Category: Restaurants

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.


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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Chef Buddha’s Recipe: Skyroom Hoosier Chicken & Noodles, Indiana Beach, Monticello, Indiana


A batch of Hoosier Chicken & Noodles in the Skyroom Kitchen at Indiana Beach Amusement Resort, Monticello, Indiana, made by Chef Buddha on June 14, 2015.

The summer of 2015 was … odd for me. Back in 1979 I’d spent the summer cooking at a YMCA camp in Irons, Michigan, and had a hackuva time up there. I was fresh out of high school and on my own for the first time, cooking three meals a day for kids out of central Chicago. To say there were problems was an understatement, but those ten weeks were still a lot of fun. I never thought I’d do such a thing again.

So it was strange this past May 6th for me, a 53-year-old man, to head out at 7 in the morning to drive five hours to an amusement park in central Indiana, driving away from my wife, kids and grandkids, to what was supposed to be only a 100-day position running a 50-year-old restaurant at the park. Getting there at noon, there was a Sysco truck waiting, along with the people I’d spend the whole summer with. We spent the next eight hours putting things away and starting prep for the Mother’s Day Brunch on the 10th.

Things rarely slowed down in Monticello after that.


The Skyroom dining room on the morning of August 16, 2015.

The Skyroom Restaurant at Indiana Beach Amusement Resort had an elegance over its five decades, serving Shrimp Cocktail, Prime Rib, Steaks, Salmon, Cobb Salads, even a Chateaubriand for Two. The various Chefs over the years would do Luau buffets with whole roast pig, Pasta Nights with fresh pasta dishes being made at an impromptu station in the glass-walled dining room overlooking the park, and many other special events. By the time I got there this past May tastes had, of course, changed. Diners don’t select dishes like Chateaubriand at amusement parks anymore, and we served fewer Shrimp Cocktails than ever. We still did some Pasta Nights and Luaus, but more burgers, steaks and salmon. The porkchops were alright, but when we ended up with some seriously nicer ones for a special they did better. The Skyroom has more of a “pub” feel now, which is fine. It’s still a great place to eat.

As the location is an amusement park people would come from all over to work there. Of course the locals and college kids came and went as staff, but there was an international program as well, pulling in staff from Jordan, Romania, and many other countries. Our own Jenelle Solomon, a vegetarian from St. Elizabeth, “the bread basket of Jamaica”, was there for her fifth season, grilling the best salmon and steaks anyone had ever tasted while honestly never trying them herself. Jesus “Chewy” Dominguez had come up from outside Mexico City for his 21st season this summer, and could cook up just about anything you asked him to. When he made Cream of Mushroom Soup this summer for the first time ever, just guessing the recipe while using fresh mushrooms and heavy cream with 36% milkfat, the result was astonishing.

But the real backbone of the Skyroom, the man who was there for most of the restaurant’s existence so far, was Chef Buddha. Robert M. “Buddha” White had started working at Indiana Beach out on the piers at the tender age of 13. This was his 47th year at the park, most of them spent moving up through the ranks in the Skyroom until he was appropriately named as Chef. But that’s not all he did … He was also a county Sheriff’s Deputy for 34 of those years, along with being SWAT Team Commander, while spending every summer at the Skyroom. To say he was a proud and hard worker is an extreme understatement.

When I first met Chef Buddha in May I watched as the entire staff, those who had been there many years themselves, treated him like gold. I instantly understood the serious respect he had earned over the years from everyone around him. And when my wife showed up for her first of many visits to the park on May 22nd, Chef Buddha took the time to sit down with her in the dining room for a long and friendly chat.

One of the things I’d heard many times from Chef Buddha was that he had wished he and I had met earlier. We shared lot of similar interests and, as he was only six years my senior, a lot of common experiences outside of our work areas. And as I’ve developed a keen interest as an amateur food historian, he told me it was nice to have someone to discuss the Skyroom’s history with.

Early in the 2015 season I’d heard about an older special, the Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles, that was apparently last served during the 2008 season. On June 5th I asked Chef Buddha about this dish. He replied it was in his head, and had simply never been written down. The Spackman’s had founded the park in 1926, and the Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles special was a Spackman family recipe that was then tweaked by Chef Buddha and an earlier Chef Dave via discussions, nothing more. So I promptly asked for it. As you can see in the above photo, he wrote it down, taking over an hour to cover an entire page with the details.

