I’m just going to come right out and say it. I did not have my first lobster roll until I was 32 years old. I know, I know… its a pretty horrifying thing to hear… right up there with finding out that the guy you’ve been dating for six months murders prostitutes in his spare time. But we all have our crosses to bear, and lobster roll ignorance was mine for more than three decades.
To be fair, the cities and regions in which I had resided previously were not exactly known for their abundant stocks of shellfish. So, when I was in the occasional position where I might enjoy lobster as part of a meal (typically as part of a fine dining experience), it was usually in the context of a lobster dinner or surf n’ turf.
I had, of course, heard of lobster rolls prior to moving to Maine, and the notion of mixing lobster with mayonnaise (as is customary with the cold, Maine-style lobster rolls) didn’t offend me half as much as it does some people. Within a month of relocating to Portland, I had indulged in lobster rolls from four or five different local eateries. As the novelty began to wear off, I eased back on my consumption, but I would still estimate that I’ve devoured somewhere in between 40 and 50 lobster rolls (almost all of them of the cold variety) in the five years that have gone by.
Not long after being introduced to my first lobster roll, I became aware of the fierce debate that exists between Northern New Englanders and Southern New Englanders over how lobster rolls should be served. In the North—comprised of Maine and Coastal New Hampshire—lobster meat is generally served cold, in a buttered and grilled New England style bun, with mayo. The South (Connecticut, largely), on the other hand, tends to serve the meat hot, also in a bun, with warm butter on the side. (Massachusetts seems to serve as a sort of a culinary “safe zone” where one might order either style without fear of having his head caved in by an offended local.)
The debate can get pretty heated at times—no pun intended. Southern New Englanders insist that mixing lobster meat with mayo is akin to pouring ketchup over a filet mignon. They point to the tendency of some Northern eateries to add “fillers” like celery and say, “what’s that all about? That’s not a lobster roll. That’s lobster salad!” A grievous insult if ever there was one. Northerners fire back by insisting that serving hot lobster meat in bread is just wrong on every conceivable level, and furthermore, that pouring hot butter over the roll causes it to turn into a gooey, greasy mess.
Some eateries, like Red’s Eats—the lobster roll institution/perpetual traffic obstacle in Wiscasset—attempt to straddle both sides of the debate by offering a compromise of sorts. Red’s solution is to serve up chilled lobster meat with both cold mayo and hot butter. Patrons are then free to choose their own culinary adventure, to a degree. (And the hand-battered fried zucchini is to die for.)
Alas, as the United States Congress is so adept at proving, the spirit of compromise does not run very strong in our country these days. In restaurants, bars and on Internet discussion boards, well-articulated arguments in favor of one roll or another quickly give way to banter and rhetoric, which in turn, usually devolves into name-calling and temper tantrums. In short, its like every stupid Yankees/Red Sox debate you and your dumb little buddies have ever had… after 12 beers apiece.
I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of an ambassador for peace… sort of like a Henry Kissinger or, better yet, Spock of the culinary world. And if you read my post about Skyline Chili, you know that I’m, like, totally objective and would never judge a book by its cover. So, when the Portland Food Bloggers elected to devote our August entries to the noble lobster roll, I seized on the opportunity to conduct my own investigation into the merits of lobster rolls, both hot and cold. With any luck, I’ll be able to offer a definitive judgment, which we can then pass as Federal Law and accept as self-evident truth so that future generations of New Englanders may never again have to face such culinary strife in their own lives (or at least until there is something new to argue about).
* * *
As I set out to compare cold lobster rolls to warm ones, I decided that I ought to put a few guidelines in place.
I wanted this to exercise to be more about comparing warm lobster rolls to cold ones, rather than to serve as a “face off” between two Maine restaurants. The two establishments I chose as the battle grounds for the warm vs. cold debate both have a reputation for competently-prepared, consistently good food, so—provided that I found that to be the case—I wouldn’t try to compare them to one another or make any judgements as to which is the “better” restaurant. As it happens, both of the lobster rolls I ate were of superior quality, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend either restaurant to friends or family.
