Category: Seafood

Maine’s Lobster Roll, Authenticity, plus A Shack With A View


The overstuffed fresh lobster roll at Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown, Maine, on July 5, 2018.

I had first attempted to eat lobster in May of 1991 at a popular seafood restaurant on the east coast. I won’t say which restaurant, as it’s still open at the time of this writing and they’re still serving lobster as they always have to happy customers. But to say that I was sorely disappointed is an understatement. I had no idea how to open the thing as it didn’t come with instructions, and the meat was not only a bit tough but rather rubbery as well. The flavor seemed “off”, not being anything like any crab I had ever eaten of any variety, including Chesapeake Bay blue crab, Opelia, or King. I decided lobster is nothing more than an expensive way to eat melted butter.

I wasn’t about to give up though, and as time went on I attempted to enjoy lobster every chance I got. I rarely got back to the Atlantic shores very much so most of the lobster I tried was in the midwest. The classic preparation in the Michigan or Ohio is that of grilled lobster tails. They’re rarely fresh there, being processed and frozen raw on the coast before being shipped to frozen food distributors. At larger gatherings and restaurant buffets where they offer a “lobster bake” the lobsters arrive already boiled, packaged in individual nylon nets. They’re then thawed, the nets are removed, and the whole lobsters are boiled quickly for about another four minutes before serving.

Lobster cooking techniques and presentation in the midwest can also end up being rather far off the mark. In 2018 this was one area restaurant’s Lobster Roll:


The New England Roll Special with Tarragon on Brioche at a restaurant in the midwest, as seen on Facebook on July 6, 2018.

This isn’t a New England Lobster Roll, regardless of what the Chef says. What this does is disrepect the lobster as the main ingredient, elevates the roll itself to a bread New Englanders wouldn’t use, confuses people who know what a real New England Lobster Roll is, and presents an inaccurate version of the dish to patron who have yet to experience the authenticity of the New England Lobster Roll.

This kind of situation is why I hadn’t yet been able to enjoy the real article.

It wasn’t until we ended up in Maine for six months beginning in April of 2018 that I finally had the opportunity to try fresh local lobster that had been cooked in a kitchen specializing in northern Atlantic seafood. The first full day we were there we ended up at the Taste Of Maine restaurant in Woolwich, where our daughter proceeded to order two whole lobsters.


Our daughter’s two whole lobsters at the Taste Of Maine restaurant in Woolwich, Maine, on April 21, 2018.

With a lot of their patrons being from out-of-town or out-of-state the restaurant’s placemats give detailed instructions on how to break down a whole lobster. Once we followed the instructions, along with some good hints from our server, we all tried it.

The difference between any other lobster I’ve tried and the meat from those two animals from Maine waters that had also been cooked nearby in a Maine restaurant was rather eye-opening. The meat was sweet and moist, very tender, and had a rich flavor that I felt had been missing in all the other dishes I’d attempted to enjoy for almost thirty years.

The cuisinologist in me hadn’t given up on multiple preparations of this same or similar dishes, and my determination was firm in continuing the quiet mission of trying to find out what was wrong, why I hadn’t been able to enjoy such a popular meal. And it paid off, right here in Maine.


Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown, Maine.

  1. Try your best to avoid using frozen raw lobster.
  2. Get the freshest live lobster possible, less than about 72 hours after it was landed on the lobster boat. If you’re not near any lobstermen, your best bet is to have live lobster overnighted from the coast. If it’s been in a tank for a while, especially a tank that doesn’t contain real seawater, it’s not worth it. Check the color of the shell and make sure when you squeeze the sides there’s a little bit of “give”.
  3. If the live lobster has to sit at all before cooking, ensure that it’s in well-salted clean room-temperature water for as short a time as possible.
  4. Cook the live lobster quickly using the time-honored methods of lobstermen or people in those fishing areas. Here are the two simplest methods as published in a 1964 local cookbook:

    Do You Boil It Or Steam It?

