It’s been a while since I went on one of my half-cocked ‘challenges’ - well at least since I attempted to eat crab and ice cream (separately, that would be too much of a challenge even for me) at least once a day for our entire Devonshire holiday, which resulted in leaving even crustacean champion the Ewing going green behind the gills – but a recent spate of lobster purveyors springing up in the Capital presented too good an opportunity not to check at least some of them out. All in the name of vital research, obviously.
One of my favourite foodie memories - suffice to say already mentioned here and so I won’t recant it in too much detail - was going to New England as a teenager and finding that McDonalds sold a seasonal, and pretty good, lobster roll. This was also the same holiday where I casually remarked that our dinner (live lobster from the market) had escaped the confines of the bucket they were being stored in and were making their way across the sundeck.
Sadly, my life was pretty lobster-less for a long while after that. There was lots of crab, plenty of prawns and a fair few langoustines. But, save for the odd special treat, such as this great meal we shared with my Aunt and Uncle on their anniversary in Kenya, lobster remained very much the preserve of high days and holidays.
Fast forward a decade or so and it seems this once prized catch is becoming as ubiquitous as the Sunday roast or chicken tikka masala. With Aldi, Lidl and the like selling frozen specimens for a fiver and surf and turf on the chalkboard of every other pub you pass, but can we really have too much of a good thing?
With a at least three restaurants focusing on lobster opening in the last couple of months in London, like a low rent Anne Robinson, but with the ability to still move my eyebrows independently, I braved the claw challenge to find out for myself.
The first stop was Lobster Kitchen - actually, it was originally supposed to be Fraq’s, but their website didn’t specify an opening time and the doors weren’t open when I arrived at a quarter to twelve. Not to be defeated I walked the ten minutes from Goodge Street to the top of Tottenham Court road, followed by another ten minutes of hopelessly pacing about trying to actually find the place.
I’m guessing the idea is similar to Burger Shack in le Meridien, or any of the other famous ‘secret’ concessions that everybody knows about. Of course the big difference being everybody does know about them, while I remained clueless about the exact whereabouts, as well as pitifully hungover as I limped around the block inwardly sobbing to myself.
Eventually (and pretty much nobody who knows me will believe this part) I went into the lobby of the St Giles Hotel and asked. Here I was directed by a porter at reception, through a maze of corridors that lead to a door with a hastily sellotaped sign (the first I had seen for Lobster Kitchen) that appeared to lead to the cleaner’s cupboard or some other unpromising dead end. Thankfully it led to Lobster Kitchen, although once through it, the staff looked as surprised as I was that I had actually found it. If you’re looking for it from Great Russell Street then take the left hand door next to the VQ entrance, above, which has a small Lobster Kitchen decal on the glass.
The menu is confusingly sprawling, especially for such a tiny kitchen, and is chalked up all around the serving hatch, making it pretty much impossible to read as you stand at the till - thankfully I saw a pyramid of root beer twinkling alluringly in front of me, so that was the drinks sorted. To eat was lobster, obviously, and I chose a king roll with garlic butter, they also offer ‘skinny’ (with olive oil) or ‘club’ (without a description).
The roll itself was small-ish but, as they say, perfectly formed, with nothing but the lobster, a touch of garlic, and butter. So, so much butter. Added to the sweet and buttery brioche (with just the right amount of toasting), I became slightly overwhelmed by the amount of dairy, especially due to my sensitive (and self-inflicted) state, and even found myself reluctantly leaving a few butter-soaked pieces of bun at the end.
I’m conflicted over whether this was a problem or not. Certainly those who don’t care much for butter would think so, but, when it comes to lobster butter is a natural bedfellow and I think, overall, it would be more of a crime to have been left with a dry bun. The garlic could certainly have been more prominent, but the lobster was cooked well enough and there was a decent meat to bread ratio.
Fraq’s has a much smaller menu. There’s a Boston Roll, a hot prawn and avocado (roll?) and a calamari club (sandwich? roll?). There’s also regular fries, courgette fries and, slightly randomly, chocolate cake. I ordered the Boston Roll (£15) with a, Christmas themed (yes, I told you this blog post had been waylaid) Diet Coke.
Sadly no root beer was available, and I was also told no alcohol was available on my visit either ( a small mercy, retrospectively), despite there being a fridge full of regular beer and a lemon sorbet vodka slushie machine churning on the counter.
Inside the decor is whitewashed New England beach shack. There was also a big staff to customer ratio, which combined with a Monday morning Motown soundtrack and the bright lights made my mood feel less chilled out on the sand and more slightly sea sick.
The roll was, thankfully, as hefty as its price tag, with the large brioche bun being served stuffed with a cold, mayo-based lobster salad. While the pieces of lobster were smaller than the Lobster Kitchen, there was a decent amount of meat in there. I also, for personal preference, rather liked the shredded iceberg lettuce, crisp chopped celery and creamy mayo, but if you prefer the simplicity of hot, buttery lobster roll then you’re out of luck.
At nearly twenty quid, with a can of drink, for something that took me less than half an hour to order and eat (the less gluttonous may want to add on fifteen minutes) this is fast food with a pretty hefty price tag. The limited menu - usually a favourable selling point with ventures like these - also may seem a little too restricted with only one type (and size) of lobster roll. While all I had to do is crawl on the train back home after I had finished eating, good luck to anyone going back to the office after one of these, as a crustacean coma is probably not too far behind.
I finally made it to Smack Deli, from the guys behind Burger and Lobster and the last stop on the mini trawl (see what I did there), on Valentine’s Day. Appropriately, this time the Ewing was in tow - surely nothing says romance better than fishy breath and greasy fingers? Here they offer four types of roll alongside whole lobsters, lobster bisque; and, the ubiquitous, courgette fries.
I was feeling particularly kindly and so I let my darling wife select the flavour she wanted, the Seven Samurai, first. Obviously this was the one I also wanted. Obviously, I could have also had this, but that irritating internal voice piped up saying ‘let’s have something different and share’, knowing full well this wouldn’t actually happen and knowing full well mine wouldn't be as nice.
Sadly, I was right; my roll - the Californian with lettuce, tomato and cucumber (avocado was missing in action) - was decent once I had removed the salad garnish but the Ewing's was far more interesting, the crisp shredded cabbage and sprinkle of Japanese chilli pepper being a particularly good call. The bun was probably the best in class of the ones that I tried, but the lobster underneath was a little lacking, both in flavour and volume.
The courgette fries, however were fantastic. Something that can be attested by the fact that when I had to duck out to speak to my aunt on the phone, the Ewing scoffed most of them. And tried to, unsuccessfully, hide the evidence.
Of course, the gold standard of lobster roll remains for many those served at trailblazers Burger and Lobster. Their rolls are the kind I crave; cold chunks of poached lobster meat bound lightly in mayo with a little bit of lettuce and a lot of butter in the brioche. While I haven’t had one for a while, it’s always hard to look past the grilled lobster with melted butter on the few times I have visited, so it's got to be worth taking a greedy friend and adding an extra roll to your order for sharing. Luckily I have greedy friends, and here are two of my favourites chowing down on the aforementioned roll on my hen do. Perfect simplicity, in more ways than one.