Gut Instinct: Roll With It

Note: This is actually my final New York Press column. So long, fair newspaper.

New York is caught in the claws of lobster fever, the latest stop on the city's food trend bus. One minute, folks are frothing over the latest Pat LaFrieda–blend burger. The next, everyone's gone gaga for fried chicken or perhaps pizza with a crust as thin as my patience for dealing with fleeting fads.

As a grub and grog journalist, I'm duty bound to ID trends, then call bullshit the instant restaurants board the bandwagon. Food trucks and meatballs, methinks you've jumped the shark. Let me tell you, covering food trends can be a tedious, ceaseless merry-go-round. New York is unable to appreciate superlative standbys. "New" rules the urban roost, and the city's old roosters barely merit a mention until they're sentenced to the chopping block. May I sing you another Mars Bar requiem? Some cranky mornings, especially when I've nixed my second java jolt, it's tough not to be jaded. My eyes glaze over at the press releases tidal-waving into my inbox, each touting its restaurant's munching merits. During these blue moods, I can barely muster the enthusiasm to pull on pants and hit Lower East Side soba shop Cocoron, or perhaps Kin Shop, the Thai hot spot in the West Village. "Would you like another glass of white whine?" my wife says, throwing my favorite comeback in my face. I know hunting out restaurants and bars is hardly on par with, say, being embedded in Iraq, but it can be tiring. Some days, I crave General Tso's chicken from my local Chinese grease pit or a couple of tacos from Chavella's around the corner from my Prospect Heights apartment. I'm 33; I like the occasional creature comfort.

Or, more appropriately, I like eating the occasional creature, which neatly brings me back to lobster. Though I find picking the boiled sea critter apart as pleasurable as a proctology exam, I do fancy the occasional lobster roll. My favorites are from Red Hook Lobster Pound and Luke's Lobster. They're similar in that they both source Maine crustaceans and offer rolls untainted by that white devil, mayonnaise. Look, mayo is a four-letter word for a reason. Too often, restaurants treat the condiment like spackle or use it as binding agent in gloppy salads—including lobster. If I were king of the caloric universe, I'd blackball the white stuff.

Thus began last week's quest to eat a mayo-free lobster roll in Maine. It was a couple of days after my wedding in Portland, and my newly minted wife and I were decompressing at a lake house. Rain was dumping like cats and dogs, so we put our Corgi-Chihuahua mix Sammy into a car and steered up scenic Route 1 to Wiscasset. It's a tiny town with an outsized rep, thanks to Red's Eats. Each summer, thousands of lobster lovers flock to this food stand about the size of a soccer mom's van. The attraction is what many claim to be Maine's best lobster roll. In a physics-defying feat, Red's cooks shoehorn a full lobster's worth of flesh into each griddled, split-top hot dog bun. To find out if the fat-man-in-a-little-suit routine was any good, my wife and I queued up behind 50-odd people. Did I mention that it was raining?

"This had better be worth getting soaked to my socks," I muttered to my wife, rain splashing down on my red Vans and silver wedding ring alike. Customers inched forward like maple syrup flowing from a tree. Ten minutes became 30, which somersaulted into 45. Moments before my New York patience expired, we reached the cashier.

"Two lobster rolls, please," I ordered, paying the day's market price: $15.75 apiece. Through the window, I watched as a cook took two griddled buns and filled them with massive chunks of red-and-white meat, claws and even a whole tail. They were wrapped in foil and delivered alongside containers of warm drawn butter—no mayo, mind you. "You'll want these too," the cheerful counter lady said, passing me a palmful of wet naps.

We ferried the monstrosities to our car and unwrapped them on the dashboard, where they sat like beached whales. The rolls were too big to chomp, so we plucked out lobster bits and dipped them in the drawn butter. "Ohhhhh," my wife groaned, a sound I had last heard on our wedding night. I mimicked her moans, butter dribbling down my face, lost in a lobster roll reverie that followed me back to New York.