This July, I spent a few weeks in Japan. Knowing that the new Portland outpost of Luke’s Lobster was on my list of upcoming reviews, I decided to stop in to one of the five Tokyo-area branches. Yes, you read that correctly. There are nearly half-a-dozen Luke’s in metropolitan Tokyo-Yokohama alone (plus another three farther south in Japan).

When I arrived during one of the muggiest days of the year, I encountered a line outside: two dozen stoic-yet-miserable-looking people looking down at their phones as they absentmindedly shuffled toward the carryout window.

I wasn’t there to eat, so I bypassed the queue and stepped inside to have a look around. When I told the host where I was from, she brightened and said, “Oh, I understand. You’re homesick. Does this remind you of home?” I nodded my head in agreement just to be polite, but the truth is: It didn’t really.

More than anything in Maine, the space reminded me of the Luke’s Lobster in Times Square or the one upstairs in the outdoor Brickell Center shopping center in Miami. And that’s no accident. Thanks to a business model that includes vertical integration of a private steel works and furniture shop in Saco, Luke’s is able to reproduce a Starbucksian degree of similarity across its restaurants; no two are exactly alike, but they bear an eerie family resemblance to one another.

Buoys, check. The exterior of Luke’s Lobster Portland Pier. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In part, that’s because all 40-ish Luke’s Lobsters around the world share the same conceptual DNA as the original East Village, Manhattan, restaurant that opened almost exactly 10 years ago. No matter how far away, each modernized shack is precision-engineered to present a culinary picture postcard vision of New England lobstering. It’s Maine viewed through an Epcot filter.

“The philosophy is the same across the board, but it’s never a cookie cutter process,” co-founder and chief marketing officer Ben Conniff said. “We build with reclaimed wood, materials from fisheries. You need these elements to make people feel like they’re visiting Maine.”

The effect is not unpleasant, and by New York or Tokyo standards, a delicately dressed, butter-toasted $20 lobster roll certainly represents an affordable way to get a taste of our state’s most famous export. Yet each of the Luke’s I’ve visited outside the state feels like it was designed by someone who had barely skimmed the Wikipedia entry for Maine.

Outside seating at Luke’s Lobster Portland Pier. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When sited at the end of the expensively renovated Portland Pier, the gigantic 175-seat Luke’s Lobster that opened this June doesn’t seem out-of-place as much as it feels like a well-designed, Maine-themed placeholder – a weighted average of waterfront seafood restaurants across the state.

It’s especially true of the terse menu, a greatest-hits collection of seafood shack classics, some of which (like the lobster roll) are decent. The best of the bunch is probably the crab roll ($16/$20), filled to overflowing with Maine-caught Jonah crab that is steamed, then air-jet “picked” in the company’s bespoke seafood processing facility in Saco. Before it is mounded into a mayo-painted Country Kitchen roll, it gets drizzled with lemon butter and dusted with the restaurant’s perky, celery-seed-forward “secret seasoning” mixture.

Pre-cooking the crab just to the point of doneness is a smart move – one that produces a roll that is tender and never fishy. A similar method works beautifully for sweet, bantam Gaspé Bay shrimp from Québec – the same species that, until recently, was fished along the Maine coast. Here though, the shrimp are peeled and cooked in Canada, then shipped out to wherever Luke’s shrimp rolls ($12/15) are in demand.

Fried dishes are a bit more hit-or-miss. McCain-sourced, Maine-potato french fries ($3) come amply portioned and are cooked crisp-tender. My party ordered an extra serving for the 7-year-old dining with us, but the four adults at the table ate the entire basket of chunky-cut fries.

The fried whole belly clam platter at Luke’s Lobster Portland Pier. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Whole belly clams from Community Shellfish in Bremen ($19/$22) are one of the best versions of this deep-fried dish I have eaten this year. Daintily coated in a crunchy, rice-flour (and therefore gluten-free) batter, the clams are flinty and sweet, with finespun layers of essential flavors that call to mind cucumber and iodine.

On the other hand, Icelandic (not Gulf of Maine-fished) haddock – available in a basket of beer-battered, deep-fried cubes ($11) or on a sandwich as a hefty fillet that extends far beyond the borders of a distributor-sourced brioche bun ($14) – is served overcooked and glistening with grease.

One of my dinner guests took a single bite of the sandwich, shook his head and swapped the plate for a Lighthouse Salad upgraded with picked lobster (in the same portion used for the lobster roll) and drizzled with a runny dressing of buttermilk and Atlantic Sea Farms kelp ($22). It’s not an especially memorable salad, but it is a lighter way to sample some of the state’s natural nosh.

Perhaps the inclusion of kelp in the dressing also represents the first evidence of a reversal of the tides of Luke’s Lobster’s influence – a hint of the Japanese affinity for seaweed making its way onto the menu in the U.S. I wonder what might happen if the restaurant began to incorporate foodways from far-flung locations in Chicago, Las Vegas and Taipei. For now, though, Luke’s remains resolute in its uncanny-valley depiction of the Maine experience, even when it takes place in Maine itself.

In Tokyo, on my walk back to my hotel from the Shibuya Luke’s Lobster store, my niece listened patiently as I described the weird approximations that make Luke’s feel like it almost (but not quite) deserves a 207 area code. She challenged me, asking if a sanitized, carefully curated depiction of the state isn’t what diners “from away” want. Of course, she’s right.

Here in Maine, it’s a different story – at least for locals. Portlanders will see your vintage lobster buoys and gooey, flakey Two Fat Cats blueberry pie ($9) and raise you a snowmobile, a shot of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, a bottle of maple syrup and a cuffed pant leg teeming with deer ticks.

A competently produced lobster roll is fine and good, but in this town, is that really enough?

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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