New York’s best lobster rolls cost half as much as New York’s best-known lobster rolls. How do I know? I ate 16 of them.
Fish-shack fare in the city is mostly an exercise in inertia; not much changes and normally intelligent customers settle for subpar fare. How else explain the popularity of that $30 mayonnaise-laden roll in the West Village and too-thick, fatty New England clam chowder on a 100-degree evening? Or why so few restaurants offer the Manhattan version, which has tomato tang and acid to cut through the humidity? What’s next, rooting for the Red Sox?
With lobster rolls, there are right ways and wrong ways. Here’s the right way: boiled or steamed meat on a split top bun; a dollop of mayonnaise (or unsalted butter) for mouth feel. A sprinkling of celery for crunch, herbs for aroma, Tabasco or celery salt for spice. Should come with fries or a tiny bag of potato chips.
Here’s the wrong way: Pretty much anything else.
Many New York lobster rolls are little more than expensive tuna salad sandwiches: bland, flavorless, limp. Where’s the golden age that’s restored our reputation for the best burgers, pizza and cocktails? Well, you’ll find it at three spots: Pearl Oyster Bar, Luke’s Lobster and Red Hook Lobster Pound. All of which we’ll come to, but first the also-rans:
SoHo’s Delicatessen, which bills its fare as international comfort food, used to be known for its “Model Lounge,” where only models could gain admission. It will now be famous for its $18 lobster roll, dressed in enough mayo to get a model fired.
Only a deli would serve something this horrific. Tastes like it’s been scooped out of a plastic wrap-covered bowl. Meat minced so fine you can’t tell it’s lobster. Bite in and get a mouthful of fat. Your breath smells of chives. You leave it mostly uneaten. No fries.
Rating: Awful (0.5/10). Other items: a strong Hendrick’s martini. Delicatessen is at 54 Prince St. Information: +1-212-226-0211 or http://www.delicatessennyc.com
Ed’s Lobster Bar
Whoever’s in the kitchen at Ed’s Lobster Bar in Soho squirts so much lemon over the $27 lobster roll that the meat and mayo taste sour. It’s enough acid to make you wonder whether chef Ed McFarland, a Pearl Oyster Bar alum, was really trying to make ceviche.
Rating: Awful (1.0/10). Alternatives: Skip the clam chowder with no clam flavor. Also avoid the lobster bisque that tastes like it’s from a can. Rather, scarf down sweet fried clam bellies.
Ed’s Lobster Bar is at 222 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-343-3236 or http://www.lobsterbarnyc.com
Apparently, I’m in love. So says a fortune telling plastic fish I’m given at the end of my meal at the East Village’s Mermaid Inn. It’s a cute touch for a place with a crummy $26 lobster roll -- served on a suspiciously crunchy brioche bun. A lobster trap of chives and celery vanquished whatever maritime flavor could escape from the throwaway bread.
Rating: Barely edible (1.5/10). Other items: Tasty Old Bay fries come with.
Mermaid Inn is at 96 Second Avenue. Information: +1-212-674-5870 or http://www.themermaidnyc.com
BLT Fish Shack
Chef Laurent Torondel is no longer chef at BLT Fish Shack, but the recipe for his $26 lobster roll remains -- and it’s still a miss.
A fat brioche roll is stuffed with a thin layer of meat. There’s too much bread to taste the lobster. Too little lobster to taste the ocean. Insufficient mayo to tie everything together. Result: Boring. And, weirdly, a sellout on one visit. So go figure.
Rating: Rip-off (2.0/10). Other items: None worth your time or money (except maybe the tasty, pleasantly greasy fried calamari).
BLT Fish is at 21 W 17th St. Information: +1-212-691-8888 or http://www.bltfish.com
Soho’s Lure Fishbar is the rare seafood restaurant better known for its burger than for its fish, which explains why Chef Josh Capon is opening up a burger joint soon, and which further explains why his lobster roll is so forgettable.
Close your eyes. Take a bite. Can you tell it’s lobster? I couldn’t. The chunks are too small. The mayo too heavy. Tastes like it was made at beginning of service. Bun was almost flat, making the whole mess look like a giant canape.
Rating: Serviceable (4.0/10). Other items: New England clam chowder should be renamed “cream of bacon soup,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Fried oysters are good. Try the rare, juicy, fall-apart burgers.
Lure Fishbar is at 142 Mercer St. Information: +1-212-431-7676 or http://lurefishbar.tumblr.com
Ditch Plains, run by the people behind Landmarc in the Time Warner Center, raises an eyebrow for appropriating the name of a Montauk surf spot but serving only New England clam chowder.
