CAPE ELIZABETH — Asked if he’d be willing to sample one of the new lobster rolls from McDonald’s, Joe Dube didn’t seem to understand the question at first.

“Lobster rolls? At McDonald’s?” he kept repeating, as if he had just been told a spaceship was landing at the lighthouse over the hill.

Yes, lobster rolls at McDonald’s. In Maine, no less.

Talk about playing to a tough crowd. When it comes to lobster rolls, Mainers consider themselves the ultimate arbiters of good taste. In reintroducing the lobster roll to its summer menu, it’s as if the fast food restaurant had invited The New York Times food critic to dinner.

Dube, a photojournalist and native New Englander who now lives in Homosassa, Florida, considers himself a lobster roll connoisseur. He sat at a picnic table next to the Bite Into Maine food truck, a partially eaten lobster roll in front of him that he had just bought for $15.99.

“I’ll tell you what, this is one hell of a lobster roll here,” he said, pointing to that roll.

Then he tried the McDonald’s roll. And, as the restaurant’s jingle goes, he was “lovin’ it.”

Dube pronounced the sandwich “better than any lobster roll I had in Old Orchard or Wells this trip.”

“I had a lobster roll in Old Orchard that was half the meat of (the McDonald’s roll), and it was $10,” he said. “The only thing that I say is a sin is the lettuce.”

Dube was one of four people at Fort Williams Park asked by the Maine Sunday Telegram to rate the new McDonald’s lobster roll, which is being sold for the first time in 10 years at McDonald’s restaurants in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The roll received decidedly mixed reviews from these tasters, but one thing everyone agreed on: lose the lettuce.

MAINE MAN’S ROLE IN MENU CHANGE

The McDonald’s lobster roll costs $7.99, or $9.99 if you add a medium drink and fries. It has 290 calories. (Compare that with a Big Mac, which sells for $4.39 and has 563 calories.) The sandwiches will be available for six to eight weeks, from this weekend through mid-August.

The last time McDonald’s offered a lobster roll, it cost $3.99. When sales dropped, franchisees decided to deep-six the roll and concentrate on new products the corporation was rolling out nationally, said Stephen Goble, who owns several McDonald’s franchises in Maine.

Regional favorites periodically appear on McDonald’s menus, from barbecue sandwiches in Texas to Spam for breakfast in Hawaii. In 1992, a McJordan sandwich debuted in Chicago that featured basketball player Michael Jordan’s favorite ingredients. The new lobster roll started life as a chicken sandwich, but “I didn’t think (it) would sell as well,” Goble said.

Goble formed a committee with two other local McDonald’s franchise owners to explore the possibility of bringing back the lobster roll instead. They met with several suppliers in Maine, but ended up signing on with lobster processors in Canada and other parts of New England. Their advertisements call it “100% real North Atlantic lobster.”

“I would assume from what I read in the newspapers that most Maine lobster is sent to China and New York City and Miami because they can get so much money a pound,” Goble said. “I would say that the majority of it is probably from the Canadian waters, but I don’t know that for a fact.”

The McDonald’s corporation gave the new lobster roll the thumbs-up in the spring, Goble said.

YES, THE MEAT HAS BEEN FROZEN

Goble’s committee conducted many taste tests before deciding on a final version of the roll. The new roll is filled with 3.2 ounces of knuckle and claw meat, a full ounce more than the sandwich served 10 years ago, and each one is topped with a whole claw. There is less mayonnaise than before, and the bun (which comes from Northeast Foods) is now toasted. The lettuce – both shredded and leaf lettuce – is meant to keep the bun from getting soggy, Goble said, but our tasters eyed it suspiciously, thinking of it as filler, and said it detracted from the taste of the lobster.

Matt Smith, a chef visiting Maine from Phoenix, said the concept of McDonald’s serving lobster rolls made him think, “Cheap. Frozen. Last year’s lobster. All knuckle meat, no tail.”

“Lots of lettuce,” he said before biting into the sandwich. “That’s bad.”

He called the bread “spongy” and said he wished the lobster meat itself were sweeter, but overall gave the sandwich 2 out of 5 stars – mostly because of the value. “I wish it had a little more mayo tossed in with it,” he said. “But overall, I’d say it’s a pretty substantial amount of lobster meat for eight bucks.”

On their first day of vacation, Steve and Suellyn Santiago of Portland had grabbed the opportunity of a day without their kids to do something they’ve wanted to do for a long time – try a Bite Into Maine lobster roll. Steve Santiago thinks the concept of the McDonald’s roll is “great, … maybe more healthy than some of the other selections they have on the menu.”

His wife took a bite and said: “It tastes more watery to me, like it’s been frozen. It doesn’t have much flavor. It’s not bad, though. It’s better than I expected.”

Good palate, Sue Santiago. Yes, the meat has been frozen. It’s thawed in the restaurants for 36 to 48 hours, Goble said. “We mix it that day and use it that day,” he said. “We don’t save anything over.”

So, would our tasters buy a lobster roll from McDonald’s?

Chef Smith said no. Sue Santiago said that before trying the roll, she never would have considered it because there are so many other places to get good lobster rolls. Now she might if she were with her kids and wanted to feed them something healthier than a hamburger.

And Joe Dube?

“I would buy this without hesitation,” he said. “I would take the lettuce out.”

 


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