Whole smoked lobster from Smokey’s BBQ & Lobster in Trenton. Photo courtesy of Chuck Kindya

Smoked lobster. It sounds indulgent — exotic, even.

So you would think that in the state most associated with lobster it would be on the menu at every restaurant, and on the shelves at every seafood market. But in recent years, anyway, smoked lobster has not been a “thing” in Maine — not in the way that lobster mac-and-cheese and lobster grilled cheese sandwiches have captured the public’s taste buds. Google “smoked lobster,” and you’re more likely to get stories about the woman in Bar Harbor who got her lobsters stoned before she cooked them than you are a link to a restaurant dish.

Could that be changing? A couple of barbecue-and-lobster seasonal seafood joints, one in Trenton and one in York Beach, sell smoked lobster rolls and whole smoked lobsters. Two new restaurants in southern Maine have smoked lobster on their menus. And a Vinalhaven lobsterman is trying to make a go of selling smoked lobster packed in oil, as well as in a rich spread where the smoked meat is mixed with cream cheese.

Chef Stephen Richards says these smoked lobster meatballs were “the best bite I’ve ever made.” Photo by Tan Pham Photography

A handful of Maine chefs and restaurants are smoking lobster using a variety of techniques, ranging from lightly smoking it under a glass dome to smothering it with smoke in a barbecue pit smoker. Lobster can be hot smoked, which both cooks and flavors the shellfish; or cold smoked, which just adds flavor; or something in between. Lobster is so delicate it can take a lot of experimentation to get the smoke just right. But do it right, and the results can be glorious.

“Caramelized brown deliciousness”

Chef Stephen Richards of the Fisherman’s Wharf Inn in Boothbay Harbor has entered the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year contest four times since 2014 — and won twice — using lobster he smoked himself. His smoked lobster meatballs, made by combining ground, smoked tail meat with scallop puree, was, he believes, “the best bite I’ve ever made in my life.”

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“I got kind of addicted to it,” he said of his experiments with smoked lobster. “It’s an amazing result.”

John Hathaway, president and CEO of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, says his company partnered with a smokehouse business eight to 10 years ago to bring a lobster flavored with a “deep smoke” to market, using techniques similar to those used to smoke salmon and other seafood, but the lobster lost moisture and shrunk, and he found it difficult to get enough yield to keep the price reasonable. “But I will say it’s the most delicious product ever,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s The Perfect Spell, the new theatrical restaurant in Freeport where dinner includes a magic show. The entrees include lobster that’s smoked with fresh, dried herbs that are charred and put under a glass dome right on the table. The dome fills with the herbal smoke, enveloping the meat just enough to bring out more of its natural flavor. It’s served with drawn butter and potato stuffing.

In between lie the barbecue places that already smoke other meats — so why not lobster? Spencer Brantley, a partner in Wilson County Barbecue, a restaurant owned by Whole Hog LLC, scheduled to open this month at 82 Hanover Street in Portland, says he’s been experimenting with smoked lobster for several years now on his small farm in Buxton. “About six months ago,” he said, “we finally nailed down the process.”

While smokehouses heavily smoke seafood with the intent to preserve the meat, Brantley’s lobster is meant to be eaten right after it’s smoked. “The smoke that we’re imparting is a cleaner, lighter additive that’s not dominant,” he said.

Spencer Brantley stands near the two smokers he’ll use in his new restaurant Whole Hog in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. The lower pans will hold wood embers that will smoke the food, including lobster. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At Wilson County Barbecue, hardwood will be burned into coals in the restaurant’s barbecue pit, then shoveled into two smokers and used as indirect heat — a “starter smoker” that heats to 275-325 degrees, and a “finishing smoker” that’s closer to 350-375 degrees.

