A lobster roll worth the name

Trial and error did the trick at Oyster House, where a heap of lobster on a toasted Maine bun goes for $26 (with fries at dinner).
Trial and error did the trick at Oyster House, where a heap of lobster on a toasted Maine bun goes for $26 (with fries at dinner). (Tony Fitts)

Other Philly versions were crustaceans out of water. Find the real thing at Oyster House.

Posted: August 15, 2010

It's a stranger in a strange land, the lobster roll in Philadelphia, a shellfish out of water in the province of the Italian hoagie, the sidewalk cheesesteak, and slow-roasted pork with sharp provolone (and a lash of broccoli rabe).

It is a regional delicacy best consumed in the salt air at a picnic table in its natural habitat - in August at the edge of Penobscot Bay, gulls cawing, Maine's exasperating coastal traffic crawling out of sight and out of mind.

And it is - or in the best of worlds should be - impossibly simple, consisting of (1) a buttered, griddle-toasted, top-split hotdog bun; (2) rough-chunked, freshly boiled or steamed succulent lobster meat; (3) maybe a bit of Hellmann's mayo (or as they fix it at Beal's in Southwest Harbor, a dab of Miracle Whip), a sprinkle of diced celery (optional), and/or celery salt.

No mas! Fini! Period! Quit!

The trouble starts when folks can't leave well enough alone. You tamper with a classic at your peril; need I reference the botch jobs on the Caesar salad, and the gin martini, and let's not get started on the proper Manhattan.

Also, "simple" does not mean anything even close to careless, or disrespect for, well, in this case, the precisely timed cooking (chunking, warming or chilling, buttering or dressing) of the fresh lobster, or the boxy architecture (and toasting, stuffing, and buttressing) of the bun.

This has been the Philadelphia story. Too much winging it. Too much trading on the romance of the thing, too little figuring out how to make it right. Oy, watery, limp shreds of lobster on untoasted sandwich bread! Mystery lobster salads that might be shrimp salad or seafood salad, or who can tell? Local side-split hotdog rolls, the crusts comically sawed off, making a hash of the whole business. (Note: The reason the rolls are best sliced from the top is that the sides are bare and uncrusted, the better to butter and toast them, and to stand them up in those cardboard sleeves.)

Done right, very little matches the lusciousness of a roadside, seaside lobster roll, its rich, sweetly tender knobs of tail-knuckle-claw meat tucked into (or spilling out of) the cleft in that buttery, warm, crisped roll. Proof of the pudding made landfall 13 years ago in Manhattan when Rebecca Charles, a trained chef, replicated the Kennebunkport rolls of her youth at Pearl Oyster Bar, igniting a lobster-roll fire.

Nowadays, New York Magazine is running pieces on the city's lobster roll boomlet. In quaint Wiscasset, Maine, traffic jams for rolls at Red's on Route 1 have locals pleading for a bypass. And hereabouts, odd (but improved) hybrids are surfacing: At Village Whiskey, 20th and Sansom, a "lobster roll" goes for a jaw-dropping $28, the lobster surfing on an open-face toasted bun atop bacon, lettuce, and tomato, draped with an aoli giving it the aspect of lobster Benedict.

If you are willing to suspend purism, other local riffs have some appeal. At Supper on South Street, crunchy, fingerling-sized lobster rolls play off the original. At Nectar in Berwyn, tasty lobster-salad sliders on house-baked rolls are popular (they're not called lobster rolls). And at the Under the C seafood counter in the Comcast Center's food court, a toasted, de-crusted hoagie roll, yes, is stuffed with a quarter pound of fresh, chunky lobster dressed in mayo and lemon, making for a bright and clean-tasting sandwich, and at $14.99, a very good (if inauthentic) deal.

If it is the genuine item you are after, however, it has finally surfaced here - after a series of frustrating misfires - at Oyster House, 15th and Sansom. Owner Sam Mink says he grew weary of the lobster-roll grousing and went to school, studying up on the Rebecca Charles model, researching the buns (his chef Ted Manko found Pepperidge Farm's rolls collapsed from his stuffing; he now orders traditional J.J. Nissen buns from Maine).

Each morning at 9, Manko's crew boils the day's lobsters in a poaching stock; they've been trucked down overnight from the docks in Portland: "out of the water less than 24 hours," says Mink.

The Nissen buns - at last! - are buttered and toasted crisp. Big, lush nuggets of lobster are tossed with Hellmann's, diced celery, and celery salt, and heaped to overflowing on the roll, about five or six ounces worth. (It comes with fries at dinner.)

For the privilege, you pay a steep price - $26 - which hasn't seemed to dampen the demand for what is, for the moment, the singular authentic lobster roll in town. (It leads sales of the menu's fish dishes, topped only by the Oyster House's crabcakes.)

Mink says that even with the lobster glut, he pays $35 a pound for actual yielded lobster meat. He says the top New York joints charge what he does (though Luke's Lobsters and other lighter-weights charge $10 less).

He boasts that, finally, he has nailed the darned thing, and wishes henceforth to be known as the place in the city to get a premium lobster roll.

And so he has.

And so Oyster House is.

Oyster House

1516 Sansom St.



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