The first time I ever ate a lobster roll was in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was purchased from a fish market that sold lobster and cod cakes out of a shack on the docks next to the lines for the whale watching tours.
After giving my order to the burly man behind the counter, I was handed a hot dog roll filled with chilled lobster salad and not much else wrapped in a paper square. It wasn't big and it wasn't cheap, considering the bun was the size of a hot dog roll, but boy, was it good. I ate it standing up, watching the fish boats come in to sell the day's catch.
The second time I ate a lobster roll happened to be in Annapolis. Now you're probably thinking, Annapolis? Isn't that a crab town? Well yes. And no. In May 2014, Dan Beck opened Mason's Famous Lobster Rolls on Main Street intent on converting crab cake adherents to the "lobstah" way of life.
Since I had never set foot in Maine — where the lobster roll is the unofficial state sandwich — I brought along two dining companions who spent their summers in the state to help me assess whether Mason's was the real deal. They were glad to see the lobster traps piled in the corner and of course, the menu: lobster roll, lobster roll. And lobster roll.
Mason's offers three varieties of lobster roll, but also a shrimp and crab roll as well as soups, salads and limited sides: cole slaw, potato salad and bags of Cape Cod chips. It's a simple no-frills operation, with five bleached wood tables indoors and two outdoor tables for street dining in nice weather. Diners place their order at the counter.
You can chose from two kinds of soup here: New England Clam Chowder and Lobster Bisque (both $4 cup, $6 Bowl). We tried the Bisque, which is also available for an extra charge with "lobstah chunks" ($7 Cup, $9 Bowl).
Although we opted not to add the chunks, the soup had strands of lobster in it and was fragrant with lobster essence from a good shellfish stock. The creaminess was just right — not too heavy and not light — and most importantly, not floury or lumpy. It was an exceptional and elegant bisque, even its paper cup. Mason's also sells its soups by the quart ($13) for carryout, perfect for warming up a cold winter's eve.
My roll of choice was the Maine Lobster Salad roll ($13) which featured chilled lobster meat tossed with a lemony mayonnaise accented with crunchy celery bits. The mayonnaise dressing is applied with a light touch, just enough to bind ingredients and still showcase the lobster, which was fresh, firm and sweet.
The Maine Classic Lobstah Roll ($13) is prepared in the traditional style, with a dab of mayo on the toasted bun and lots of fresh, cold lobster meat in the roll. My Maine aficionados gave it the nod, affirming that it was true to what you would order upstate, although they gave it a dusting of Old Bay (guess you can't take the Chesapeake out of the diner).
The only lobster roll served warm is the Connecticut Roll ($13), which is simply lobster meat laced with melted butter. No mayo. No adornments of any kind. Nothing but lobster and butter, which, let's face it, is a wonderful thing if you love lobster.
A good lobster roll depends on a few factors. One is the freshness and quality of the lobster meat itself and Mason's delivers on both points. Owner Beck sources his certified sustainable lobster directly from Portland, Maine. Typically, the lobsters are out of the water no longer than two days.
The other important ingredient is the bun. Mason' buns are made by New England's Country Kitchen, the gold standard for seafood rolls. They are buttered and then lightly toasted on the grill so that the inside of the bun has a nice, buttery crunch while the outside is still soft and chewy.
Because we were in Annapolis, I had to try to the Maryland Crab roll ($13). Whenever possible, Beck purchases his crab from Maryland, and never uses imported or canned meat. Good quality jumbo lump meat was tossed with the same mayo, celery and lemon as the lobster salad roll, and served in a toasted bun. The crab was obviously fresh, but the salad could have used a little lighter hand with the mayonnaise dressing.
Portions are not huge here — remember, the "roll" is a basically a hot dog roll — but they don't skip on the lobster — or the quality. You can add a side and a drink to your roll as a "Combo Meal" ($14 or $16 with a Maine Root Soda). Salad lovers can order the lobster, crab and shrimp salad over mixed greens with tomatoes and cucumber. And there is a Kids Menu offering a Nathan's Hot Dog or a Grilled Cheese Sandwich for $4.00.
Dessert comes in the form of home-baked Whoopie Pies ($2.65). You can also slip next door to Capital Cakes and Cream for custom-made ice cream sandwiches. The shop, which is connected to Mason's and owned by Beck and his wife, features ice cream from Kilby's Farm of Cecil County.
Mason's is not on the docks (although it's darn close), but it is the real deal, bringing Maine to Annapolis' Main Street. Look out crab, you're not the only game in town anymore.
Janice Gary is an award-winning writer, writing coach and author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance. www.janicegary.com
WHEN YOU GO
WHAT: Mason's Famous Lobster Rolls
WHERE: 188 Main Street, Annapolis, MD 21401
WEB SITE: www.masonslobster.com
HOURS: Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
SOUPS: $4 - $9 ($13 for quart containers)
ROLLS AND SALADS: $9 - $13
CREDIT CARDS: American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Discovery
CHEF/OWNER: Dan Beck