Lobster Roll

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.

A Trip to the Lobster Pound

It did not rain during my recent wedding in Portland, Maine. But two days later the skies turned grey and menacing, and rain dumped down in fat, ferocious drops. “What are we going to do?” I asked my wife. Post-nuptials, we were decompressing at a lake house 20 minutes north of Portland. It was a beautiful, tree-shaded spot, but there was one snafu: Her family was staying there too. On sunny days, we could canoe around the lake. On rainy days, well, we were confined to a small cabin with a rapidly diminishing supply of Stowaway IPA and Allagash White.

“Let’s go to Red’s Eats,” she said, snatching a set of car keys. “I want to eat Maine’s biggest lobster roll.”

Did Red's live up to the hype? Check out my full story over at Food Republic. Eat it up!

New York Press' Gut Instinct: On a Roll

My girlfriend will love this picture.

These are terrible times to be a lobsterman.

Crustaceans' prices are as low as the ocean floor, thanks to the recession and misguided thinking. During the mid-2000s boom, food and drink prices were as inflated as a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon. Pricey bottle service plagued Chelsea clubs. Burgers were constructed with rich Kobe beef, then finished with truffles and foie gras. And lobsters commanded a king’s ransom. Which is idiotic. Lobsters, like diamonds, are not rare. Or endangered. Lobsters are everywhere off Maine’s coast, man.

Nonetheless, restaurateurs have long touted these pin-eyed sea bugs as celebratory luxury grub. Happy anniversary, honey! Pass me the lobster cracker and a bib, please!

That’s great news in a gangbusters economy. But when times get tough, folks cinch their purse strings. Goodbye, sparkler-topped champagne. Sayonara, luxury condo with the gleaming Viking range. And lobsters, take a long walk off a short pier. Lobsters sank to $5 a pound at Fairway, with wholesale prices as low as $2 or $2.50 a pound—nearly half the $4.50 high. That piqued entrepreneurs’ interest. With prices rock bottom, it became cost-effective to cruise to Maine, buy crustaceans and bring ’em back to the big city.

This business model has been embraced by the excellent Luke’s Lobster, which gets its critters from owner Luke Holden’s dad, Jeff, who owns the seafood-processing firm Portland Shellfish. I first encountered Luke’s one night while boating up the East River. My girlfriend and I were on a PR cruise celebrating Portuguese wines. I’m a trueblue beer man. But my girlfriend likes cool Riesling and Chardonnay, so I gave in to the grape side. Food served: lobster rolls, courtesy of Luke’s.

“Grab me another one,” my girlfriend commanded like a field general, after having already tucked into two pinkie-size rolls. I understood her fervor. Instead of going buck-wild on mayo, Luke’s prefers a restrained, buttery swipe. This lets lobster sing, fleshy and firm. I nabbed another roll. She disappeared it in two shakes of a lamb tail. “I love lobster,” she moaned, like every good little girl reared in New England.

To replicate her happiness a few weeks later, we decided to visit Ralph Gorham and Susan Povich’s Red Hook Lobster Pound (284 Van Brunt St. betw. Verona St. & Visitation Pl., Brooklyn, 646- 326-7650). The couple founded it last year on a strict division of labor: He drives to Maine to buy lobsters; she serves rolls, either with homemade mayo or butter. They’re found at the Brooklyn Flea and Brooklyn Bridge Park, but in Red Hook, the twosome recently opened an adjoining, indoor seating area. Ah, shade: It’s compulsory in this summer of ceaseless sun.

After pedaling to Red Hook, arriving as sweaty and sticky as dirtbags in a porn theater, we ordered a lobster ($15) and a shrimp roll ($8). I wanted beer. The Pound sold none. “Can I bring a beer into the dining room?” I questioned, crossing my fingers. “Sure,” the cashier said, “we’re BYOB.” My heart lit up like the Empire State Building after dark. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I told my girlfriend, abandoning her like a baby-daddy with commitment issues. At a nearby bodega I bought Dogfish Head’s fresh, hoppy 60 Minute IPA, then returned to the dining room. It was a rustic looker, filled with picnic tables made from reclaimed wood.

“I love lobster,” she moaned, like every good little girl reared in New England.

Buoys dangled from the ceiling like nautical earrings. It was Maine by way of Brooklyn. “Man, this makes me happy,” I told my girlfriend, pulling on my piney beer.

“That makes me hungry,” she said, as our rolls arrived, sided with Cape Cod chips. The lobster was chock-a-block with claw, speaking resolutely of the sea. The shrimp was clean and fresh, not tasting of the gritty vein—a fine euphemism for the poop chute. “What’s for dessert?” my girlfriend asked, snapping up an errant shrimp.

“Follow me.” We slung seafoodfattened haunches over bike seats and steered to Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie (204 Van Dyke St. at Pier 41, Brooklyn, 718-858-5333) for their summertime sensation: a mini key lime pie, impaled on a stick, dipped in chocolate and frozen. My girlfriend’s eyes went as wide as a pizza pie. “Patience,” I said, holding the dessert aloft as we headed to the nearby Valentino Pier. We sat on a bench and waved to Lady Liberty. Then we bit into ice-cold magic.

“This is the best dessert I’ve ever had,” my girlfriend said, moaning in a bedroom manner. “You get the chocolate, you get the tart, you get the pie, but it’s on a stick. A stick!” she said, taking another lick beneath the waning summer sun.

Read--and vote for--the original column at the New York Press' website!