Summer on a Roll
You Won’t Have to Search Far and Wide to Get Your Lobster Fix This Season
Nothing says “summer” in New England like a lobster roll. Rich, buttery meat, the barest kiss of mayonnaise, a toasted or grilled bun — it’s not just a Northeast icon, it’s delicious. [Please note that at the time of publication, the restaurants noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates, and consider purchasing gift cards to help support local restaurants and their staff during the current crisis.]
Between 14 million and 16 million pounds of lobster are harvested annually by Massachusetts fishermen, according to Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
So what makes a good lobster year? “I listen to a lot of our fishermen, and from what I’ve heard, the colder the winter, the better,” Casoni says. “When the weather is warm, the lobsters stay close to shore, and shed their shells too early.”
Similar to snakes (but much more appetizing), lobsters shed their shells to make room for their growing bodies. The meat of a lobster that sheds its shell too early is most often of a lesser-quality. A cold shed ensures a steady supply of high quality lobster meat, Casoni says.
“New shell lobster meat is softer and sweeter. Soft-shell lobsters don’t ship well, so you usually have to establish a relationship with a dealer to get them,” Casoni says. Both types of meat have their fans, with Casoni falling into the soft-shell camp. Hard-shell lobsters are typically more expensive because fishermen have to go out farther to find them.
Luckily, you don’t have to go far to find a succulent lobster sandwich — mvm has done the hard work for you. Here are a few of our local favorites.
Joe Fish Seafood Restaurant and Bar
After 18 years in business, Joe Fish has to be doing something right. The most upscale of the restaurants we visited, with an industrial beach shack vibe, Joe Fish also offers the most lobster dishes — not just whole lobsters, but lobster guacamole, lobster tacos and even a lobster napoleon. Tempting as these choices were, we stuck to the plan and ordered a medium 8-ounce lobster roll. (Sizes start at 5.5 ounces of meat and go up to a full pound.)
Dauntingly large, the roll came with french fries, a nice surprise. The meat was sweet and firm, with just enough mayo to hold everything together, and the bun was toasted but not dry. It was delicious.
“We use premium claw and knuckle meat,” says owner Jim Dietz. “Tail meat can be chewy, so we don’t use it. And we buy only hard-shell lobsters.”
The secret to the restaurant’s success, Dietz says, is the care that’s taken in sourcing their seafood. “We actually taste the lobster before we put a contract on it, and we do that three or four times a year,” he says. “All fishermen work very hard for little money, but you have to be careful with what you buy, like anything else. If you’re buying out of the harbor, there’s lots of boats and gas and it’s not going to be as pristine as if you are buying 100 miles offshore. You really have to develop a relationship with someone you trust.”
North Andover, Mass. / (978) 685-3663
North Reading, Mass. / (978) 207-0357
Heritage Farm Ice Cream & Restaurant
Open from mid-March to mid-October, this ice cream stand/restaurant provides views of the Merrimack River, which is located across the street. With a huge list of ice cream flavors, it’s hard to focus on eating lunch — I’d rather skip straight to dessert — but I was there to do a job, after all. So I ordered what the farm calls its “famous” lobster roll.
Served on an oversize split top roll, it’s 4 ounces of claw and knuckle meat, tossed with mayo, optional tomato and lettuce, and a few secret ingredients, says owner Bob Howard. During a busy week, the restaurant dishes up as many as 300 of them. Not bad for a place where the focus is on the ice cream.
Fans have been known to extol the virtues of a Heritage Farm lobster roll over what you’ll find in lobster destinations such as Gloucester and Rockport, Howard says. And after digging in, it was easy to see why. Big chunks of lobster meat spilled over the sides, requiring a fork and knife approach. My companion upgraded his roll to the lobster special, which, for a few dollars more, came with french fries, coleslaw and a take-home commemorative
I was holding out for dessert, and ended my lobster lunch with a creamy scoop of butter pecan, grateful that my cholesterol screening had been done the previous week.
The Beach Plum
If you make it known that you are writing about lobster rolls, it is inevitable someone will recommend The Beach Plum. I’d never gone, but after the third person suggested it, I figured it was worth the drive. So on a sunny and cool May morning I headed north of Hampton Beach. It was a Tuesday, but there was a line at the Plum, which made me wonder how crowded it gets on summer weekends.
With six sizes of rolls, ranging from a reasonable 6 ounces of lobster meat to a monstrous 20 ounces, there’s something for every appetite. (Disclosure: Because it was my third lobster roll in a week, that small roll looked awfully good.) I settled for the medium, with about 8 ounces of lobster meat.
Something about sitting near the cold Atlantic Ocean revives my appetite, so I dug in. The roll was pure lobster with just a taste of mayo. There was no lettuce or other filler. It was easy to see why The Beach Plum can be a very busy place. On a good beach day, they can sell a staggering 1,000 rolls.
“On busy days, we may prepare the lobster and mix it with mayonnaise, but every roll is made fresh to order,” says manager Emma Gootee. “And we use a really high quality, hard-shell lobster. It makes for a much better quality roll.”
North Hampton, N.H. / (603) 964-7451
Portsmouth, N.H. / (603) 433-3339
Epping, N.H. / (603) 679-3200
Bob Lobster is a bit of an institution on Plum Island. A commercial fisherman, Bob Hartigan sold lobsters out of his basement for years before opening his no-frills seafood shack. He recently retired from the sea, but still sells his lobster rolls, relying on local fishermen to keep him stocked. With views of the Merrimack River and lobster pots out back, it’s spiritually, if not geographically, awfully close to Maine. And on any sunny day — and on plenty when it’s overcast — locals and tourists throng to the place.
Yes, Bob’s has atmosphere, but it also has darn good food, and the lobster roll is no exception. I’ve been eating at this place since it opened, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. By this point, though, I was ready to swear off my favorite crustacean, but I managed to find room for one of Bob’s. (And I found room to finish it, too.)
So what accounts for the popularity of Bob’s lobster roll? The secret is in what’s missing, according to Bob’s wife, Joyce. “It’s a basic, old-fashioned recipe, with not a lot of mayo, so you actually taste the lobster. There’s not any ingredient in it that’s taking away from the lobster.”
The sunset views and proximity to the beach don’t hurt either.