Poring over the coast for the best bugs in butter
CLINTON, Conn. -- Enea Bacci had already put in a day’s work before Lobster Landing started selling lobster rolls at 11 a.m. He had arrived at 4 to steam lobsters and his crew had come at 8 to pick the meat. “It’s about fresh,’’ he said. “I have eight boats just fishing for me.’’
I could relate to that, having grown up fishing lobster in Maine. What I couldn’t relate to was how Bacci and most Connecticut coastal fish shack owners serve that lobster. Where I came from, a lobster roll consisted of a hot dog bun filled with lobster salad. Lobster fishermen called it “bug on a bun.’’ The salad usually had minced celery and enough Miracle Whip (a Maine stand-in for mayonnaise) to make a gob stick to a spatula. The lobster usually came from the knuckles and body cavity, since the prettier tails and claws went into other dishes.
I had heard that diners along the Nutmeg Coast demand a different roll. They prefer a deceptively simple concoction of hot lobster meat on a bun drizzled in butter. When I asked Bacci why, he shrugged, as if I were asking why the sky is blue. “When you put mayonnaise on lobster, it tastes like mayonnaise. This way it tastes like lobster.’’
He had a point that bore further investigation. Bacci doesn’t sell lobster salad rolls, but he does sell 100-200 hot lobster rolls on sunny days. He separates 4-ounce portions of lobster meat into string bags to be warmed by steeping in simmering water while another server toasts the bun on an open gas-fired grill.
Milton Allen had driven from Old Lyme to get two hot lobster rolls to go. “You can’t carry a lobster salad roll with you and eat it in the car,’’ he said, making a practical point. “This is the best place on the coast.’’ He thought a moment. “Well, Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in New London makes a pretty good one, too.’’
Still licking the butter off my lips, I headed there for my next taste test. Like Lobster Landing, Captain Scott’s is a hidden treat on the working harbor where the lobstermen deliver their catch to the dock. Both have outdoor seating with scenic views of the water. Captain Scott’s also has a view of the railroad trestle, since it’s right next to the tracks. I took this as a sign of authenticity. Anybody can build a frou-frou seafood palace in town. A fish shack shimmied in between the railroad tracks and the docks had to be great to thrive.
The order line was only about 20 people long when I arrived, but it was still early, and Tuesday. Behind me, Wayne Brown of New London discussed what to order with his son. Brown had settled on a lobster roll, and when I asked what kind, he said, “Hot, of course. The salad is celery and stuff. The hot lobster roll - it’s just lobster.’’
When I picked up my own hot lobster roll, I asked Helen LeBeau which version was preferred at Captain Scott’s. “Oh, the hot! We sell at least three times as many hot rolls as salad rolls.’’ She had been working at Captain Scott’s since it opened 14 years ago. “It’s always been that way.’’ And she pointed out another advantage of the hot roll. “I call it the lazy man’s lobster because you get almost as much meat as a steamed chicken lobster and you don’t have to work for it.’’
She was right on that account. I couldn’t prove it without a scale, but my Captain Scott’s roll (on a somewhat soggy hot dog bun) had a quantity of meat equal to Lobster Landing’s. In fact, serving size was consistent everywhere I ate.
Leorah Weiss-Newall also confirmed the 3-to-1 preference of hot to cold lobster rolls when I ordered at Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough in Noank. When she yelled back to check with a guy in the kitchen who was whacking steamed lobsters with a chef’s knife to pick the meat, he shouted back. “Hot lobster rolls is what we’re known for.’’
The hot lobster roll is so simple that I expected them to be the same, but subtleties crept in. Lobster Landing uses a fabulous custom-baked bun that takes a crisp edge without getting hard when grilled, and which soaks up the juices but still holds together. Captain Scott’s flakes the lobster, making it very tender. Abbott’s serves a two-thirds-cup cone of meat on a hamburger bun. So does its offshoot, Costello’s Clam Shack, a few wharves away, though for some reason, Costello’s lobster was more tender.
I thought I had lost my taste for lobster when, as a 14-year-old stern man on a boat out of Searsport, Maine, my now-deceased boss and I had to scarf down two short lobsters raw to avoid the wrath of a shellfish warden. I have to admit, the bugs are a lot better cooked, laid on a bun, and drizzled with butter.
David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.