    As far as I am concerned, “you takes [sic] your choice.” Either method is satisfactory, although I feel that steaming is preferable: there’s not as much water to drain out of the lobster when it comes out of the pot, and the meat texture seems firmer yet more tender … For boiling you need enough water (sea water if possible, otherwise well-salted water) for complete immersion. The water should be boiling briskly when you dunk the lobsters headfirst. When the water comes back to a boil let them cook for about 15 minutes. Take them out and put them on their backs to drain. Then serve them hot, with lots of melted butter … For steaming you need only an inch of water in the pot, and when you have a good head of steam drop them in and give them about 18 minutes of cooking. (A nice touch: put in ½ cup of sherry. The flavor and sweetness of the meat will be enhanced considerably.) Simple, isn’t it? And in my opinion, about as fine a way as there is to enjoy the full, true flavor and succulent meat of a Maine lobster. [Roux, William C. What’s Cooking Down In Maine. The Bond Wheelwright Co., 1964. p. 3 – 4.]

  5. Either enjoy it immediately, or pick the meat immediately and chill it for making lobster rolls.

  6. If making lobster rolls, make sure to use the correct bun. In New England it’s called a Frankfurter Bun (above, right, compared to hot dog buns at a Hannaford grocery in Maine), but in the rest of the country it’s generally known as a New England Roll (below, in a Piggly Wiggly in southeastern Ohio).

As the summer progressed I enjoyed lobster rolls in a number of restaurants and, more importantly, at roadside lobster shacks where things have generally been done a certain way for a very long time. The first lobster roll I had was at Red’s Eats in Wiscassett on May 2nd during the stand’s 80th anniversary year. Red’s has been popular in the area the entire time they’ve been open but have seen even more business since showing up on a food and travel show called “The Zimmern List”, on the Travel Channel in 2017. Many lobster rolls I had seen weren’t half as stuffed as the one I was served at Red’s. But the one at Red’s was considerably better than I had imagined such a thing could be. It came with sides of mayonnaise and melted butter, and I decided the butter was the way I wanted to go with it. That was definitely a good decision as the butter enhanced the flavor the way it should have on my first lobster thirty years before.

One of the interesting aspects of the lobster roll at Red’s Eats is that each one includes the meat from one whole tail and two whole claws, along with a literal handful of other picked meat. Detailed in the restaurant’s own book, Debbie Gagnon Cronk, Red’s daughter, the current owner and the face customers see at the shack’s window, was quoted as saying “If you want to cook and pick your own lobster meat, plan on 1 – 1-1/2 pound hard shell lobster or two to three 1 – 1-1/4 pound softshell lobsters per roll. (Do not use frozen lobster meat; that is a sin.)” [Cronk, Debbie Gagnon; Wright, Virginia. Red’s Eats: World Famous Lobster Shack. Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 2010, page 25].

Topping such a great lobster roll is no mean feat, but a couple months (and a number of lobster rolls) later I found the one I believe to be the best. Five Islands Lobster Co. near Georgetown, Maine, isn’t too far from Red’s Eats and was also represented on the same episode of Zimmern’s show on the Travel Channel.


The setting of the Five Islands Lobster Co., showing one of the three outdoor dining areas. The open ocean is just beyond the islands.

Five Islands is probably the freshest lobster shack in the area while also likely being the most fun. Located on a picturesque man-made peninsula in the Sheepscot River, there’s parking for dozens of cars and picnic table seating for at least a hundred diners. Five Lobsters is made up of three buildings. The farthest is the lobster building, where lobsters from the surrounding waters, along with other shellfish such as steamers and mussels, are prepped from live to either direct sale to customers in to go containers or as baskets to eat on-site. The “Love Shack” grill building offers the sweet and overstuffed lobster roll shown in the fist photo above, as well as other seafood preparations, burgers and sandwiches, and many other items. And the ice cream building offers desserts made of local products. Wandering the rocky shoreline nearby is also allowed, it’s only the active boating docks that are private and off-limits. The overall view, past Malden Island, Hen Island and Mink Island to the open ocean, is simply breathtaking.


A look into the kitchen at the lobster building at Five Islands Lobster Co. Note the bright unmuted color of the lobster’s shell, indicating the live animal’s freshness.

The difference between the lobster on the lobster roll at Red’s and at Five Islands is only a matter of what’s probably only a few hours in preparation, but there are enough differences in the characteristics of the lobster meat on the roll that the latter is the one I chose, even though I’ll also enjoy a lobster roll at Red’s Eats any chance I can get.

