pearl Oyster Bar. That’s because Mary Redding and Pearl owner-chef Rebecca Charles were partners at the oyster bar before Redding went out on her own.
Many New York restaurants feature the beloved lobster roll, and make commendable efforts to capture the carefree ambiance of the shacks where it originated (about a half-century ago). Of course nothing is quite like the real thing, but one nice alternative is at Chelsea Market’s The Lobster Place, a fantastic fish shop, where you can purchase a simple, fresh lobster roll (on a top-sliced bun, though it’s not toasted) for $13.55—about ten dollars less than at most restaurants. You might even walk over to the water and pretend you’re in New England.
I’ll just have a few bites.