My first job ever was on summer weekends, paid under the table because I was to young to work legally. It was at a fried fish shack in a Jersey shore town well on the slide into an oblivion it has recently started to climb out of. My job was to fry things and open clams and oysters. It was here I learned the joys and the legend, as I understand it, of the lobster roll.
A lobster roll is the simplest of dishes with the humblest of origins that can be the most wonderful thing if it is not too fiddled with (Pappa once made me one with a truffle-oil mayonnaise that, although fiddled with, was amazing).
We have all been to restaurants with live lobster tanks and seen the lobsters lying docile in the bottom. However, not all restaurants have this apparatus, which means they pretty much buy lobsters in a box and put them in a walk-in refrigerator. One of the many miracles that keeps little shore restaurants in business is that live lobsters will remain live in a box on the floor of a cold walk in refrigerator for three or four days. So if you get a large amount of summer weekend traffic in places like Booth Bay, Providence, Provincetown, Oyster Bay, or Ship Bottom, you can have a box of live lobsters delivered on Friday morning and serve them through Sunday.
Lobster rolls are born of the leftovers. It is not advised to start a food preparation with a dead lobster, and from a marketing perspective it makes no sense to run a Sunday sale on dying lobsters, so all the remaining lobsters on a Sunday go in a huge pot of boiling water and get cooked. Once cooked, they either become chilled lobster cocktail or lobster salad (the benefit of lobster salad being that the fats in the mayo act as a preservative so your lobster will taste more like good lobster, longer, if you remove the meat from the shell and toss it in some mayo).
At some point, some genius put the equivalent of about a lobster's worth of meat on a buttered, toasted, hot dog bun with a pile of fries and sold it for much cheaper than the lobster would have cost, because he wanted to get rid of it before the next box showed up. This was sold at lunchtime to the locals during the week.
Once the lobster roll was born, it spread amongst locals far and wide. I've met people from Maine, Mass, Long Island, and even Manhattan who claim the one at their place is the best and/or the original. There are all kinds of claims of purity -- just butter; just mayo and butter; just butter, mayo, and celery; just butter, mayo, celery, and some pickle bits. There is also much discussion about bread -- any hot dog bun; top split hot dog buns only; potato buns because of their sweetness; brioche because it is buttery already. Then there is also the herb dilemma -- tarragon is a great summertime herb and really does nice work with lobster, but does it belong in a sandwich born of feeding the local working-class between waves of summer tourists?
Just like Pappa and his truffle oil, I have had many versions of a gourmet lobster roll. Lobster is a luxury item and it seems to beg people to make it seem worth a splurge with constant attempts to gild the lily. It just makes sense to attempt to add some perception of class, otherwise people may notice that they have just been served lobster salad on a hot dog bun. Well I have tried to try them all and am willing to keep trying, so far I have never had a bad lobster roll. But I have to tell you that, in my somewhat humble opinion, the best lobster roll to be had is simple, straightforward, and is at Pearl Oyster Bar on Corneilia Street.
Like Murray's bagel, Grimaldi's pizza, Strip House's rib chop, or Otto's coppa, Pearl's lobster roll is one of those tastes I get a craving for that doesn't stop until I have one. Bubby, Downstairs, Wife and I popped in to Pearl last night, as we often do, for a late dinner. Pearl is both small and popular, so I find it is best to go early or late for either lunch or dinner service. Last night I went with the fried oyster and lobster roll version of dinner, but I have also been known to do the caeser salad (great, but light on the acid) and lobster roll or, probably most often, the clam chowder (amazing balance of smoky bacon, creamy potato and the clean taste of the clams liquor) and lobster roll (Wife had the chowder last night, so I could steal from hers).
The glass wine list at Pearl is cool because you can get a glass of any of the white wines on the list that they have chosen for that day. With my orders, I hope for Burgundy or Chablis, but am often happy with things like Gruner Veltliner or Sancerre.
The fried oysters have a hard crunchy crust that seems to sit around the oyster inside, preserving its juicy brininess. Each one sits on an oyster shell, held in place by a dollop of a tartar sauce with decent size, but not big, bits of pickle. This is merely a great execution of a very standard dish.
Last night, Pearl's lobster roll had both a little more mayo in the salad and a little more butter on the roll than usual. The result was that bites that included some roll had a decadent level of richness, while the bites that were simply salad were less about the lobster than usual. But the components that make Pearl's lobster roll the greatest in my opinion were all still in play -- copious amounts of big chunks of lobster meat bound with a little fresh mayo, on a buttered hot dog bun that has been pressed against a hot, flat, piece of metal, and a big pile shoestring fries served with malt vinegar.
Now, I desperately hope you are reading this and think I'm nuts. I hope you have a favorite place for a lobster roll that you think is exponentially better than the one I am describing. Just like hamburgers, pizza, bagels, and a cup of coffee, I think a real American should believe that the version in his or her hometown is the best. If you don't, move. If you have only had these things made by a franchise because that's all that is available in your community, start a pizza shop, a bagel store, a burger bar, or a coffee shop. Your community will improve for having an indigenous version of the standard American fare. If you don't already have the best lobster roll, come to Greenwich Village in New York, have Pearl's, and one day, when the craving hits you, you will know why I am so sure of ours.