Authenticity matters. Recreating a dish like this with a personal flair to make it seem “high-end” so it fits a restaurant that’s not a lobster shack is disrespectful of the main ingredient, in this case the lobster, and does nothing to create an accurate representation of the named dish. Presenting such a dish the right way is the right thing to do. It’s what people who know the original dish expect, and it teaches accuracy to patrons who are unknowing of the original dish.

Authentic Maine/New England Lobster Roll


Franfurter Buns in Maine in my electric skillet with traditional Maine red hot dogs. This is how the buns should be prepared for lobster rolls.

The classic recipe is quite simple: It’s two cups lobster meat, cooked, chunked and chilled, folded with two tablespoons mayonnaise, and if desired ¼ cup finely-chopped celery. Butter and grill four frankfurter rolls (what the rest of the country calls a New England roll, a split hot dog bun having flat sides), maybe add one leaf of lettuce, then stuff the roll with the lobster meat mixture and serve.

Recipe: Phillips/Chesapeake Bay-style Crab Cakes


The finished crab cake sandwiches. Zack and Chris ate these two.

I hadn’t really planned on making crab cakes for Memorial Day. But I’d been looking for these cans of Phillips crab meat for some time and when I found them to be available at Meijer in Toledo last week for $10/can, I went ahead and bought these two cans. Phillips Foods in Baltimore, Maryland, has been processing crab since 1914 and has operated Phillips Seafood Restaurants since 1956. Phillips crab meat and other products are used in better restaurants across the country and is some of the best available.

While an enlisted individual in the US Navy I spent over six years living near the Chesapeake Bay. My oldest son was born at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, while Adam and Briahna were born in Chesapeake and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively. Of the many things I remember about living in that area, enjoying the fresh seafood is something I miss the most.

One of the more fun activities out there is a Crab Bake. Co-workers would buy bushels of steamed Chesapeake Bay crabs seasoned with Old Bay, the trademark seasoning of the area. We would spread newspapers out on tables and just dig into the crabs, enjoying every last morsel and finishing more bushels than I can recall. It was always the kind of “picnic” I could get into.

The crab meat in these cans is Indonesian wild-caught claw meat instead of the leg meat most people are used to. More brown in color than leg meat, claw meat also has a stronger flavor. This allows it to stand up better to seasonings and other flavors in the mix. It’s really ideal for something like a crab cake.

For these particular crab cakes the recipe on the back of the can calls for Phillips Seafood Seasoning. Unfortunately for this recipe, Phillips Seafood Seasoning is largely unavailable in the midwest. This I replaced with the venerable Old Bay. I also doubled the amount of dry mustard in the recipe. Why? I like mustard, that’s all.

I also made sure to use real mayonnaise, real unsalted butter and ground mustard instead of dry mustard. To me, these just add to the overall flavors.


Chris and Zack in the rain this evening doing a live piece on water safety at the Luna Pier beach.

While the resulting crab cakes each only use 1/4 lb of crab meat, each of us, 13abc reporter Zack Ottenstein and videographer Chris Henderson, along with myself, could only eat one sandwich each. The flavor of the crab cake is extremely good and the inside meat is nice and tender. But they’re very filling, we were simply full and none of us could eat a second sandwich right away.

I may be able to eat one now …


About to fold the crab meat into the rest of the mix.

Phillips Crab Cakes
(from the back of the can and modified)
serves 4

Ingredients
1 egg
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp prepared yellow mustard
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp parsley flakes
1 tsp Old Bay seafood seasoning
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1 lb crab meat

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F or set a skillet on the stovetop. Combine everything but the crab meat. Fold in the crab meat, then form into cakes. Either bake the cakes in the oven or pan-fry them in the skillet in a little melted butter. Serve on good buns with mayonnaise, lettuce and sliced tomato.

Scallops in Lobster Sauce at the Frog Leg Inn


A serving of Scallops in Lobster Sauce. Click the image for a larger version.

Scallops are grilled and arranged on a pillow of homemade spaetzle (german noodle) and finished with a creamy lobster sauce! Garnished with sliced pickled vegetables to give that hint of tartness the Germans are famous for. Chef John captures the finer side of Germany’s cuisine.

