Today is the first day of summer, a time when our food cravings turn to summer staples like lemonade, ice cream and, here in Maine, lobster.
And lots of it.
Buy a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and that creamy treat can be kind of like a blank canvas, waiting for all the childlike creativity you can muster with sprinkles, nuts and gooey sauces.
But a plain vanilla lobster roll? In this state, that has long been sacred territory.
There’s a reason why the lobster rolls from Red’s Eats in Wiscasset have always topped so many lists of the best lobster rolls in the state. Besides the generous serving of meat, the rolls are extraordinarily simple – plain lobster with either a little butter or mayonnaise on the side. Nothing fancy. Just the taste of the ocean and the Maine summer sunshine tucked into a toasted bun.
Suggest adding a little celery, some herbs or minced onion, and lobster roll purists look at you as if you just suggested painting the White House purple.
But after a lobster roll or two or 200, some people start longing for a roll that’s a little different.
Karl Sutton, co-owner with Sarah Sutton of Bite Into Maine, the food truck that sells lobster rolls at Fort Williams park in Cape Elizabeth, met a doctor from Florida who was relocating here and had tried 30 lobster rolls in his adopted home.
“He said, ‘You can only find one kind! You have to keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Sutton recalled.
By that, the doctor meant the Suttons should keep coming up with new, nontraditional lobster rolls like the ones they sell on their food truck.
Nontraditional rolls are very hard to find in Maine. Some places just try small tweaks. The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport has won awards with its roll, which is classic in almost every sense of the word but sometimes actually raises eyebrows because it is served on a hamburger-style bakery bun instead of the traditional split roll.
The roll contains the meat of a one-pound lobster, and the customer gets a choice of a small smear of mayo or a drizzle of melted butter on top. The slightly sweet bun, made by a local bakery, gives the roll a salty-sweet flavor that people love. Just two weeks ago, The Clam Shack’s roll won “fan favorite” in Tasting Table’s Lobster Roll Rumble in New York City.
The largest number of nontraditional lobster rolls can be found in just two places, Naples and Cape Elizabeth.
BEST SANDWICH IN AMERICA?
Matt Sullivan, the chef at The Galley in Naples, has developed a mix-and-match menu of gussied-up meats and different bun styles that has captured the attention of Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s new show “Best Sandwich in America.”
Sullivan’s lemon zest lobster roll is up for the title.
“We use the whole lobster – knuckle, tail and claw,” Sullivan said. “We throw a little lettuce in there, just as a garnish, not as a filler like other rolls. And then we use a lemon pepper seasoning. The pepper cuts through the richness of the lobster, and lemon goes awesome with seafood.”
The Suttons in Cape Elizabeth searched far and wide for more, shall we say, “adventurous” lobster rolls before starting their business. “We’ve found there’s a lot of other people kind of like us, who are looking for something a little bit different,” Karl Sutton said.
Bite Into Maine serves six kinds of lobster rolls, each made with 4.5 to 5 ounces of knuckle and claw meat. Sure, you can get a classic roll. The next step up, though, is the “Picnic Style,” which includes a layer of homemade cole slaw at the base, then lobster meat, drawn butter and a pinch of celery salt on top.
This lobster roll is kind of like sticking a toe in the ocean of possibilities.
“It’s a little bit different, but it’s not that far out of the box for people,” Karl Sutton said. “That one seems to be one that a lot of people are comfortable trying because it’s a little bit different, but it’s not a completely different than what they’re used to.”
The picnic-style roll is popular with tourists from the Carolinas because they are used to putting cole slaw on their barbecue.
For customers who want to dive right into the deep end, there’s the curry roll, the wasabi roll and the chipotle roll.
The curry roll, Sarah Sutton says, is made with Indian curry, mayo and lime juice.
The wasabi roll is mixed with wasabi powder, mayo and rice vinegar.
The chipotle roll – all the Texas tourists order this one – is mixed with roasted chipotle peppers in an adobo sauce, lime juice, mayo and salt. It has a little kick to it.
“We did a lot of experimenting with the flavors,” Karl Sutton said. “We wanted to get something that’s complementary, that doesn’t really overpower the lobster.”
Matt Sullivan from The Galley started experimenting with different lobster rolls about three years ago. He slowly started handing out samples of new styles, and found three or four were fairly popular.
In addition to his classic roll and his “butter lovers roll,” which is just lobster meat and butter, Sullivan created a “Galley Roll” made with a little sweet relish and a Caesar lobster roll made with Caesar dressing and fresh grated Parmesan on top.
This year, he introduced a BLT-style lobster roll.
Roll choices are plain, toasted, grilled or garlic bread.
Sullivan’s zesty lemon lobster rolls are now outselling the classic lobster rolls, but it wasn’t always that way.
Adam Richman discovered the zesty lemon roll a few years ago, when he was in Maine for a wedding and stopped into The Galley on a recommendation. The lobster roll ended up being featured in his book “America the Edible,” along with three of Sullivan’s other rolls.
“We kept talking over the years, and last year he put us in a spot in Maxim magazine,” Sullivan said.
Next came a call from the production company for “Best Sandwich in America,” which came to The Galley in May to film a segment for an episode that will air Aug. 8. In each episode of the show, Richman chooses a region of the country and samples three of its best sandwiches. He chooses one of the sandwiches to move on to the finale later in the season, where 12 sandwiches will compete, March Madness-style.
Sullivan’s zesty lemon lobster roll will be up against a crab grilled cheese sandwich from New Hampshire and a turkey sandwich from Connecticut.
“(Richman) went on camera and he said he thought it was the best lobster roll in the country,” Sullivan said.
But will Mainers go for something different?
Sullivan says his older customers still go for the classic lobster roll.
“But there’s a lot of people in the area who like to experiment a little bit with their food,” he said, “so we’re kind of catering towards that crowd.”
The Suttons say it’s hard to predict who will go for the nontraditional rolls. Sometimes it’s the hardline lobster roll-loving Mainers who order the curry roll or the wasabi roll because they’re just looking for something different,
“We get a lot of tourists who want the classic Maine style because this might be the only one lobster roll that they’ll have,” Sarah Sutton said. “But then we also get a lot of people who may be more comfortable with food trucks in general, and they’re more comfortable with ording something that’s a little bit different.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]