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Brantley splits the raw lobster in half  — he says one lesson he’s learned is not to use cooked, picked meat — and he cracks open the claws before placing them in the smoker. The lobster is brushed with compound whiskey butter (ingredients: butter, whiskey, honey, lemon, cloves and roasted garlic) and put in the finishing smoker for 10 to 15 minutes until the meat reaches 145 degrees in the thickest part of the tail. The result, Brantley said, is “caramelized brown deliciousness.”

He plans to use the smoked lobster in two dishes: a whole smoked lobster seasoned with “barbecue dust,” and a smoked lobster biscuit. The price, he said, “will be in line with what you see a lobster dinner (costing) around town.”

Brantley says he’s not surprised that other restaurants haven’t taken to smoking lobster because, while they can grill lobster, most don’t have the equipment to smoke meats. The exception is barbecue places, which have plenty of wood to make coals and smoke and staff to oversee the work.

Origin story

Chuck Kindya, the “Smokey” behind Smokey’s Barbecue and Lobster in Trenton, believes he and his two business partners may have been the first Maine barbecue place to start smoking lobster when the restaurant opened in 2017, although Gaskins Barbecue and Lobster in York Beach, which sells smoked lobster meat as well as a smoked lobster roll, opened that same year.

At Smokey’s, the lobster is steamed for a minute to firm the meat, then the tail, claws and body are cracked open before being placed over burning logs of sugar maple, applewood or cherry.

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“Shellfish have delicate protein fibers, so (that) makes it easy to smoke them,” Kindya said.

The lobsters are given a special spot in the smoker — right above the fire and near the chimney, where the meat absorbs the most smoke and heat. Placing the lobsters there keeps the cook time down to 15 or 20 minutes, Kindya said, and the meat is regularly basted with butter. When it’s done, Kindya sprinkles the lobster with a house-made rub.

At Smokey’s, a 1 1/4 pound smoked lobster is sold as a $23 dinner — just $3 more than a regular lobster dinner —  that includes two sides and garlic butter. Kindya estimates the restaurant sells one smoked lobster dinner for every two or three regular ones. It’s not on the menu, but if a customer requests a smoked meat lobster roll, the staff will make them one.

An online reviewer from Queens, N.Y., had this to say about Smokey’s smoked lobster: “I had smoked lobster for the first time here, and I’m convinced, this is the way to truly have lobster if you actually care about flavor and aren’t just using it as a vehicle for butter…I was a little concerned that a smoked lobster would taste like more smoke than lobster, but somehow, the method they use here makes the lobster taste a little more like itself, which was a lovely surprise.”

This smoked lobster chestnut pumpkin polenta bar won chef Stephen Richards the title of 2014 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. Photo by Focus Photography

Leftovers night

Boothbay Harbor chef Stephen Richards got started smoking lobster after he had a lot of lobster meat left over from a wedding and wanted to do something different with it. He picked the lobster meat, put it on a screen and smoked it. It came out tough because it was overcooked. But the chef couldn’t get the idea out of his head. He says that when he competed in the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year contest, he was “shocked” that none of the other chefs were smoking lobster.

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Richards bought a lot of soft-shelled lobsters and steamed them quickly to kill the lobster and firm up the meat. “It’s the only way you can get the meat out of the claw,” he said. “My smoker doesn’t get hot enough to cook the meat. It basically flavors the meat. It’s a cold smoke.”

Richards uses applewood because it imparts a lighter smoke. He has smoked both tail and claws, but finds the pre-cooked tail meat still comes out tough. So now when he has smoked lobster on his menu, he serves only the claws. He steams them, smokes them, shucks the meat, then puts the claws in a hotel pan with butter and smokes them again. “The claws lend themselves to smoking so well,” he said. “They stay tender and moist.”

The flavor Richards is going for is what he calls “old school lobster bake.”

“I just remember that unique, smoky flavor from an honest lobster bake, and I’ve been looking for that my entire career,” he said. “And we found it, I think.”

Correction: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 12, 2019, to correct the name of the restaurant opening on Hanover Street.

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