I don’t like lobster much at all … but this dish at the Frog Leg Inn was a bit on the exceptional side this evening. Are ya’ jealous? Good!

An Odd Way to Make New Friends, and Jeanne’s Café, Grand Haven, Michigan


The Smoked Salmon Omelet with cream cheese, capers and dill at Jeanne’s Café in Grand Haven, Michigan

I didn’t eat this omelet. Neither did Mary. Oddly enough, some biker we met at a rest area ate this particular Smoked Salmon Omelet.

Already, you’re definitely getting the wrong image of the guy. Believe you me, we had an entirely different image of him at first, which was also quite wrong.

Lemme tell you this story …

 Traveling along I-96 last Wednesday we pulled into the rest area just west of Lansing near Portland, Michigan. We pulled in next to a Harley with a lovely young lady standing next to it. We were guessing she was in her early 20s. In the rest room I spotted the other rider … a man obviously in his 40s. My first thought was, “Wow he’s way too old for her.” As Mary and I were walking back to the van she was thinking exactly the same thing. That was, until the guy turned to us and innocently asked, “Would you take a picture of my daughter and I?”

Oops.

It turned out Alexandra is only 14 but, like my own Briahna, easily looks older then that. She and her dad John are from Windsor, Ontario, and had rented the Harley from a shop in Farmington Hills. I would learn later her dad had promised her this trip on her 12th birthday so, as she put it later, “I had to wait two years for this!”

But I digress.

We chatted a bit at the rest area. We told them we were headed for Grand Haven. John and Alexandra had been headed for Traverse City but felt there wasn’t time, so they were headed for South Haven. We chatted a bit more, said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Or so we’d thought.

You know how, every once in a while, some really odd coincidence will happen, and the world will suddenly seem very small? That happened to us the following morning when we were leaving the hotel and Mary said, “Hey, isn’t that … ???” There they were, John and Alexandra, leaving the hotel in front of us! We don’t recall telling them exactly where we were staying, so the odds of us showing up at the same hotel some 80 or so miles from where they were headed are somewhat astronomical.


John and Alexandra in front of Jeanne’s Café with their Harley.

As I’d mentioned in yesterday’s post I was already planning on dropping Mary off for her morning sessions and heading for Jeanne’s Café so I told John about the 25 omelets there. When I got to the restaurant, John waved me over to their table. We had a most enjoyable visit, while at the same time enjoying some of Jeanne’s wonderful omelets.


Jeanne’s Seafood Omelet

I knew what I wanted. The previous evening I’d had some of Jeanne’s wonderful Smoked Salmon at the Michigan Association of Mayors reception near the Grand River and I knew that same salmon was in the Smoked Salmon Omelet. John ordered the Smoked Salmon Omelet shown in the first photo and obviously loved it. (Alexandra had ordered the pancakes and said they were also quite good.) But Jeanne had told me of her Seafood Omelet, containing both crab and shrimp, some Swiss cheese, all topped with hollandaise sauce. I’ve always enjoyed a good seafood omelet, particularly one containing crab. This particular omelet was rather good and the Hollandaise sauce was a perfect complement to it. I’m glad I ordered it.

[Yes, I know that’s not real crab, and Jeanne herself had mentioned this the night before. Just because it’s imitation crab doesn’t mean the omelet’s not good. It was delightful, actually. At over $20/lb right now, real crab likely won’t make it into any omelet I eat any time soon, so I’ll certainly take it this way.]


The exterior.

After feeding Mary and the other city leaders Jeanne came back to her café to chat with customers. After spending some time at our table she was off chatting with others … but after a while came back. She asked if I had my camera as she wanted to show some of the buffet photos from the previous evening to some new friends. After sending John and Alexandra on their way I headed to the table Jeanne wanted me to speak with. It turned out the folks there were Larry and Lisa from the Cocoa Cottage Bed & Breakfast further north in Whitehall. I’d heard of their B&B before, and Mary and I had talked about visiting such a place where chocolate is a way of life. We’ll have to head up there sometime.


You guessed it … the interior.