The lobster roll also has identity issues. The bun’s too large, hiding the meat, which is too cold. But the flesh is oh so tender. The mayo? Just a hint covers it all. And then you realize it doesn’t taste like lobster. It tastes like licorice, thanks to an overdose of tarragon. Sweet potato chips (not always crispy) take the place of fries. Not good.
Rating: Fair (4.5/10). Other items: Try the butter-roasted oysters or the spicy gumbo.
Ditch Plains is at 29 Bedford St. Information: +1-212-633-0202 or http://www.ditch-plains.com
Ed’s Chowder House
Ed’s Chowder House isn’t related to Ed’s Lobster Bar, which explains why this lobster roll can be quite good. Chef Ed Brown stuffs warm chunks of shellfish into buttery brioche rolls. Watercress adds a peppery kick.
But here’s where price claws its way into the equation. The cost is $26; add fries and you’re up to $33. Then again, this is Lincoln Center, where the patrons can afford it.
Rating: Very good but it loses half a point for price (7.0/10). Other items: Clam chowder is thick, buttery, with little mollusk flavor. Manhattan chowder lets tomato broth overwhelm the sweet crab meat.
Ed’s Chowder House is at 44 W. 63rd St. Information: +1-212-956-1288 or http://www.chinagrillmgt.com
Mary’s Fish Camp
How much is the lobster roll? “$30, and worth every penny.” That was the cheery, cocky response I got from the host at Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village. Mary Redding, also a Pearl alum, has chutzpah for making her dish one of New York’s most expensive.
Yes, the preparation is compelling. Big chunks of meat in a warm, buttery roll. The overly generous mayonnaise application allows the sweet shellfish to come through. Chewy, briny chunks of roe might make a welcome guest appearance. But is the value compelling? I’ve waited about an hour outside in the heat for a seat yet I’ve finished the roll in three minutes flat.
Rating: Very good (7.0/10). Other items: Impressive, if underseasoned bouillabaisse.
Mary’s Fish Camp is at 64 Charles St. Information: +1-646-486-2185 or http://www.marysfishcamp.com
Pearl Oyster Bar
The best argument against Mary’s is Pearl Oyster Bar, just a few blocks away. The lobster roll feels bigger, heavier, and at $27, a little cheaper. The cholesterol-heavy crustacean collapses in the mouth just a bit more easily than at Mary’s, with an equally generous dose of Hellman’s. Fries come with.
By the way, Pearl’s space, unlike Mary’s, is large enough to keep aspirants waiting inside (Pearl’s air conditioner is also more powerful).
Rating: Almost excellent (8.0/10) (N.B. to expense accounters: Does not take Amex.). Other items: One of the city’s best versions of bouillabaisse with saffron aiolli. Avoid the chowder.
Pearl Oyster Bar is at 18 Cornelia St. Information: +1-212-691-8211 or http://www.pearloysterbar.com
The best rolls can be had at Luke’s Lobster and the Red Hook Lobster Pound. These trap-to-table venues buy directly from Maine and skip the tri-state wholesalers.
Luke Holden, a 25-year-old whose father owns the Portland Shellfish processing company, has his lobster steamed in Maine and shipped south to two locations, in the East Village and on the Upper East Side.
Only claw and knuckle meat is used -- it’s much more tender than the tail. A bit more mayo would help cut the brininess and counter the celery salt. Small deficits. Cost: $14.
Rating: Excellent (9.0/10). Other items: It kills me to say the New England chowder is almost perfect, just enough cream to cut the minerality of clams.
Luke’s is at 93 E. Seventh St. and 242 E. 81st St. Information: http://www.lukeslobster.com
Red Hook Lobster Pound
Red Hook Lobster Pound’s rolls ($15), available from the flagship storefront and at the Brooklyn Flea, are better than Luke’s. Just lemon, salt, butter and paprika. The flesh, laid into a JJ Nissen bun, is so delicate it’s like biting into meringue. A gloss of homemade mayo rounds out the flavors. You can also order a Connecticut butter style roll to set the maritime intensity in high relief. If Thomas Keller served them he’d get a Michelin Star.
Rating: Outstanding (9.5/10). (No Amex.) Alternatives: A live lobster and a Whoopee Pie.
Red Hook Lobster Pound is at 284 Van Brunt St. Information: http://redhooklobsterpound.com
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)