Finding the Best Lobster Roll in Midcoast Maine
The Maine coast has approximately 24,398,423,876,323,907 restaurants serving lobster. This is the land of “lobstah,” especially this time of year––when the water starts to get warmer mid-summer as the gulf stream brings heat from the Caribbean, the lobsters come toward shore. And for about six months, the lobster hunting is damn good, though even in the offseason they are abundant––lobsters can be found year-round in Maine, and are among the most sustainably maintained seafood populations in the world thanks to decades of the state’s careful conservation and fishing regulations.
The quintessential Maine meal, besides perhaps the whole steamed lobster with drawn butter, is the lobster roll. Chilled lobster meat in a split bun is the basic requirement. Other things? Butter or mayo as condiments. Sometimes allium, like chives or green onion. Very occasionally celery. And, depressingly, far too often a sad, dilapidated single lettuce leaf intruding between the sweet bounty of the Maine coast and the bun.
As you might imagine, there are factions in the lobster roll debate, and the members of said factions are fierce defenders of their dogma. Among these are the butter vs. mayo factions, the grilled bread vs. regular bread factions, and the lettuce vs. no lettuce faction. Within these factions are, indeed, sub-factions that cannot accept anything less than their preferred roll.
The Maestro prefers simplicity with a lobster roll––let the glorious bounty of the Maine coast shine. This means that the Maestro is firmly in the no lettuce, no celery faction. Lettuce is vegetal and becomes flaccid and unwelcome rather quickly when exposed to the moisture of the meat. Celery––just no. A tiny bit of allium? Sure. The Maestro also prefers a fresh, buttered-and-grilled roll to store-bought Sara Lee, though that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Bonus points if it’s from a local bakery. Moreover, if mayo is used, the coating must be done right before serving so the lobster doesn’t disintegrate and taste of Hellman’s after marinating for hours; if butter is used, it must not be allowed to languish and re-constitute on cold lobster meat. And finally, any lobster roll joint in Maine worth its salt needs the atmosphere to match, which usually means a killer view over the coast.
I made my way to New England during Davidson’s fall break hoping to get a bit of a rest for my overworked brain and booked a cabin just south of Brunswick overlooking one of the many inlets that populate the coast. The goal was to spend about 36 hours letting myself relax in the most peaceful of environs I could find before a busy day in New York City and then a jaunt out to the motherland. When attempting to find the best spot for lobster in the area, I reviewed trustworthy websites and couldn’t narrow it down much. The unequivocal best place was closed for the season, while the tried-and-true tourist mecca, Red’s, still ranked highly, and a place a bit more off the beaten path, Muscongus Bay, also got strong accolades.
Never satisfied to try just one thing, I decided to do a comparison between the offerings at Muscongus and Red’s––a quiet, rural lobster shack on the same wharf where they’re fished versus a busy, tourist-oriented spot that has countless jewels in its crown as the “best in the state.” How did they compare? Read on!
Muscongus Bay Lobster is perched on the eastern shore of an island created by the Damariscotta River. About an hour from Brunswick, the itty-bitty town of Round Pond houses this iconic lobster shack that draws folks from all over the country and world. The lobsters and shellfish are largely hunted right in the eponymous bay, a “pond” in name only, and are, of course, as fresh as can be.
I arrived at the incredibly charming little town plenty early for lunch, grabbed a latte at a local coffee shop, and took a leisurely walk down to the wharf past full apple trees, changing maples, lingering flowers, and charming shops before exploring the shoreline where my forthcoming meal dwelt just hours before. At low tide, I could walk on some of the classic Maine shoreline rocks and photograph the denizens attached to the old piers, animal and plant alike.
I was second in line for lunch at Muscongus and enjoyed watching the lobsters greet me from the tanks as I perused the menu. There are so many seafood glories in Maine––lobster, crab, mussels, clams, oysters, scallops, haddock, halibut––that it can be rather challenging to narrow down your selection. Reeling a bit from the unexpected price tag of the lobster roll, I settled on the roll and a pound of steamers (clams), both plucked from local waters just hours before my meal.
The steamers are boiled in local seawater in mesh bags, and then served with drawn butter. I’ve seen them served with the “broth”––seawater with clam goodness––to help rinse away the grit, but this time the proprietors just provided butter. About twenty clams filled the bag, and I stripped the skin from the siphon of each one and dangled the meat into the butter. Each was delicious and magnificently salty from the fresh seawater, and though they were a shade gritty, dirt is good for you!
The lobster roll at Muscongus is served in a locally baked almost brioche-style bun––dense, expertly grilled, and magnificently buttery, though a tad sweet. Moderately sized cuts of lobster meat dressed lightly in mayo with a tiny bit of green onion fill the roll, and it’s served with bagged potato chips and a pickle (gross). The roll was bright and delicious, though perhaps a smidge scant on the quantity of lobster meat for the price. I appreciated the tastefully delicate treatment with the mayo and allium as well, so the plump lobster meat was allowed to speak mostly on its own. And look! No lettuce! A resounding success overall, and I strolled back to my car quite satisfied.
I also had designs on sampling Boothbay Lobster Wharf to taste and compare a third lobster roll for the blog, and on the way happened upon a local oyster farm serving their own oysters alongside other niche varieties from various Maine locations. Glidden Point Oyster Farm overlooks the east side of the next inlet to the west, and their picnic tables have a gorgeous view of the dock and water where their namesake oysters are farmed. They had five varieties on offer, and I ordered two of each along with a canned sparkling rosé from Sonoma. The challenge was that this is a “shuck your own” venue, so while I was thrilled by the reasonable cost of the oysters (just $1.50 each), I soon realized why most oyster bars in the country charge twice that––labor.
