Yankee Lobster roll looks like a prototypical lobster roll, but it didn't make the list.
Lobster rolls are a funny thing with me. The first time I had one, it was transcendendant. Fresh, tender, hot, buttery lobster — one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.
And for some reason, probably because that best-ever lobster roll was consumed in Bar Harbor, Maine, a locale that's not easy to get back to, I continue to seek out that same level of perfection in other locations selling lobster rolls. I am often disappointed, and yet, unlike in the area of fish and chips (where I know the best best best ever fish and chips are served at the Ship Anson in Portsmouth, UK, and they have ruined me for life for all other fish and chips), I feel compelled to continue in my lobster roll superiority quest.
Let's talk about what constitutes a lobster roll. Traditionally, it was served cold, as a lobster "salad" roll, comprised of the less-desireable claw-and-other-bits meat and mixed with mayonnaise and perhaps some other spices or greenery. It was, essentially, a sandwich lobstermen could take with them for lunch while they were out doing their lobster thing.
Personally, and probably because that first roll I had was hot, I think it's time we moved beyond tradition. Because believe me, a good hot lobster roll beats a good cold lobster roll. Every. Single. Time. Sweet, tender lobster with a smattering of butter, all without any more manual labor than opening your mouth and chewing. Drool.
The trouble is, a lot of things can go wrong with a lobster roll. The bread is a common failing, and one that should be easier to get right. The top-split hot dog bun is best, buttered and grilled. Generally in my experience, restaurants fail when they try to depart from this. The lobster meat is another common failing. Although it's put on a bun and served as a sandwich, the lobster roll should still feature fresh, tender lobster. Many don't, unfortunately.
On a recent trip to Boston, I realized I'd passed more than 10 lobster rolls consumed, and perhaps it was time to start ranking them. I have hopes that some day another place will move in high in the rankings, but as I've tried many of the well-reviewed lobster rolls from D.C. to Boston, it's possible this is it unless I get back to Maine.
1. The Lobster Claw, Bar Harbor, Maine — A lobster roll should be relatively easy, but there are a lot of ways to screw it up. This place set the standard by doing everything right. Lobster fresh off the boat, cooked up in the back, and immediately plunked down on your roll with a side of butter. Pure lobstery perfection that started a quest. And sadly, perhaps no more, as it appears from Yelp that they're closed. Let us hope it's just for the season. I like to think someday I can go back to Bar Harbor and have another lobster roll this good.
2. Abbott's Losbter in the Rough, Noank, Connecticut — Although the first hot lobster roll I had was in Maine, apparently the hot style is actually called a Connecticut-style roll. And Abbot's does a damn good job of it, although it serves it on a hamburger bun instead of the hot dog bun. It's clear the lobster is fresh, and cooked up fresh, and you get to enjoy it by the water. Wins all around, and enough to excuse the non-traditional bun, mainly because it's still the right texture and consistency, if not the normal shape.
3. Legal Test Kitchen, Boston, Massachusetts — I'm surprised a cold roll could rank this high on my list, but LTK does a lot of things right. The bread is the split, buttered and grilled hot dog bun, and the lobster meat, although cold, is clearly fresh and very tender, with just the right amount of mayo. There's a lot of meat, and eating it is a challenge that involves a lot of balancing; they should do without the piece of lettuce between the lobster meat and the bun and jam that meat in there a little more. Aside from that, though, I have no complaints.
4. Captain Daniel Packer Inn, Mystic, Connecticut — The DPI got way too ambitious with its bread, putting some very good and more upscale (sherry butter and shallots, anyone?) hot lobster on a crusty bun that was nigh unchewable. With some nice, tender bread, it would have easily beaten the LTK roll, and might have even been ahead of Abbott's.
5. Luke's Lobster, New York, New York — A bit of a cross between a hot and a cold roll, this was served fairly close to room temperature with a bit of mayo and a bit of butter. It tasted better than it sounds, with fairly tender lobster meat on a classic split top hot dog bun.
6. Red Hook Lobster (tent), Washington D.C.-ish — I had one of Red Hook's hot lobster rolls from a tent they had at a festival, not from their line-around-the-block truck that moves around downtown D.C. I hope to rectify this one day and try the roll out of the truck, but for now, my impression of the roll was that, while it was nice that it was warm, the lobster meat had clearly been cooked beforehand and then warmed up. That is NOT the way to cook a hot lobster roll, and the meat ends up overly done and too chewy as a result.
7. Neptune Oyster, Boston, Massachusetts — This one was rated well in the Boston foodie-verse, but did not live up to its rating, in my opinion. Problem number one was that, like Red Hook's, the meat was overdone and too tough and chewy. Problem number two was that they went with a brioche roll for the bread, and it couldn't stand up to the lobster and butter; it was mushy before I took the first bite. Oh, and problem number three is the $25 price tag. Now, I am as annoyed as anyone to read reviews about lobster rolls that complain about how expensive they are. It's a LOBSTER roll, people, not a turkey sandwich. However, for $25 that lobster should be melting in your mouth, and it wasn't even close. I do love the swanky-classic tiled interior of the place, but stick to the oysters here and go somewhere else for a lobster roll fix.
8. Tackle Box, Washington, D.C. — A fairly tender lobster salad roll, served on the classic bun if I remember correctly. Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. I do enjoy the pseudo-beach-shack atmosphere, too.
9. J's Oyster, Portland, Maine — I had this one and the similarly unadorned Yankee Lobster roll within days of each other, but this one makes the list more on the strength of the J's Oyster ambiance than the roll itself. Yankee Lobster's definitely had more lobster, but I enjoyed my meal at J's more. And they did give you mayo on the side, so you could mayo to your own preferences.
10. Hank's Oyster Bar, Washington, D.C. — Another salad-style roll, a little too heavy on the mayonnaise, although that's preferable to completely unadorned (a pile of cold lobster is surprisingly untasty). Another place to stick to the oysters.