Rolling with the pincers: the rise of lobster rolls
“I think what people like about lobster rolls is that they’re so simple. They almost bring a sense of childlike joy to people. There’s no technique to it, there’s no art to it, it’s just something that is intrinsically delicious.”
Matt Swieboda, co-owner of Potts Point’s Waterman’s Lobster Co., says the idea to open a venue that specialises in lobster rolls came about around two to three years ago when his business partner, Tristan Blair was inspired to open Australia’s own version of the hugely popular Luke’s Lobster in the US.
With a keen determination to create a venue that closely modelled that of their American muse, Swieboda, Blair and their third business partner Nate Hatwell, made the decision to use only imported Maine lobster in the two mainstays of their menu: The Connecticut, and The Maine.
“The local product is crayfish and the flavour is completely different,” says Swieboda. “What we see across the Pacific and in most of the warmer climates waters around the world is a very different creature to what grows in the cold waters of the Atlantic. The flavour of the meat is much more intense than the local variety as it has a very strong lobster flavour, whereas we believe that the local crayfish – while still being quite delicious – doesn’t really have that strong flavour.
“Because our rolls are dressed so simply, the produce really needed to stand out on its own. For our Connecticut style, all we use is a bit of warm butter and some seasoning, and with the Maine, it’s just a light dressing of our own mayonnaise with a little bit of celery and that’s it. So it’s really the flavour of the lobster that’s most important.”
Swieboda says that Waterman’s initially copped a bit of negative feedback from some circles due to their decision to use an imported rather than a local product, however in order to create the product that they wanted to sell, crayfish simply wasn’t an option.
“The tradition in Maine has always been to use tails in fine dining restaurants while reserving the claw and knuckle meat for lobster rolls. It’s basically impossible to use a crayfish for that because they don’t have the big claws like the American species, so we felt that there was no other way to do things. The sustainability practices in Maine are also really advanced compared to most places in the world. The Maine lobster industry each year catches 80 million pounds of lobster and in order to do that they have to make sure that the larger lobsters – which are the best breeding stock – are left alive and not captured, as well as all pregnant lobsters and small lobsters, so it’s actually a really good product.”
In addition to the Maine and Connecticut style rolls, Waterman’s does have a few other rolls on the menu including the scallop, prawn and smoked eel roll, and a Balmain bug roll once the season comes into full swing. However, it’s the Maine and Connecticut style that the punters are returning for.
“To be brutally honest, lobster rolls make up maybe 80 percent of the rolls that we sell and the other five rolls sort of vie for that last 20 percent. I mean, it’s partly marketing too. We have the word ‘lobster’ in our name and everyone knows us for our lobster rolls so that’s certainly the first experience that people want when they come in.
“It’s just incredible to see how much people enjoy this style of food. It really took me by surprise; I didn’t expect to get the response that we’ve had and I didn’t expect for people to almost start craving them right after they had their first one. We have people that come in like once per week to have lobster rolls now, when it was not part of their diet up until two months ago, so it’s been really interesting.”
Chef Daniel Wilson together with his business partners at the famed Melbourne burger joint, Huxtaburger, and finer diner Huxtable, decided to venture into the world of lobster rolls late last year with the launch of their pop-up venture, Mr Claws.
Mr Claws operated out of a brick and mortar shop on Smith Street, Collingwood over the 2014-15 summer, but has since become a venture that pops-up at events and festivals around Victoria. Wilson said that the initial idea came about when a supplier of Maine lobster approached him with a proposal, and the rest as they say, is history.
“No one was really doing it here, and because we had someone who could provide us with the product, we just went for it,” says Wilson.
Chef Daniel Wilson
Like Waterman’s, the lobster meat used at Mr Claws is sourced from North America, but in contrast to the traditional Maine and Connecticut styles, the menu comprises more contemporary fillings such as miso and wasabi, sriracha-spiced mayonnaise and buttermilk ranch. Wilson says that the inspiration behind creating a more contemporary offering was drawn from the menu at his Collingwood fine diner, coupled with the desire to do something a little outside of the box.
Despite the more modern approach, Wilson says that there are three main components to creating the perfect lobster roll that should never change.
“First, don’t be stingy on the lobster. Second, have a nice complementary dressing without being too over the top, and third, you need a nice soft, warm bun. We put clarified butter on ours and toast them on the outside so they are crispy on the outside, but kind of steamed in the middle.”
Wilson puts the growing popularity of lobster rolls down to a few reasons: “They’re different, they’re new, and they’re bloody tasty,” he says. “I think it’s also because it hasn’t really been a particularly accessible product, in general, because [lobster] is so expensive.”
The modern fish ‘n’ chipper
Located on Sydney’s lower north shore, the boys behind Crows Nest’s Johnny Lobster made it their mission to create a modern take on a traditional fish ‘n’ chipper, so naturally a perfect lobster roll was high on the agenda.
“We thought about what modern seafood places were doing really well, and from there we thought that we could do a really nice lobster roll, and that’s how it all came about,” says Andrew Summers, co-owner of Johnny Lobster.
“We took a lot of inspiration from places in America as well as in Europe, like Lobster Burger over in London. There was a lot of online research that we did to create a vision of what we wanted the store to be.”
Johnny Lobster's lobster roll
Despite the name, only one style of lobster roll graces the Johnny Lobster menu. Using Canadian MSC certified lobster meat, the roll comprises the knuckles and claws of the lobster, mixed with potato salad, dill and mayonnaise.
Other dishes on the menu include the grilled or battered fish roll, prawn roll, soft shell crab roll, fried chicken roll, lamb shoulder roll and falafel roll as well as a selection of sides and fish ‘n’ chipper classics. It’s the lobster roll, however, that’s proven to be the star.
“The lobster roll performs really, really strongly,” says Summers. “We spent a long time working on it because lobster is quite a hard thing to get right, and it did take us a long time to get it to where it is now. But as it compares to the rest of the menu, obviously a lot of people order it because it’s the name on the front of the store, but we do get a lot of people coming back in. It’s not like they try it once and forget about it, they definitely come back for more.”
Like Swieboda, Summers says that the perfect lobster roll is all in the flavour and quantity of the meat.
“For me there’s got to be a strong lobster flavour – it has got to taste of lobster. It’s got to be buttery with a little bit of complexity
but it’s definitely got to be strong on the lobster. We put a fair bit of lobster in our rolls. A lot of places will slog you with $25 and then you can hardly tell that there is any lobster in there.”