A lobster claw the size of an iPhone 5 sits perched atop my lunch, completely obliterating any chance I have to see the quarter-pound of chopped lobster meat, lightly dressed with mayo and tucked into a split-top hot dog bun that's been ever-so-gently griddled with butter on either side. The lobster roll at Quoddy Bay Lobster, an industrial-looking blue aluminum shack on the eastern lip of the United States, isn't my first — you can find them now in seafood restaurants all over the country — but it's certainly the freshest, most delicious version I've ever had.
"We feed people the way we feed our fishermen at home," said Sara Griffin, who runs the fishing co-op and restaurant with her family. That means no celery, drawn butter or lettuce but rather a bit of mayo to hold the roughly chopped claw, knuckle and tail meat together, topped with a fully intact, steamed claw. Quoddy Bay began as a Thursday-only chowder joint eight seasons ago. Today the staff goes through about 100 pounds of live lobster every day in summer, about half that amount in the fall, all still dispensed through a carryout window.
The lobster roll was born in 1929 at Perry's restaurant in Milford, Conn., according to "The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink." Like many of the nation's great sandwiches, it was born of necessity: How else to use up this prodigious native species? Not everyone feels like tackling a 1 1/2 to 2-pound lobster, plastic bib intact, metal shell cracker in one hand, tiny fork in the other. The lobster roll offers the pleasures of this naturally sweet crustacean without getting your hands dirty. While some fishing towns in New England have added melted butter, celery and lettuce along the way, Maine's fishermen seem to adhere to a less-is-more ethos; mayo is fine, but even that's considered sacrilege in some quarters of the Pine Tree State.
My family and I drove south along Maine's coast the week before Labor Day, the height of lobster season on the East Coast, starting in New Brunswick, Canada, and ending up in Portland, Maine, for a lobster roll lover's Magical Mystery Tour. I talked to colleagues; I consulted friends who grew up in Saco, Maine, and others who attended college at Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine. I asked "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern, whose parents retired in Maine and who visits every summer. I ate so much lobster that my doctor put odds on my gout returning with a vengeance.
The town of St. Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick is as bucolic as they get in the maritime provinces of Canada. Known for whale-watching excursions and sea kayaking, several restaurants offer lobster rolls, and I was expecting the behemoths I had seen farther up the Bay of Fundy, near Nova Scotia, stacked sideways into hoagie rolls. Lobster is part of a $1 billion dollar fish and seafood industry in New Brunswick, yet the Lilliputian rolls at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea's Clam Digger, a roadside joint where the fryers get a real workout, were dressed simply with lettuce and a few lemon wedges. OK, but nothing like the ones at Quoddy Bay.
Sitting on wooden picnic tables as blue as the water just a few yards from where we were sitting, the vibe at Quoddy Bay is serene, with an occasional flurry of activity each time a boat is unloaded. In the warehouse next to the restaurant, a burly fisherman, sporting a beard and a Harley hat, lifted two enormous orange-and-black-speckled specimens from a crate (lobsters turn red once they're cooked), their claws flailing helplessly, already rubber-banded to prevent someone's finger from being pinched.
The state is on a roll, boasting historic catches the last three years, according to the state Department of Marine Resources. More than 120 million pounds were landed each year, supplying 85 percent of the country's fishmongers. That lobster roll you had last week in Chicago or Dallas or San Francisco? Chances are it came from Maine.
If the road to Quoddy Bay is a winding, twisting odyssey, the journey down U.S. Highway 1 is a meandering sojourn past antique shops and seafood shacks. We stopped in Ellsworth at the Union River Lobster Pot (not open for lunch), and passed on the famous Red's Eats in Wiscasset — too long of a line. A good friend recommended Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, half an hour from where we were, but we were hungry after an hour or two of shopping at the L.L. Bean world headquarters in Freeport, so we drove 10 minutes toward the water.
Brendon Alterio sported a toothy grin and his daily uniform of a golf visor and T-shirt sporting the Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster logos. Alterio is built like a former football player with thick arms and a permanent tan from watching his eight lobster boats come in each day from Casco Bay. The business is in its 46th year, and the lines forming beneath the pinstriped awning each day reflect a loyalty that extends beyond state lines. The rolls begin with lobster that's first boiled; professional "pickers" come in to separate the meat from the shells. A bit of mayo, some salt and pepper are all the seasoning they get. Three-and-a-half ounces of barely dressed meat is stuffed into the buttered-and-griddled Sunbeam buns that have a thin layer of green leaf lettuce at the bottom for added color and crunch.
"We keep it basic, so you get the true flavor of the meat," Alterio said, echoing sentiments of his fellow fishermen. That philosophy, as simple as it is, results in about 500 lobster rolls a day during the summer.
Sitting beneath an enormous picture of a Kumamoto oyster at a wooden table in Portland's hip India Street neighborhood, I couldn't help but notice the enormous bar housing a granite slab jammed with ice and nine types of regional oysters. Eventide Oyster Co. is much more than an oyster bar. It has that rare menu, forcing impossible-to-decide dilemmas between creative, raw crudos, full-on lobster bakes and unctuous seafood stews. The signature lobster roll, doused in a bit of brown butter and served in a puffy, split-top Asian bun, is certainly not traditional, but it's also not to be missed.
For pure tradition, you can't beat the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, about 10 minutes south of Portland, in Cape Elizabeth. This is the ideal East Coast shack experience I had been dreaming of: located almost directly on the water, next to a Coast Guard house that blasts a fog horn every few minutes, it's a cozy little home with 1960s wood paneling and a brief menu, heavy on whole lobsters, fried clams and lobster rolls (don't forget the chowda).
Opened by James Leadbetter in 1969, back when lobster rolls were just $9 — as opposed to the $15 version now — the rule has always been a 3-ounce sandwich consisting of tail, claw and knuckle. We sat on one of the dozen or so red picnic tables out front, just as the sun was setting, devouring our rolls — barely dressed, topped with a dollop of mayo on one end, a pickle on the other, the entire top layer lightly dusted with paprika — and just stared endlessly into the dark blue abyss of the Atlantic, inhaling the salty sea air, thinking how were we ever going to polish off that giant whoopee pie still sitting on the table.
Dolinsky is the restaurant critic for WLS television.
Clam Digger, 4468 Route 127, St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, 506-529-8084
Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster, 36 Main St., South Freeport, 207-865-3535, http://www.harraseeketlunchandlobster.com, (open May 2 to Columbus Day)
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, 225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth, 207-799-1677, http://www.lobstershacktwolights.com, (open March 29 to Oct. 26)
Quoddy Bay Lobster, 7 Sea St., Eastport, 207-853-6640, (open mid-May to mid-October)