The greatest lobster roll I've ever had (up until the moment you are about to read about, when I create the lobster roll that is to other lobster rolls as LeBron James is to the guys in your weekly game of street ball) came from the hands of Andrew Taylor, the chef at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine. It was rich and nutty with a depth that comes from brown butter, which is just one of several heresies committed by Taylor and his co-conspirator, Mike Wiley. Steamed buns instead of hot dog rolls. Green stuff on top—scallions, chives, dill, tarragon. If Maine has its own version of Dante's Inferno, Taylor and Wiley are already down at the lowest level, parboiling in a pot. But Taylor is unrepentant. "It's all fair game," he says. "Just be prepared to be told by an 'expert' that putting (whatever) in a lobster roll isn't traditional."
The greatest piece of lobster I've ever had came from the hand of Steve Kingston, the long-laboring proprietor of The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, three-time winner of Tasting Table's Lobster Rumble. I'd proposed that lobster was lobster, to which Steve replied, "Is steak steak?" Then he called me over to the tub of lobster meat his servers were piling onto round burger rolls as fast as they could. He pointed to a piece of knuckle meat, speared it with a fork and handed it to me. It burst in my mouth with juicy, briny, lobstery intensity. And I knew right then and there that I knew nothing.
Here's what I now know. There are different "cuts" of lobster (tail, claw, legs, knuckle), and there are different lobsters. Consider hard shells and new shells, which used to be known as soft shells or shedders. To grow larger, lobsters have to shed their old shells each summer. They wriggle out of the old ones and pump their bodies full of seawater to expand their soft, pliant new shells to their new, aspirational dimensions. The shells will harden over time, but the important thing to remember is that from June through October, most of the lobsters in Maine have shells you can crack with your bare hands and meat that is more tender and savory than that of a winter lobster.
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The downsides: New shells yield less meat and are much more delicate. Most hard shells get shipped out of state, while most new shells are reserved for local consumption. Packaging innovations are allowing new shells to be shipped nationwide for the first time, but if the best lobster you ever had in your life was in Maine, and you thought it was just the salty air talking, now you know better. Kingston's lobstermen know not to bother dropping off anything but new shells on The Clam Shack dock.
The cut of lobster is equally important. I've always found tail meat unpleasantly chewy. New shell tail is much better, but, still, claw and knuckle are the most tender and flavorful. One perfect, intact claw looks inspiring sitting atop a lobster roll, but the wrong claw can be spongy. Knuckle, however, which I'd never thought about until Kingston rocked my world, is always perfect.
That was the moment I started dreaming about an all-knuckle sandwich. The problem, of course, is that knuckle provides only 10 percent of the meat on a lobster. The legs kick in another 10 percent, the claws 35 percent and the tail the remaining 45 percent. Most places use everything in their lobster rolls. A chicken lobster yields about four ounces of meat, just enough for a solid lobster roll. A few righteous places, like Luke's Lobster, use just claw and knuckle. But nobody in the history of the coast has ever truly knuckled up and served an all-knuckle roll. The math is daunting: A new shell lobster yields less than half an ounce of knuckle meat, so it would take 10 one-and-a-quarter-pound lobsters to yield enough knuckle for one roll. Crazy.
Yet irresistible. I had Luke's Lobster send me two pounds of pure knuckle meat. (Do not try this at home—it involved a lot of negotiations—but you can find good sources of claw and knuckle meat online at about $75 for two pounds.) Then I thought about sauce. Lobster Nazis insist on miserly traces of butter or mayo and nothing else. Yet I kept thinking about Eventide's crustacean Mona Lisa, so generous with the brown butter. I wanted a healthy dollop of butter and mayo at the same time. Butter tastes great but doesn't cling well, while unctuous mayo can never quite escape its rubbery potato salad soul. Ah, but the combo . . . a nice nutty, lemony brown-butter hollandaise turns out to be lobster's soul mate.
Then there's the bun. The butter-toasted, split-top J.J. Nissen hot dog bun is sacrosanct in New England hearts yet functionally flawed. Lobster rolls have to be bountiful with pink meat spilling out of the top, and the hot dog bun was just not designed with that kind of structural integrity. Besides, all that cottony fluff seems to smother flavor rather than highlight it.
Options? Eventide's steamed buns are unrealistic for the weekend shack warrior. So I settled on mini challah breads. They were perfect. Soft and plush, unobtrusive, surprisingly strong and pliable enough to be packed with extra meat. Having nodded to tradition, I then broke decisively from it, adding some lobster banh mi (knuckle meat, spicy fish-sauce mayo, pickled carrots, basil and cilantro on a baguette) and lobster smørrebrød (Danish rye bread, butter, radishes, hard-cooked egg and knuckle meat with dill on top). Sorry, J.J. Nissen.
On the side: Cape Cod kettle chips and a glass of Saison Dell'Aragosta from Maine's Oxbow Brewing, a delicious, tide-scented gose brewed with live lobsters and sea salt. (Sadly, it's barrel aged for a year and is sold out until next fall.)
The verdict? As we get older, we discover that fewer and fewer things in life live up to the hype. This was not one of those times. Biting into my knuckle sandwich was like sucking the head of the god of all crustaceans. Every perfect, pillow-tender, bite-size piece of meat seemed like it had been juiced with lobster stock. I basked in a cloud of Down East essence and slammed a glass of Aragosta as a chaser. I don't know if I'll ever be able to pull off another knuckle sandwich, but I do know that I'll never take that little joint for granted again.
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