After writing the recipe down for me, Chef Buddha told us Tom Spackman had the following policy: “You only serve peas on Sunday, and you’d better have peas on Sunday, and you only serve peas with this dish.” It turns out Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles had defined Sunday in the older iterations of the Skyroom. It’s the kind of tradition the Skyroom’s caretakers and diners had drifted away from over the years. Without realizing it, I was just as guilty as any of them. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful those days will return.

As he was becoming quite ill, we saw less and less of Chef Buddha as the season went on, and by mid-August he had stopped coming to the Skyroom. In late September I received a text from his phone, a photo sent by his longtime girlfriend Kathy, showing them getting married on September 20th. We lost Chef Buddha to cancer on October 3rd. I was in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when Kathy sent me the news that morning. I cried like a baby.

When I think about it, I realize I had only known Chef Buddha for a couple of months. It’s amazing the kind of impact some people can have on your life over a very short period of time. There are people I proudly say are more like family to me. Chef Buddha is near the top of that list.

My wife and I have discussed my getting a Buddha figurine for the fireplace, with it wearing a Chef’s toque. It seems only fitting.

Merry Christmas, Chef Buddha. I’ll see ya’ later.

Sunday Hoosier Chicken & Noodles Special
Chef Robert M. “Buddha” White, June 5, 2015

Ingredients
5 lb ½” diced white chicken
1-1/2 gal 2% milk
4-1/2 qt 36% heavy cream
Extra wide egg noodles (aka “butter noodles”)
Fresh basil
½ lb cornstarch
Chicken base to taste
Cold water
Peas, frozen
Mashed potatoes, hot
Chicken gravy, hot

Method: Thaw and heat the diced chicken in a 4″ full-size hotel pan. Sprinkle chopped fresh basil over the chicken and set aside. Also, make a slurry with the cornstarch and cold water and set aside as well.

Combine the milk and cream in a heavy-bottom pot. Add enough chicken base to get a golden color and good chicken flavor. While stirring often, cook over medium-high heat to just before boiling. Slowly add the slurry while constantly whisking until thickened. Remove from heat immediately.

Pour the thickened cream sauce over the chicken, cover with plastic film and foil, and keep hot in the steam table. Also cook the green peas al dente and keep them hot separately. Cook egg noodles (aka “butter noodles”) to 80%, drain, rinse with cold water, and keep cold.

To Serve: Rejuvenate noodles in pasta pot. Place scoop of hot mashed potatoes at one end of an oval plate, off-center. Ladle heated chicken gravy over potatoes. Put egg noodles on plate diagonally, and ladle the chicken mixture over the noodles. Serve with green peas on end of the plate next to the mashed potatoes.

Buffet Style: Prepare cream sauce and egg noodles as described. Cook green peas till al dente. Combine cream sauce, noodles and green peas. Present on buffet in 4″ full-size hotel pan.

In-Progress: Allergen and Info Icons for Online Restaurant Menus


It’s not completely ready yet, but this is what it looks like.

In working on various web sites for restaurants, I’ve found there really aren’t any good methods for displaying menus. Using JPG images of menu pages or even PDFs of those pages flies in the face of a lot of what people believe should be done, so they’re termed “unacceptable”. Many restaurant web sites are built using the WordPress platform. Plugins for restaurant menus for said platform makes sense. But many of the restaurant menu plugins that work aren’t up-to-date with the current platform, and the ones that are updated correctly are missing some vital features, including being responsive enough to work well on smart phones.

It also stands to reason that WordPress crosses international boundaries. For example, as of Dec. 13, 2014, 14 allergen icos are required on restaurant menus in the UK. But none of the available WordPress plugins address the use of those icons.

What we’ve ended up doing is to begin the development of a new plugin for WordPress that creates restaurant menus the way we want to see them. Above are some of the icons we’ve assembled for use in the plugin, including the official UK icons, along with some other icons developers might want to use. They’re not quite ready yet, but at least we have some progress.

We hope to have the plugin ready in a month or so, if only to be able to test it on our own web sites prior to releasing it into the wild.

