I have a lot of sympathy for the lobster.
Walking through the door of Lobster Bar, a trendy new joint devoted entirely to the crustacean, was like being greeted with a fat, wet slap of steam. Waiting in a queue eleven people deep on a Saturday afternoon, it was not hard to reflect upon the similarities between my sweaty plight and that of the lobster destined for my plate.
This twenty seat restaurant had opened only a week earlier to great media fanfare. Although we had been invited to a pre-opening lunch along with virtually every other food writer in town, Paris by Mouth stays away from such cattle calls, preferring to arrive anonymously to get a better sense of what the experience will be like for our readers.
That experience might begin, as it did for me, with time spent crushed between well-heeled strangers. If my sympathies were not with the lobster during the hour-long wait, then they certainly were with a can of sardines. As the time dragged on and diners waited interminably for their dishes, I found myself wondering what could possibly take so long?
Were they boiling and shelling the lobsters to order? It seemed like the only logical explanation for what could possibly take so long to get the roll from kitchen to table. They could potentially have skipped the boiling step entirely and left them to steam in the ambient air of the restaurant.
A lobster roll is, at its best, the essence of simplicity. There's a reason why the shellfish sandwich is a staple of packed summer towns. It's cold lobster, diced and dressed lightly with mayonnaise and perhaps a little celery on a toasted buttered bun. There are lobster roll partisans, naturally, who prefer the Connecticut style, served warm with drawn butter, but I’m from Boston which is mayonnaise territory, and where even the addition of a few herbs can be considered fancy.
When a sandwich finally emerged from the kitchen, I could see it was the size of a baby’s foot and snuggled between a handful of overcooked fries and 3 small wedges of lettuce. At this sight, the french foursome ahead of me left their place in the line, declaring that the frites were too fried.
The rest of the lingering crowd remained eager and jovial, even when owner Mathieu Mercier announced to those waiting that they had run out of over-cooked fries and were substituting Tyrell's potato chips. The crowd remained, spirits and armpits slightly dampened, but still hopeful. However, when Mercier returned thirty minutes later to announce that they were also out of lobster, all hell broke loose. The French couple behind me were furious, declaring that Mercier should have known better and turned people away much sooner rather than let them stand there for over an hour. The rest of us shuffled out around 3pm, too late to get lunch anywhere else.
If I hadn't been assigned to review this restaurant, I can assure you I would never have returned after the first experience of leaving hangry (hungry+angry). But I was. And so I steeled myself for a return like the heroic eater that I am.
This is the tale of two lobster rolls. The first, as described above, was a horror show. The second, a mild redemption story.
On second go-round, we were seated within a few a minutes at a table by the fun and funny waitress. This late weekday lunch offered us the opportunity to see that the quirks were mostly worked out, with the sweltering room being noticeably the same. The feverish feeling subsided with a cool glass of Sancerre and our starter of a small dish of rillettes d’ormeaux, a pleasant enough paste of abalone with a zip of fresh lemon served with bread. The lobster rolls arrived shortly thereafter.
It’s a universally acknowledged truth that foods from different cultures are transmuted as they are transported. Quality and price generally suffer at the expense of novelty. This is nothing new and happens worldwide. I generally find the current French fascination with all foods American (cupcakes, burgers, Tex-Mex) to be amusing and fun. But for me, there’s something about the lobster roll that's so representative of my home state that to see it done poorly would be a personal affront.
It wasn’t awful by any means. It just wasn’t what I am used to. I applaud the owner for his careful sourcing of local, French ingredients. In theory, I like the idea of using all-locally sourced products to recreate this foreign food. In reality, I found my expectations and desire for the real thing to be so high that I walked away slightly puzzled. Inherently, the flesh of the Brittany lobster has a different, chewier texture and a more pronounced sweetness. Beautiful pieces of chilled meat, where you could see the outline of the claw itself were larger and chunkier than I normally see. It was a welcome change. The sweet white roll however was another story. Even filled with claw meat, slightly soggy sweet bread just wasn’t gonna cut it. Here a slight but powerful smear of tarragon infused mayo on the inside of the bun takes the place of the traditional dressing somewhat to the detriment of the super fresh lobster.
As I took my lobster roll in hand and shoved it into my mouth like a hot dog, I became aware of the fact that I was the only one using my hands. Everyone else was daintily and preciously cutting up their roll with silverware. The delightful custom designed wet-naps sit on the table unused--a curious decoration.
If neither price (a lobster roll, which is the only dish on the menu, runs 26€ with fries and salad) nor authenticity were considerations, it wasn’t terrible. Truly. I had a nice meal. The flavors were strong and simple. The food arrived quickly. The mustard dressing had real zing and spiciness on the greens. The brownie we finished with was excellent--deep, dark with a rich cocoa flavor and served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
But Lobster Bar is serving nothing that compares to the lobster roll of my youth, or to the rolls that Mercier encountered along the Maine seacoast as a teen. I can’t recommend the place for anyone with knowledge of what an actual East Coast lobster roll can taste like. There’s something about consuming it in such a chic environment that takes away from the beauty of the lobster roll, which at its best is simply a crisp, warm buttery roll filled with cool, sweet salad, held in hand and shoved in face. I can, however, recommend it for the fashion set who might like to see and be seen in a beautiful space without consuming much.
Originally published on Paris by Mouth