I also decided that I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the whole knuckle meat vs. tail meat vs. claw meat discussion, a topic which—in my initial online research—I found to be an entire debate in and of itself. To be honest, after consuming dozens of lobster rolls over the last five years, I probably still couldn’t tell you the difference between tail meat and knuckle meat, at least on the basis of appearance. And honestly, as long as it tastes good, I really don’t care. I did resolve that if I observed major textural or consistency issues with either of my lobster rolls that I thought could be the result of the meat used, I would explore this topic further. But otherwise, I’d save it for another day.
So, all of that said, let’s move on to the investigation.
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The Cold Roll
For my “cold” selection, I elected to test the lobster roll at Fishermen’s Grill in Portland. Though I’ve been planning to visit Fishermen’s Grill for quite some time now, I regarded it as a somewhat risky choice because I had not eaten there before and, consequently, had no idea what to expect. Still, I was intrigued by the positive reviews I had read on Yelp and other foodie web sites, as well as the fact that Fishermen’s Grill is a little bit off the beaten track, insofar as it not being a standard “destination” on the tourist-friendly lobster roll circuit, an idea which had tremendous appeal to me.
My decision to visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late July turned out to be a serendipitous one. Unbeknownst to me, the railroad crossing on Forest Avenue was under construction that weekend, meaning that the city had closed off part of the road—including the area where Fisherman’s Grill resides—to traffic. A quick call to the restaurant confirmed that they were open and yielded some good workaround directions, which included instructions to ignore the “Road Closed” sign on the far end of Forest, which would otherwise have dissuaded me. (I shudder to think how much money the businesses on that stretch of Forest Avenue lost as a result of that sign.)
(On the topic of directions, I need to climb up on my soapbox and offer a quick note: I retrieved the address from Fishermen’s Grill’s Facebook page (they do not appear to have a web site), where it is listed incorrectly as 649 Forest Avenue (the actual address is 849 Forest Avenue). Additionally, the accompanying Bing map was for a location in Portland, Oregon (just more evidence to the fact that Bing sucks on every level). I have been vocal about this in the past, but I cannot stress enough how incredibly important it is that restaurants include address, hours, phone number and, ideally, an email address where they can be contacted. Moreover, this information should be double-checked for accuracy on a regular basis. Restaurateurs and shop owners: every time your address is omitted or listed incorrectly, you risk losing sales. For every person who will take the time to call you and get the right address, there are at least two who will throw their hands up in the air, say “oh well” and go to McDonald’s instead.)
Anyway, I arrived at Fishermen’s Grill a few minutes later. The restaurant itself is set back several feet from the road, so it is easier to keep your eyes open for the conspicuous green and yellow awning on the building that its sister location— Fisherman’s net, a fresh seafood market—shares with Haggarty’s Brit Indi Cuisine. I’ve heard Fishermen’s Grill described as a “hole in the wall,” and I would agree with that statement if we’re using it as a term of endearment. The building is a simple and shack-like, but by no means is it run-down. Outside, a picnic table, some lobster traps and a couple of strands of holiday lights lend a little bit of personality to the otherwise plain exterior.
Making my way inside, I was greeted warmly by the woman behind the counter, who asked if I was the person who called about directions. (The place was dead at the time, so it was a solid assumption.) I acknowledged that was me and we chatted briefly about the Facebook page mishap while I studied the menu, despite already knowing what I’d be ordering.
When I placed my order—a lobster roll, french fries and a side of cole slaw—the guy in the kitchen area (who I took to be Tom, the owner) gave an enthusiastic whoop, and said “Now that’s an order!” As he began to work on my meal, chopping away at something, I fetched a Diet Pepsi from the cooler and took a look around the room. The restaurant is quite small, with just three or four tables in the dining area. It won’t win any design awards, but it was clean and comfortable. At some point, the woman behind the counter asked if my order was for dine-in or take-out. I decided to dine-in but asked if I might eat at the picnic table out front so that I could enjoy the traffic-less view of Forest Avenue and Baxter Woods Park. She said no problem, and told me that if I’d prefer to wait for my order at the table, she’d be glad to bring it out to me when it was ready. I obliged and headed outside to enjoy the sunshine and the warm breeze.
