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Aug 22, 2017 10:03 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Lobster In The Rough

Aug 22, 2017 10:39 AM

I sat recently at a restaurant on the water in Hampton Bays, dutifully shredding a lobster.My mother, to put it mildly, was not one to waste. In the years of my youth, lobster was a pricey delicacy, and one that should be given extra, meticulous attention so as not to waste one morsel, or one tiny fraction of one morsel.

When guests at our house in summer would “finish” with their lobsters, it still would look, basically, like a lobster, just broken into four or five pieces, some of those cracked apart in places. Sometimes there would be a goop of green “tamale” still left in the body cavity.

When my mother was done with a lobster, it looked like a pile of coleslaw, or chopped kale, just colored red and white.

I learned to dissect a lobster in much the same way. So as I sat at the table the other night, with bits of green lobster guts speckling my shirt (because I had not put on my bib), I got to talking with my date, who is an equally adept shredder of lobster, about eating lobster.

Since I grew up with frugal parents in a time when lobster was the most costly of delicacies, my memories of halcyon days eating lobsters mostly revolve around the boiling at home—the big pots pluming steam, the lobsters crawling on the floor beforehand, the stack of bright red being carried out to the deck table. She was of the belief that lobster should be eaten only in a restaurant, which I came to realize was rooted mostly in the guilt over being the actual executioner of the lobsters in the run-up to the hearty embracing of their consumption.

I remember the days when “twin culls” dinner specials were all the rage (they’re still offered at a few places) and two-pound lobsters were about the largest you’d see on a menu, other than at The Palm. I also noted that while the price of lobsters has fallen in the last decade at the wholesale end, the price in a lot of seafood shops and basically all restaurants has remained largely the same. That seems sort of offensive—but the price of a prime steak in that same period of time has easily doubled, if not tripled. “Nobody lowers their prices,” my date said.

Along with the fond memories and the high cost difference, my aversion to ordering lobster “in the rough” in a restaurant is rooted mainly in distrust. I’ve worked in some restaurants that did them, and they were always well cooked. But I’ve also walked into some disasters and been left broken-hearted, hungry and $80 poorer.

In fact, the one I was breaking apart as we talked was obnoxiously over-steamed, to the point that the meat in the claws had shrunk to half the size it certainly had been when the red bug should have been removed from the pot.

Then the conversation turned to lobster rolls, having, just a week before, embarked on a search for the best lobster roll to use as an example of New York seafood for friends visiting from the Pacific Northwest. We found a decided harmony in the position that New Yorkers, in general, are missing the boat on lobster rolls, though not on who makes the best New York-style lobster roll.

Here’s the thing: In New York, what our restaurants call a lobster roll is really just “lobster salad,” in the form of chicken salad or tuna salad, but with lobster. It’s chopped up, mixed with mayo and celery or some other ingredient, and served cold.

In Maine, where the lobster roll is really the signature local dish (here, I would say our real signature dish, historically, has been swordfish), it is composed only of freshly steamed lobster, still hot, not broken up any more than you could with your hands, with an option of being doused in drawn butter. And it comes only on a hot dog bun, usually the thick potato bread kind that looks like a fat piece of white bread that was cooked crooked.

I’m a firm believer in the Maine style, though I have had some New York-style rolls that I think are great. But I’d never had a good Maine-style roll here—until recently.

With friends in tow, we used two recent assessments of the region’s local lobster roll purveyors—one in a local paper, another from a national magazine’s website—as our guide in searching for a great example of a lobster roll ’round these parts. And it was thanks to these top-10 lists that I found two very excellent lobster rolls at local shops.

The Red Hook Lobster Pound in Montauk and the Shinnecock Lobster Factory on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton both, I find, have excellent Maine-style lobster rolls: warm, buttery, on potato bread. They are home runs.

If I just have a craving for a New York-style lobster roll, my favorite place to get one is at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor, oddly enough. It’s just very simple and the perfect example of what a New York lobster roll should be. Lobster, lemon mayo, tiny bit of celery, hot dog bun.

But I also settled that since atmosphere is a big part of the lobster roll eating thing, neither would be the ones that I would take friends to for their first sample of Nor’east eats.

In my book, the best all-around lobster roll and lobster roll experience on the South Fork can be found only at the little takeout window at Gosman’s Dock in Montauk.

Lobster rolls are meant to be a take-out, eat-it-in-your-hand meal—really, that’s kind of the point. The little paper dish. Fries on the side. Boats going by. Seagulls trying to steal your food. That’s as lobster roll as lobster roll gets, at least this side of Ogunquit.

But thank you to those who pounded the pavement sampling the broad array of mediocrity in the lobster roll offerings out here and taught this restaurant hawk a thing or two. It didn’t change my mind none, but good work all the same.

The blood-soaked summer in the restaurant industry that I predicted in the spring is certainly shaping up much as I had expected. I will be checking in with the ownership after the big weekend and will report back next month.

Enjoy the rest of your traffic ... er, I mean ... summer.

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