The following morning I once again dropped Mary off for her sessions and went back to Jeanne’s Café for another omelet. After going through the list of 24 possibilities (I planned on something different from the Seafood Omelet) I settled on the Philly, with its roast beef, sautéed onion, green pepper and mushrooms, some Swiss cheese and a side of cream cheese. The dark rye toast seemed appropriate for this omelet.


The Philly Omelet

So far this one’s my favorite. The roast beef was tender and juicy. There were just enough veggies and cheese to give the impression of a good Philly Cheesesteak sandwich without going overboard. And as Jeanne had told me, the cream cheese made for an excellent topping.

One thing I really enjoy doing is making friends at out-of-the-way restaurants the locals go to but that we’d normally never hear of. There in Grand Haven, with Jeanne’s catering service and her café, and with John and Alexandra unexpectedly showing up in the mix as a nice bonus … this is a place, a city, a group of friends Mary and I plan on visiting again when we can.

A word of warning: The backs of the t-shirts read, “PLEASE don’t feed the waitresses”. I get the feeling that’s a sentence we should all heed …

Jeanne’s Catering, Grand Haven, Michigan


Baguette Slices with Roast Pork Loin and Pumpkin-Chipotlé Ceviché

This past Wednesday evening as the Michigan Association of Mayors Summer Workshop got underway in Grand Haven, Michigan, I got the chance to make a new friend. I tend to leave Mary on her own in these situations as we’re most certainly not at these events for my own benefit. While she was off reconnecting with other folks from last years’ summer workshop, such as Mayor Janiece “Chi Chi” Rogers of Rockford, Mayor Gerri Moen of Howell, Mayor Bob May of Hastings, and Mayor Roger Bergman and City Manager Pat McGinnis of Grand Haven, I was off taking pictures of … well … of course … the food.


Asparagus wrapped in Phyllo Dough and Prosciutto

The people I found on the other side of the buffet under a tent near the Grand River were Jeanne Welling and her Aunt Sally. Jeanne was the one who made a lot of the main dishes, but she made sure to give credit for the delicate desserts to Aunt Sally. Between the two of them they can knock an event such as this one right out of the park, and at the same time make it look easy.


Members of the Michigan Association of Mayors enjoy the evening buffet prepared by Jeanne Welling and Jeanne’s Aunt Sally.

As I chatted with Jeanne I learned quite a bit about what she does. She owns a restaurant called Jeanne’s Café on Robbins Rd., there in Grand Haven off highway 31. The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, closing at 2 in the afternoon. But while it’s only open a short time each day, she also told me she offers 25 different omelets on her menu. Yes, you read that correctly … 25 different omelets. Longtime readers will know of my hankering for a good omelet and that Adam and I have done omelet buffets for groups in the past. I was immediately making plans to visit Jeanne’s restaurant the following morning.


Jeanne’s Smoked Salmon Platter

It seems that, when Jeanne was trying to start the catering portion of her business, no bank would lend her the money. Her customers, whom should properly be called her “patrons”, didn’t like this one bit. Five of them came forward and put together the money Jeanne needed to get the business going. The results are as you see here; beautifully-made food for private, corporate or government events, which tastes as good as or even better than it looks.


Monroe Mayor Mark Worrell chats with Mary at the reception Wednesday evening.

All of us, city leaders, spouses and assistants alike, ended up heading back for more from the delectable buffet created by Jeanne and Aunt Sally. At one point Jeanne quipped, “I guess they didn’t like the salmon”. Of course she was smiling … all that was left was the skin! The group had made fast work of almost everything on the buffet with wonderful comments coming from from every table. This was a truly enjoyable buffet, made by people who know and appreciate good food.


A display of Aunt Sally’s two-bite Key Lime Pie desserts

As I’d mentioned earlier, I was already planning on visiting Jeanne’s restaurant the following morning. I wasn’t feeling too badly about dropping Mary off at the Grand Haven Community Center the next morning and heading over to Jeanne’s Café for a breakfast on my own. Jeanne had already told me she was cooking breakfast for the group at the Community Center anyway. So much for the Association’s agenda, which indicated the attendees should eat at the hotel as there’d be a fuller breakfast there.

And little did I know. I ended up with breakfast with some unexpected new friends at the Café myself the next morning …