After about fifteen minutes, and just as I was wondering if I had been forgotten about, I heard the creak of the door behind me. I turned my head to see the woman from the counter approaching me with a mountain of food in her hands. As she laid it before me, I was a little bit taken aback at just how wonderful it all looked. Not that I was expecting it to look bad. But what was sitting in front of me was a little work of art, from the contrast of the red and white lobster meat with the dark green lettuce, to the large grains of sea salt resting atop the perfectly golden fries, like snowflakes on some delectable, edible mountain.
Biting into the lobster roll, I found that the meat, while plenty cold, was not as chilled as some that I’ve had in the past. Not only did the decreased temperature contrast between warm bread—a New England style bun, lightly buttered and grilled—and cool lobster meat appeal to my taste buds more, I wondered if it also allowed the exquisite sweetness of the lobster meat to shine through more than if it were chilled at a colder temperature. Then again, the sweetness could be a function of the cuts of meat used in the roll, a factor which, as mentioned previously, I’m not considering in the context of this discussion.
In any case, the lobster roll was exquisite. The Fishermen’s Grill lobster roll is just lobster meat and a bit of mayo—barely enough to coat the meat. It was, thankfully, devoid of celery, and was separated from the bread by a thin bed of lettuce, enough to impart a crunchy textural component to the roll but not so much as to overpower the taste of lobster meat.
While I want this discussion to be lobster roll-centric, it is worth mentioning that the french fries that came with my order are probably the best that I’ve had in Maine. As mentioned previously, they were fried to a perfect golden brown, and expertly seasoned with big flakes of salt. If we ever had to contend with a world without lobster, I’d still make the short drive to Fishermen’s Grill for the fries alone.
Ditto for the cole slaw, which is the best I’ve had anywhere. My sense is that it was made on the spot by Tom (which would account for the chopping that I heard coming from the kitchen area, as well as the incredible freshness of the cabbage and carrots in the slaw). I’m not sure if that is normally the case, but I’ll order it again in hopes that it is. Like the lobster roll, the slaw featured just the smallest amount of mayo and something (lemon, perhaps?) which imparted a delightful, barely there citrus’y flavor. You can check it out for yourself when you visit. Be sure to bring cash or a local check, as they do not accept credit/debit cards.
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The Hot Roll
Hot lobster rolls are not nearly as abundant in Maine as cold rolls, but they can be found here and there. For the purposes of this experiment, I decided to drive 30 miles south and try the “Dale Arnold,” the hot lobster roll served at the Maine Diner.
Located in Wells, ME, the Maine Diner is—in some ways—the antithesis of Fishermen’s Grill. Relatively large (albeit not exactly spacious), the building sits on Route 1, where thousands of tourists stream by every day during the summer months. The large parking lot is almost always filled to capacity with vehicles, and the interior is usually clogged with patrons, Mainers and visitors alike. Such was the case on my most recent visit, when I spotted no fewer than seven different state license plates on my way inside the building.
Arriving at the front door, I noted a half-dozen patrons sitting outside, patiently waiting for their little buzzer-style pagers to start dancing in their hands, indicating that their table was ready. Fortunately, I was dining solo on this day, and—as I was happy to take the last available seat at the counter—able to avoid the 20-minute wait for a table. (By the time I left, the wait was up to 30 minutes.) Within seconds of me taking my seat, a waitress arrived, provided me with a lunch menu and took my drink order.
