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Have a Lobster Roll: The “It” Sandwich of Summer 2012

Lobster roll at Legal Sea Foods (credit: Legal Sea Foods)

Lobster roll at Legal Sea Foods (credit: Legal Sea Foods)

By Jennifer Zyman
For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Some say the lobster roll was developed as a vehicle for well-heeled ladies to daintily eat the decadent crustacean at luncheons. Others say it was born to utilize the leftover parts of picked lobster. The stories of its origin are as varied as its preparations.

A few things are certainly required though: A top-sliced bun, a good swipe of butter and a luscious heap of fresh Maine lobster.

For many local chefs, the lobster roll isn’t just a trendy warm weather menu staple. It’s a study in nostalgia from time spent in New England where it serves, without question, as the official sandwich of summer. Thanks to these chefs, the lobster roll is giving the tomato sandwich a run for its money this season in Atlanta.

Levinson with her lobster roll (Becky Stein, special)

Levinson with her lobster roll (Becky Stein, special)

“It’s the quintessential summer food. It makes me long for salty ocean air,” says Jenny Levinson, the Souper Jenny chef who was inspired by the lobster shacks she loved during her childhood visits to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

Levinson was one of the first to offer lobster rolls to our crustacean-starved town three years ago. It’s become a fan favorite ever since. Levinson, who has always put health and wellness on the same level as deliciousness, makes her lobster salad with a scant amount of mayo, celery, chives, and salt and pepper. She adds a spin with a dense fresh black pepper and thyme bun from Smyrna-based The Grateful Bread Company instead of the traditional top-split roll. The sandwich is available June, July and August at Souper Jenny from 5p.m. to 10p.m. on Thursdays during her weekly Grilled Cheese nights.

Bite's tarragon-tinged lobster roll

Bite's tarragon-tinged lobster roll (Becky Stein, special)

Thanks to the large number of Northerners that have settled in Alpharetta, this suburb has become a hotbed for Northern staples, such as New York-style pizza and bagels. Now add lobster rolls. At Bite, Sous-chef Jason Morgan pushed his boss, Leif Johnson, to put his recipe on the menu. The year-round item is a bestseller.

A relative newcomer to the Atlanta culinary scene, Morgan fell in love with the combination of tarragon and lobster when working under chef Chris Hall of The Local Three. According to Morgan, his lobster roll isn’t traditional because of the bun. He uses a denser black pepper and thyme – the same one that Souper Jenny uses. Morgan takes claw and knuckle meat and dresses it in a homemade aioli, adds crunch with chopped celery and shallots, and brightened with lime zest, fresh tarragon, chives, and basil. He adds a little pickled red onion on top to cut the relative heaviness of the sandwich. It’s an inspired touch.

JCT. Kitchen & Bar in West Midtown serves a more straightforward version because chef/owner Ford Fry likes to keep it “as pure as possible.” Using whole Maine lobster, the kitchen tosses the meat to order with lobster infused mayo, lemon, diced celery, and chives before stuffing into a buttered and griddled top-sliced bun. Fry says he developed the roll when doing research for his newly opened seafood restaurant, The Optimist, which also serves a slightly fancier version at lunch and dinner made with lobster poached in butter to order.

You can’t talk about lobster rolls in Atlanta without mentioning New England transplant, Legal Sea Foods. The restaurant chain has been serving the sandwich since the 1970s according to Marketing Director, Ida Farber. Each sandwich holds a little over a pound of lobster dressed in a tiny amount of celery mayonnaise, lemon and scallion. Farber says they intentionally include all of parts so customers get the “full experience of a lobster and the enjoyment of the different flavors and textures.” The salad is served on a warm, buttered and toasted top-split brioche bun. It’s one of Atlanta’s most traditional versions although many local chefs produce equally exceptional variations.

Chef Todd Ginsberg of Bocado in West Midtown may be best known for his burger stack. But his lobster roll — my favorite of all I tasted — has an underground following. Ginsberg prepares only 20 of these babies each Saturday, and he regularly sells out by 8p.m. Ginsberg says he was inspired by summer family driving trips to Maine from his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

“The bun is where you start,” Ginsberg says. So he tasked Holeman and Finch Bread Co. with developing a top-sliced bun modeled after the hot dog buns he grew up eating at Fenway Park. He butters and toasts both sides of the bun, covers the interior in a sheer amount of mayo and lines it with bibb lettuce. For the salad, Ginsberg tosses claws and tails cooked in court bouillon in homemade mayo infused with tarragon, parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Each diner gets roughly one lobster worth of meat in each sandwich.

Chef Richard Blais’ “Knuckle sandwich” recalls Long Island, where he grew up. At his new Midtown restaurant, The Spence, he uses a top-sliced brioche-style Holeman & Finch bun for his “three-bite” sandwich, served two to the order. He takes fresh lobster knuckles that he specially orders and tosses them in a smoked aioli. Blais says his version is “a study in simplicity,” though he tops them with pickled celery and mustard seeds.