We’ll see how it goes …

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009 at the Occoquan Inn, Occoquan, VA


A slice of the fresh Blue Ribbon Pumpkin Pie, with whipped cream. Dessert first, right? Other available desserts were an Apple Cinnamon Cobbler and a Chocolate Coffee Mousse.

We’d been planning this trip for a while: Spending Thanksgiving with Mary’s youngest son, LCpl John Winckowski, USMC, just north of where he’s stationed at Quantico, south of Washington, DC. It fell to me to find a place for Thanksgiving dinner so I headed to Serious Eats out of New York City to ask the question:

We’ll be in the Potomac Mills area for Thanksgiving. Does anyone have any suggestions for a decent (i.e., comfortable, pleasant, not fast food) restaurant for 6 or so for dinner? Doesn’t quite matter if it’s a “traditional” Thanksgiving Day meal, although that would be preferred.

The first answer, from user Womandingo, included the following:

Alas, the Woodbridge area is not known for its culinary diversity. You might want to come a few miles north on I-95 to Occoquan, a really pretty place right on the river where there are some lovely little locally-owned restaurants … One really nice place in Occoquan is The Garden Kitchen – http://www.gardenkitchen.com/home – I don’t know if they’re doing a Thanksgiving dinner, but I would be surprised if they weren’t … Check out the Occoquan Inn, another pretty place, that IS serving Thanksgiving dinner and taking reservations now – http://www.occoquaninn.com/occinn.php … I wish I could give you better information about the area around Potomac Mills, but, alas, it’s just not designed for gourmands – or even people who want to eat better than fast food … Good luck.

Womandingo is quite correct about the lack of diversity around the Potomac Mills Shopping Center itself. The area is loaded with chains, ranging from White Castle to 5 Guys, Denny’s to Chili’s and Applebee’s and just about everything else. It’s just not well-suited for anything close to a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner, especially a dinner to share with someone who’s had mostly Mess Hall food for months at a time.

After a couple false starts I finally nailed down a noon reservation for us for Thanksgiving dinner at the Occoquan Inn in Occoquan, Virginia, for their limited menu from noon to 4 p.m., the only time the Inn would be open on Thanksgiving Day. Womandingo’s other suggestion, The Garden Inn, a block away from the Occoquan Inn, was closed for Thanksgiving.

A brass historical marker on the front of the Occoquan Inn indicates the older construction is circa 1780, although the framed copy of the ghost story next to the marker places construction in 1810. The building, the village itself, the river that runs through the valley behind the Inn … this is all authentic older America. Occoquan’s city hall is a converted one-room schoolhouse, one which is quite similar to the circa 1861 schoolhouse Briahna lives in.

We arrived at the restaurant shortly before noon and, as other guests headed behind the Inn to the river, we were the first ones seated. It turned out our reservation was for the table near the center of the front window, making for a beautiful view of the village. By 12:10, the Inn was packed with guests.


Mary, John and Briahna after being seated.

For the rest of this post, I’ll let the photos basically speak for themselves. This was a beautiful meal. If you have a chance to enjoy eating at the Occoquan Inn as we did, make sure you do. Thanks Womandingo!


While you may not think of shrimp as an appetizer for Thanksgiving, Mary’s family does follow this tradition. These were plump and flavorful shrimp, with a wonderful dipping sauce.


Marinated mushroom caps, with whipped cream cheese with bacon and balsamic. The filling was incredibly light and airy with a rich flavor.


Baby spinach salad with hot bacon dressing and boiled egg. The spinach couldn’t have been fresher or crispier. A Ceasar salad was also available, as were a Virginia Clam Chowder and a Blue Crab Bisque. Briahna and I had the chowder and while it’s almost impossible to get a good photo of, it was positively stunning.


The Traditional Tom Turkey Dinner with roasted turkey, stock gravy, baked ham (which wasn’t listed on the menu), country-style stuffing, sweet potatoes, whipped potatoes, crisp fresh vegetables and housemade cranberry sauce. This plate was huge, piled high, and quite simply, too much wonderful food to finish with desserts in-sight! Other available entrees were Roast Prime Rib of Beef with horseradish sauce, Baked Rockfish Supreme in an herb marinade with shrimp and wild rice, and Chicken Imperial stuffed with blue crab and a lemon Hollandaise sauce.

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