While I have shucked before, I struggled with the first two oysters before deciding to take a gander at a refresher article on how to shuck on my phone. The key to a good shuck is, while protecting your hand with a towel, to patiently find a soft spot in the “hinge” of the oyster and then twist the knife until the flat shell comes loose. At that point, running the knife along the inside of the flat shell should release the meat, and the knife can then be used to dislodge it from the bottom shell as well, all while being careful to keep the cupped shell flat so as not to lose the succulent oyster liquor within. I only slipped while shucking twice and only one of those resulted in a minor shucking injury. I’d call that a shucking success!
The five varieties of oyster were as follows:
Glidden Point Topsiders: Salty and a bit grassy and mineral. From the water just below and in view of my table.
Salt Winds: Appropriately, quite salty, and both rather hard to shuck. From Scarborough Marsh, salt marshes just south of Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
Robin Hoods: The smallest of them with the deepest cups, and therefore a bit milder and sweeter, but still decidedly east coast style. From Georgetown Island, just across the river from my cabin in Phippsburg some 40 minutes west.
Iron Islands: Described as "low salinity" but still quite salty. A nicely balanced oyster that sees some fresh water due to its growing location on the New Meadows River near Brunswick.
Mere Points: Tricky to shuck but worth the reward. Saline and umami-driven, almost like an earthy mushroom, with some herbaceous/soil quality. My fave of the five. From Maquiot Bay, the first inlet on the west side of the greater Casco Bay southwest of Brunswick.
When I found the Boothbay Lobster Wharf, situated in a pretty but decidedly tourist-trap town, it became clear that the cosmos had conspired to tell me not to go forward with my plan of sampling three lobster rolls in a day––a) I was not hungry in the slightest; b) there were too many damn people there; c) I couldn’t find parking; d) my bank called to ask me about fraud when I tried to used their dilapidated ATM; e) it started pouring rain. Easy decision––off to Red’s to brave the line for dinner.
Red’s Eats has garnered national attention for its lobster rolls for decades. The only of the “best” lobster places located right off Highway 1, the primary artery along the coast east of Brunswick, Red’s is legendary not just for its heaping lobster rolls, but also its spectacular lines that can last two or three hours at their peak. Given that we were off-peak of tourist season and figuring that the rain had driven most people away, I arrived in Wiscasset around 3:45 and valiantly approached the line, maybe twenty souls deep, figuring I would wait about 15 minutes. After 30 minutes and about a meter of forward progress, it became clear I was in for the long haul. The couple behind me, who decided to recoil about seven feet when I let out a single (covered) cough to clear my throat, abandoned ship after about twenty minutes, griping all the while. Too bad they weren’t ahead of me.
Despite the chill and drizzle, had the line not been directly parallel to the insanely busy highway, the wait wouldn’t have been bad. My Turo host had left a handy umbrella in the car, which kept me dry, and I enjoyed perusing the veritable museum of accolades, award plaques, and articles perched along the south wall of the tiny red shack. I even ran into a foodie couple that I chatted with at Glidden Point who told me their roll was excellent as they left. The town, too, is just as charming as any other New England hamlet, with old storefronts, colonial churches, and endless boutiques and galleries. Were Red’s a bit more advanced, they might employ an electronic system to alert people when it was their turn and allow them to explore and support the other local businesses.
I arrived at the window literal seconds before they closed at 5pm (though they did not turn away any of the 30 people behind me) and ordered their famous lobster roll with a side of local butter (“the best in Maine,” they claimed) and a side order of their deep-fried Maine scallops––the other dish that regularly appeared among the positive mentions online. To wash it down, I snagged a bottle of local “honey soda” flavored with blueberry juice. So very Maine.
Red’s maintains a little picnic area near the water, and the rain had stopped, so I wiped off a seat at the table closest to the water, settled in, and gazed out over the post-rain evening watercolor painted on the placid Sheepscot River.
Red’s roll is famous for overflowing with lobster, and the reviews were spot on––there had to be nearly two lobsters in this comparatively minuscule bun. I used the provided fork to dip the unmoored pieces in the drawn butter, which was magical, and once the roll could fit between my outstretched teeth, proceeded to take bites, still chock full of massive chunks of mayo-free lobster meat. The biggest online complaint about Red’s, besides the breathtaking wait, is that when you pour the provided molten butter on the cold meat, it quickly becomes a solid and rather gross to consume. It seems to me that this is a problem caused not by Red’s but rather by the stupidity and uninventiveness of the consumer. I solved this problem by simply dipping the end of the roll into the drawn butter just before each bite, rather than pouring the butter over the whole roll, and swiftly munching on it before it had a chance to coagulate. Easy peasy, and delicious. Amateurs.
The scallops, meanwhile, were a big miss. They were perfectly cooked and brimming with the sweet shellfish essence of a Maine scallop, of course, but because they a) were placed in a steamy carryout container after frying and b) had a slice of wet lemon atop, the breading had become damp and lost any will to cling to the bivalve. What’s more, they were completely unseasoned. While not a total loss, particularly when dipped in the leftover drawn butter, certainly not something I’d order again.
Maine is beautiful in the summer and fall––make your way up here sometime for some almost Alaska-like solitude sometime when you need a recharge. I was certainly glad I did!