For Blais, the sandwich is a way to share a part of his heritage with Atlanta. “One of the things I struggle with being a chef in a Southern city is that I didn’t grow up on fried green tomatoes. This, this is what I grew up with.”

Lobster love from Souper Jenny (Becky Stein, special)

Lobster love from Souper Jenny (Becky Stein, special)

Souper Jenny: 56 East Andrews Drive NW. Atlanta, 30305. 404-239-9023. Price: $15.

Bite: 11500 Webb Bridge Way. Alpharetta, 30005. 770-754-5500. Price: $13.

JCT Kitchen and Bar: 1198 Howell Mill Road. Atlanta, 30318. (404) 355-2252. Price: Market price.

The Optimist: 914 Howell Mill Road. Atlanta, 30318. 404-477-6260. Price: Market price.

Legal Sea Foods: 275 Baker Street NW. Atlanta, GA 30313. 678-500-3700. www.legalseafoods.com. Price: $24.95.

Bocado: 887 Howell Mill Road. Atlanta, 30318. 404-815-1399. Price: $21.

The Spence: 75 Fifth Street NW. Atlanta, 30308. 404-892-9111. Price: $16.

37 comments Add your comment

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jimmy

July 12th, 2012
8:53 am

Nice work Jen, need to try some of these. I really liked the octopus bar version too.

FM Fats

July 12th, 2012
9:01 am

Atlanta is what, 4 years behind on the lobster roll “trend”?

SP

July 12th, 2012
9:13 am

Must’ve been horrible having to try those sandwiches out all over town, lol! :)

Adam

July 12th, 2012
9:17 am

I second that Octopus Bar Lobster roll.

Jennifer Zyman

July 12th, 2012
9:20 am

It really was terrible, SP. Torture even.

Must try the lobster roll (and numerous other things) at Octopus bar, Jimmy and Adam. Our new addition has been keeping me from late night eats.

GadgetGeek

July 12th, 2012
9:45 am

I have not tried all of the GOOD places for Lobsta rolls but of the ones I’ve tried I am liking the roll from Bite the best.

Carrie B

July 12th, 2012
9:46 am

Yes!!! I keep trying to hit Octopus Bar and failing, even without the new addition. Maybe I can get there this weekend!

Ruth

July 12th, 2012
9:53 am

Lobster is cheaper than beef this year, everywhere but some places in Atlanta it appears.
If it is over $15 it is just soaking the suckers.

chris w

July 12th, 2012
9:54 am

I third Octopus Bar.

Great sandwich!

July 12th, 2012
9:57 am

Where can I buy the traditional top-split hot dog rolls in Atlanta? Those are a MUST and I can’t consider it a real lobster roll without them! Anyone know? I assme H & F Bread doesn’t sell them to the public?

Atlantan

July 12th, 2012
9:58 am

I had a great lobster or 5 in Maine – can’t beat just caught lobster. In Atlanta I liked the one at the Optimist – very similar to the ones you get in New England.

Angus

July 12th, 2012
10:04 am

Our lobster roll is my shout out to my years working in Maine. We have had it on our menu since the day we opened. Many of these chefs come to octopus come to octopus to get there fix come check it out!

Bama Man

July 12th, 2012
10:51 am

I am a true southern cuisine fan, but I lived in Maine for 3 years, the best lobster rolls were lobster cooked in the morning, tossed with a little Mayo and lemon, with a nice fresh “hot dog” like bun toasted. Lobster is kept alive til cooking, so if these places are not cooking their own lobsters or letting the lobster sit for a while, that would be a problem. The best true lobster roll I ever had was at the Town Landing “a small grocery store” on the water in Falmouth, Maine. Porthole in Portland Maine does a crazy good lobster sandwich on home made Brioche. Lobster should be the star, hold the tarragon and thyme please. Ford Fry seams to get the point.

Sophie's Choice

July 12th, 2012
11:49 am

*Moan* Lobster rolls…now I’m craving one! Thanks for this review, Ms. Z– good to know where the best ones can be found.

Kirk

July 12th, 2012
12:56 pm

I don’t ever crave lobster. John, you made me want to try them all.I am now going to try one by Friday. Thanks a whole pantload..

Jennifer Zyman

July 12th, 2012
1:28 pm

Great sandwich!, I am trying to find somewhere to buy the top-split rolls myself because my husband and daughter have requested I make them some lobster rolls this weekend. I will let you know what I find although I may just go with Holeman’s hot dog buns that they often sell at Peachtree Road Farmers’ Market.

Tom

July 12th, 2012
1:53 pm

The lobster roll @ Steamhouse Lounge is the closest I’ve found that resembles those that I craved while living in New England. Simple lobster meat on a roll w/ drawn butter on the side. I’ve never been a fan of the potato salad like lobster roll.

