East End Eats: Rockin’ the Roll

The difference between a lobster roll and a lobster salad roll
A lobster roll from the Clam Bar Laura Donnelly

“What we talk about when we talk about lobster rolls are ingredients.” Ha! I’ll bet that’s the first time Raymond Carver has been paraphrased in a lobster salad roll story! But that really is what it’s all about: ingredients.

People have very strong opinions about what should go into the roll. So first of all, let’s straighten out the difference between a lobster roll and a lobster salad roll. A lobster roll is served warm with no more than melted butter drizzled over the meat, and hopefully presented on a toasted and buttered bun. A lobster salad roll is cold, with the lobster meat lightly bound with mayonnaise, and perhaps a bit of celery and/or red onion, depending on one’s taste.

I recently conducted a random taste test of various lobster salad rolls available in our area. Because it was a random tasting, several well-known lobster joints did not make the list, but this does not make them any less worthy of mention. In an informal, “lazy research,” a.k.a. Facebook, poll, many folks voted for the Canal Cafe in Hampton Bays. I have had this roll and can vouch for its exceptional quality. Also not on the list: the Lobster Roll, also known as Lunch. I have had plenty of lobster and lobster salad rolls from here and they, too, are swell.

The lobster salad rolls I did try came from the Seafood Shop in Wainscott, Loaves and Fishes in Sagaponack, Duryea’s and Gosman’s of Montauk, the Clam Bar on the Napeague stretch, Lulu’s Kitchen and Bar, and Dock House in Sag Harbor. The prices varied wildly from $18 (Seafood Shop) to $38 (Duryea’s). The quality of every single one was consistently good, with only slight variations in additions and serving size.

A lot of people think that the lobster meat used in restaurants, takeout establishments, and seafood markets comes from local, freshly caught, steamed in-house, and cleaned-by-employees lobsters. This is not the case, so get over yourself. Most places use the precooked, shelled, and Cryovac-sealed meat from Maine and Canada, sometimes in combination with freshly caught, depending on prices.

The Seafood Shop sources its lobster meat from a company called Rocky Point. Alex Fausto pointed out that some companies add a considerable amount of water, increasing the cost. The categories are C.K., T.C.K., and B.C.K., that is: claws and knuckles; tails, claws and knuckles, and broken claws and knuckles. The Seafood Shop generally uses half pre-shelled, half fresh, and all fresh if lobster are plentiful. At $18, its no frills lobster salad roll served on a hot dog bun was the best value and absolutely delicious.

The first one (of the season) I tried was at the Clam Bar, and there is something to be said for atmosphere. Being able to sit outside on one of our rare, warm spring days, with a stiff ocean breeze and a cold can of Montauk Driftwood Ale, this was a delightful interlude. The salad had a tiny amount of minced celery and the platter came with a lemon wedge and coleslaw. I am a firm believer in a spritz of lemon to heighten the sweetness of the lobster and cut through the richness of the mayo. This roll was $26. 

The next roll (and the only one I tried in a restaurant) was at Lulu’s Kitchen and Bar in Sag Harbor. It was served on a toasted, buttered, house-made brioche roll, with a huge mount of sweet potato fries, some tart slaw, and grilled lemon half. The lobster meat was more finely chopped than others, which I don’t mind at all.

Next was Dock House in Sag Harbor, on Long Wharf. This place looks like what you want a seafood shanty to look like. It is tiny and rustic, with a small menu and a few stools in front of a window where you can enjoy looking at the boats in the marina. At $22.50, this one was served with a bag of chips, a lemon wedge, lettuce, and tomato. It had the biggest portion of lobster salad of all the ones I tried, and the quality was excellent. This was one of my favorites, and not just because it’s in my ’hood!

Loaves and Fishes was next, and it is well known for charging the highest price for its lobster salad. For comparison, Dock House charges $58.50 per pound, the Seafood Shop’s is $70 per pound, and the salad from Loaves and Fishes is $100 per pound. Its roll is $28 and is served on house-made ciabatta bread. The salad has dill and capers in it. Sacrilege? I think not. Of all the salads tasted, this one had the highest quality and most tender chunks of meat, probably mostly knuckle.

The last two I tried were at Gosman’s ($28) and Duryea’s ($38). The Gosman’s roll was very tasty. It was well seasoned with celery and red onion and served on a toasted hot dog bun. The Duryea’s version was even better, served with very salty sweet potato chips and a zippy purple cabbage slaw. The bun was buttered and grilled on the outside so it stayed crisp.

A number of chefs and restaurateurs commented on the cost of this treat. Robert Durkin, former owner and chef of Robert’s in Water Mill, said, “There is a reason lobster rolls and lobster salad command the price they do. It’s called yield. One and a halfs and deuces (two-pounders) yield the best meat to shell ratio, and after 25 five years of working with them, 25 percent is the best that can be expected. So if the wholesale price is $10 per pound, that makes the usable lobster meat $40 per pound for the chef. So to produce a respectable lobster roll, you’ll be required to use near a half a pound of meat, or near $20 in raw ingredients prior to roll, accompaniments, and labor.”

Chef Brian Futerman replied: “I made some lobster salad this weekend and I picked the meat from five fresh lobsters. It’s worth the work, but expensive, the meat was over $55 a pound in a yield test. If you want good lobster salad, don’t complain about the price. . . . It’s also a lot of work to get those bugs alive to the market.”

Summer’s coming, and I’ll bet you’ve now got a hankering for a fresh lobster salad roll enjoyed on a deck or beach or boat. 

I’m going to make pilgrimages to the North Fork Table’s food truck in Southold and Canal Cafe for my next rolls, for those two got the most votes for the best. In the meantime, I’m going to make my own, with homemade mayonnaise and a spritz of fresh lemon.

Click for recipes.