Deconstructing the Lobster Roll
Satisfying your craving now that summer is over.
After Lord Byron ended his brief affair with Caroline Lamb, he wrote to Lady Elizabeth Melbourne, Caroline’s mother-in-law (and perhaps also his lover), that “a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster sallad & Champaigne, the only true feminine & becoming viands.”
Order a lobster roll nearly anywhere in New York City—Luke’s, in locations all about town, being my favorite exception—and you might easily believe that the chef is in thrall to Byron, as well as a stockholder in Hellman’s. These generously stuffed rolls cannot be picked up and eaten out of hand; they are, in fact, lobster salads, and you must apply a knife and fork to have a chance of getting the lobster to your lips. Even if the roll is toasted, it’s usually soggy with mayo and lemon juice, weighted down with celery. And, as I’m about to explain, it’s no more the correct roll than an animal cracker goes with chowder.
The more that New York menus offer lobster rolls, the more recklessly chefs label their ersatz concoctions “authentic,” “classic,” and (shudder) “New England”—well, the more I want to show them my claws. But how’s a girl to survive? This time of year, a craving is upon me, inflamed rather than sated by the lobster roll surfing of summer. (See sidebar for my Exurban Lobster Honor Roll.)
As the eponymous Luke Holden reminded me in a recent phone chat, the super-sweet shedders offer their meat through November. There’s still time to fill your cheeks for winter. After that, if you’re eating fresh lobster, it’s the tougher, less succulent meat of the hard-shells.
So what does Luke’s lobster roll have that Pearl, Ed's, the Mermaid mini-chain, P.J. Clarke's, Parlor Steakhouse, and other purveyors don’t have? It’s the glorious absence of celery, chive, lettuce fronds, too much mayo, too much lemon juice. It’s of course the lobster itself, a perfect quarter pound of it, shipped from Luke’s father’s dock in Maine, kept under optimal conditions all along the chain of custody.
Equally, it’s the top-loading hotdog bun made by Country Kitchen in Maine, stroked with salted butter, and fired to perfect crispness, thus providing the taste and texture that make a lobster roll a lobster roll. And bliss.
(Caveat: Luke bruises my heart by offering a dash of “secret spice” on his rolls. It contains powdered garlic, among other sins. Refuse it.)
Luke’s décor is funky nautical, fun to visit for pickup, but you don’t really want to eat there, unless it’s lunch alone with Page Six. The restaurants listed above have tablecloths and other virtues—brilliant shoestring potatoes at Pearl, an amazing watermelon tomato gazpacho at Parlor, a garden at Mermaid Inn. And they all have Champagne, which is what Lord Byron would say you should be drinking with what, after all, is the lobster salad you’re eating. No matter its name on the menu.
So why not try lobster rolls at home? I know: the idea seems so alien, you might think Mayor Mike had outlawed it. But freshly steamed lobster is available at many New York sources. My favorites are the P.E. & D.D. stand at Union Square on Mondays and Abingdon Square on Saturdays (the other day, claws for 75 cents apiece!); the Lobster Place in the Chelsea Market; and your neighborhood Citarella.
I like to buy my lobsters in the shell, saving a bunch of money and giving me the wherewithal to simmer up a little stock to sip with the lobster rolls.
After removing and setting aside the lobster meat (please scrape away the greenish liver): discard the heads, guts, and feathery fronds, and rinse the remaining shells. Heat a little olive oil and butter in a big sturdy pot. Throw in the shells and stir around. Pour in a little Pernod or Ricard or Madeira or white wine. Stir around some more, taking care—the alcohol may flare. Add celery, carrots, fennel, salt, a celery root if you happen to have one, some squishy tomatoes you were about to throw out, salt and pepper. Pour in water about half way up the height of lobster bodies and simmer until it’s reduced and tasty.
As to the all-important roll: If Freihofer New England buns were still available in New York, or through the Internet, I’d buy them in a heartbeat. (You who have country houses may find them in a supermarket Out There.) Pepperidge Farm, served at Ed’s and Pearl, inter alia, don’t have the right architecture, center slice notwithstanding. So I admit that I make my own. Truly, it’s no big deal, and the baking bread improves the low-tide aroma that comes of brewing lobster stock. I’m happy to send the recipe (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Nancy Weber is writing her 23d book—a thriller set in Greenwich Village about swinging senior chefs who arouse the wrath of a puritanical food blogger.