Purist

July 12th, 2012
2:05 pm

I’m with Tom. Ones like the pic from Souper Jenny that are dripping in mayo are either trying to hide something (processed or canned lobster meat) or missing the point. It’s supposed to be Lobster Love, not Mayonnaise Madness. I’m fine with a touch, but that sandwich in the picture is mayo overkill.

Ray's

July 12th, 2012
2:22 pm

You left out Ray’s in the City!

Ford

July 12th, 2012
11:07 pm

Brian Horn (my corp chef) and I recently got back from participating in the lobster roll rumble. The one that won “people’s choice” was from Maine and all it was was that semi sweet Hawaiian bread, fresh cooked lobster meat and a smear of mayo …probably Helmans at that! That’s it!

Bhorsoft

July 13th, 2012
8:28 am

About 20 years ago in Boston I remember McDonalds serving up a McLobster sandwich. It looked suspiciously like the lobster rolls in your photos. Never did try it as whole lobsters were cheap and available.

Jackie

July 13th, 2012
8:47 am

Coming from Rhode Island I LOVE lobster rolls. Now that we’ve mastered the lobster roll can we move on the whole fried clams? The only establishment to my knowledge that serves them in Atlanta is Legal Seafoods and they are not great. PLEASE!!!

FM Fats

July 13th, 2012
8:48 am

Best one I ever had was at Nunan’s Lobster Hut near the Bush family compound by Kennebunkport.

Mike White

July 13th, 2012
1:30 pm

Try and new King’s Hawaiian Hot Dog bun very close to a Losbster roll and has a lot more flavor.

Gomulet

July 13th, 2012
3:29 pm

Huh? The “it” sandwich? These have been popular for a long time in the NE. Why does Atlanta insist on things having to be trendy, especially staples that are quite old?

Veronica

July 13th, 2012
3:44 pm

The $5 lobster roll at a bakery so far into Alpharetta I thought I was past Cumming is the best one I have tasted so far, in the ATL, I mean. On Sat and Sun, a bakery called Once Upon a Cake lets “Fred” use a corner of their store to sell his lobster rolls. He flys in the lobsters on Friday, bakes the bread on site early on Saturday mornings and assembles your lobster roll in front of you. They are fresh, simple, delicious and affordable! Definitely worth the drive!!
5165 Atlanta Hwy. Suite 210, Alpharetta Tel: 770.654.9757

Sometimes Publix Shopper

July 13th, 2012
5:03 pm

Great Sandwich – Try Publix. I’ve seen the top split buns there before. Good luck.

Jennifer Zyman

July 14th, 2012
10:00 am

Veronica, I called for the story bc I have heard great things, but the girl on the phone said they don’t have it anymore bc of a sourcing issue.

Cathy

July 14th, 2012
12:25 pm

The best lobster roll that I have had in Atlanta was at JCT Kitchen, although it is quite small. The second best one that I had was at Legal Seafood.

I just got back from Maine and had the lobster roll that won the Lobster Roll Rumble (Clam Shack in Kennebunkport). It was head and shoulders above any other lobster roll that I have had, even in Maine. They use huge chunks of lobster meat that is barely even and barely seasoned, thus not hiding the taste of the lobster. They serve it on very soft fresh round buns (apparently from a nearby bakery) that squish down into the meat, making the sandwich seem almost like a panini. I didn’t think that I would like the round bun as much as the traditional bun, but it was fabulous. Anyone going to Maine ths summer should check it out.

Brazen Unicorn

July 14th, 2012
1:50 pm

CT style lobster rolls are the best. Buttered lobster, lightly toasted split top bin. Period.

Baltisraul

July 15th, 2012
8:58 am

Jackie……..Legal Seafood is not that good?????????? Tell that to all that live in NE. Long history with great products. You need to get out more!

Diego

July 16th, 2012
9:20 am

That so called slider lobster roll at Cake for $5 was not for me. Too small, lack flavor and gone in two bites..

NomNomNomATL

July 16th, 2012
4:13 pm

Seen top split buns at Fresh Market. Haven’t tried them though.

Jackie

July 16th, 2012
6:54 pm

Baltisraul ,
We have a home in Charlestown, RI. The breading on the clams at Legal is too thick, I prefer a lighter coating. We are out in Atlanta every weekend. When I fly home the first thing I do on the way home is stop in Pt. Judith for some clams and then sometime during the week before we leave we visit the Matunuck Oyster Bar on Succotash Rd for another fix of whole fried clams. I do know what I like.

Lorenzo

July 17th, 2012
1:31 pm

I remember eating lobster rolls during vacations with my parents in Maine in the mid-1970s. Until two or three years ago, I hadn’t seen one anywhere since (though admittedly I wasn’t looking out for them). They were really confined to Maine and neighboring states–unheard of down here. I guess the new boom is good for lobster fishermen.

I wasn’t impressed with Legal Seafoods’ version. Too much mayo, if I recall. But maybe knowing it was 25 bucks would have taken much of the enjoyment out of it now matter how good.