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.
“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.
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.”
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.