As with my visit to Fishermen’s Grill, there was no real need to look at the menu. I scanned through it anyway, noting that the Maine diner actually offers lobster rolls in both the warm and cold versions. When my waitress reappeared I gave her my order: the “Dale Arnold” lobster roll with french fries and a side of coleslaw. As she took my order to the kitchen, I engaged in a little bit of people watching.
In virtually no time at all, my lunch was ready. Served “naked,” the Dale Arnold is nothing more than a heaping mound of nice-sized chunks of warm lobster atop a New England Style bun. There were no fillers of any type, and there was no bed of lettuce separating lobster meat from bun. (Presumably, the combination of hot lobster meat on cold lettuce wouldn’t be all that great.) Hot butter is served on the side, in a small cup.
At first glance, both the lobster meat and the bread looked a bit dry to me. The roll appeared to have been very lightly grilled, but I couldn’t find any evidence of it being buttered, which is possibly standard practice with hot lobster rolls. I’m not sure about this, so if anyone knows better than I, please don’t hesitate to chime in using the Comments feature. The chunks of lobster were nicely sized: large enough to feel like you are eating something substantial, but not so big as to pose a challenge to the person devouring them.
I poured some of the butter over about half of the lobster roll, leaving the other half naked so that I could pick out a few pieces with my fork and enjoy them sans butter. Much to my delight, both the lobster meat and the bun were far more moist than they appeared. I did not find the meat to be quite as sweet as it had been in the cold roll, but in both its naked and buttered forms, it appealed to me more on a textural level. There was also just a hint of a pleasant brine-y flavor that I didn’t pick up on with the Fishermen’s Grill roll. Overall, it was delicious and I really enjoyed having the ability to pick and choose which pieces of lobster meat I’d have with and without butter.
* * *
So what’s my verdict? I’ll confess that the cold lobster roll from Fishermen’s Grill appealed to me slightly more than the hot “Dale Arnold” from the Maine Diner. As much as I enjoyed the interplay between the chunks of sweet lobster meat and the hot butter, the way that the cold lobster meat interacted with the very light coating of mayo, the crisp lettuce and the buttered, grilled bun bordered on the sublime. Also, I enjoyed both lobster rolls on warm, sunny days and I just felt like the cold roll embodied the spirit of summertime in Maine a little more effectively than the hot roll did.
Under different circumstances (a cool rainy day in Autumn, perhaps), this battle might have easily gone the other way. And I’d be remiss if I did not mention that the potential for messing up a cold lobster roll seems far greater than that for a “naked” hot lobster roll. I’m thankful that my lobster roll from Fishermen’s Grill—easily one of the top 3 lobster rolls I’ve ever eaten, by the way—was so competently prepared (and accompanied by such spectacular sides), but if it had been saddled with a little too much mayo or the unfortunate inclusion of celery, this battle might have been won easily by the Dale Arnold.
So, while I’m ready to declare the cold lobster roll the winner of this little exercise, I also advise that readers proceed with caution. Seek out the Fishermen’s Grill lobster roll, if you can. Amplify your delight by ordering it with fries and cole slaw. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Failing that, there are plenty of other first-rate lobster rolls to be found in the Portland area. But do your homework (PortlandFoodMap, Yelp, UrbanSpoon and Chowhound are all excellent resources). Ask smart questions of your waiter or waitress so that you can make intelligent choices before you wind up paying $15 for a lobster roll that doesn’t really appeal to you. Some eateries will provide you with the mayo on the side, which can be a nice alternative. But if you botch it, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Oh, and live long and prosper.
Looking for more Maine lobster roll goodness? Find it below:
- Kate of The Blueberry Files reviews the lobster roll at the Porthole here.
- Edible Obsessions tackles the lobster roll at Two Lights Lobster Shack (and offers seal-related public service announcements) here.
- Vrai-Lean-Uh reviews the lobster roll at Calder’s Clam Shack on Chebeague Island here.
- Appetite Portland takes the show on the road and reviews multiple lobster rolls here.
- From Away examines the offerings found at the Portland Lobster Company here.