Each of the past three summers, I have set myself a challenge. In 2011, it was to find the best fish and chips on PEI. In 2012, I was hunting down the best seafood chowder on the Island. And, for my summer 2013 challenge, I set out to find my favorite lobster roll/burger on PEI. I am happy to report that I found it! To find out the process/rating criteria I used to declare my favorite, and find out which one I chose, read on.
What I Was Looking For
Lobster! I wanted to see identifiable good-sized chunks of lobster, not some meat that was shredded or minced beyond recognition.
For a traditional lobster roll, that means pieces large enough that you can detect , as soon as the roll is placed in front of you, that it is lobster meat (like that shown in the photograph above, for example). You’d think this would be a given but….you’d be surprised. In my view, the only time lobster meat should be cut very small is if you are using it in small dainty afternoon tea sandwiches or hors d’oeuvres. The other factor for ultimate taste and texture is that the lobster must be fresh out of the shell, not canned or previously frozen.
This is what holds the lobster filling together and enhances the taste. For a traditional lobster roll, I was not looking for anything spicy or that would dominate or overpower the lobster taste. I also wanted to see enough mayo that it held the filling together.
I also had an expectation that the mayo would have been mixed with the lobster meat, not lightly spread on the roll itself and hidden under a large lettuce leaf. While, for presentation purposes, it may look attractive for the roll to be presented with clean, clear chunks of lobster (with no mayo on them) sitting on top of a bright green lettuce leaf, I expect a lobster roll to arrive at the table, ready to eat, not for me to have to play hide and seek to locate the mayo and then attempt to mix it in with the lobster meat. In sum, I did not expect to have to make and assemble the roll filling myself. At one restaurant, I had to ask for extra mayo as, otherwise, the lobster filling once I mixed it up (as best I could on the plate with no bowl), would have been too dry.
A good lobster roll is just that – lobster. In my view, any other ingredients added to it needed to complement, not mask or overpower, the lobster. I wasn’t looking for creativity with odd, non-traditional ingredients paired with the lobster. I was looking for a traditional Atlantic Canada lobster roll with that pure, fresh lobster taste. Generally speaking, celery is often used in PEI lobster rolls and sometimes (but not always) a splash of lemon juice is added but very little else.
Just as good pie pastry will determine a good pie, the choice of a quality roll will make or break a lobster roll. The filling can be really good but, if the roll is soggy, flat, and/or tasteless, the lobster roll is doomed. I looked for a good, soft bread texture in the roll and one that would hold together as I picked it up to eat. I had no strong preference as to whether or not the roll was toasted/grilled. As hard as it might be to imagine, I had one lobster roll presented to me without the roll having even been buttered – it was pretty dry going with about 1 tablespoon of minced/shredded lobster sitting in the middle of a flat, soggy commercial bakery hamburger bun.
We eat with our eyes first. I wanted to see a roll set in front of me that I just couldn’t wait to chow down on it. Some passed the mark on this; others did not. As far as lettuce is concerned, the greenery can provide a nice visual backdrop for the red and white lobster meat but it is not an absolute necessity – in fact, it could be argued that a lobster roll is often better without the lettuce. However, if used, the lettuce must be super fresh, high quality, and sized appropriately (and it should not be used to take up space in the roll leaving little room for the lobster, meaning there is little lobster in the roll). One lobster roll I sampled had about a 7″-8” leaf from romaine lettuce that was beyond tough and I had to remove the “palm leaf-sized” lettuce from the roll. Diners should not have to reconfigure the roll. Mixing and presentation are the responsibility of the chef or cook. The roll needs to be attractively accented and placed on the plate or in a basket, ready to eat.
Lobster conjures up the notion of a delicacy because, notwithstanding that fishers may not be getting high prices for their catches, lobster when served at restaurants, is pricey even in areas of the country near the sea like we are on PEI. Therefore, extra effort should be taken to present the lobster in a way commensurate with its reputation as a luxury food and in keeping with the style of the restaurant. That doesn’t mean it has to be white linen and fine china but the roll itself needs to be presented in a way that it clearly features the lobster and is befitting the restaurant environment in which it is served – i.e., at a take-out, it is perfectly acceptable and quaint to have the lobster rolls served in baskets lined with red and white checked liner paper.
Most commonly on PEI, a lobster roll is served with French fries although many restaurants will usually offer a choice of sides that may include green salads, potato salad, or coleslaw, for example. While I wasn’t rating a lobster roll on what side came with it or its quality, I did take note of those that were presented with appropriate sides that were fresh and added to the lobster roll experience (i.e., no French fries that came out of the freezer or that were soggy or no wilted salads).
I tried to select a variety of restaurants from which to sample the lobster rolls – i.e., from take-outs to diners to high-end restaurants. Prices ranged from $7.95 to $16.00. for a lobster roll. A couple of other restaurants I considered had lobster rolls priced at $17.00+. I chose not to try them because, in my opinion, a lobster roll should not exceed the $15.00 – $16.00 price point.
Just as happened two years ago when I was on the hunt for the best fish and chips on PEI and last year when I was searching for the best seafood chowder on the Island, there was one that hit the mark with me and quickly then became the benchmark against which all others were measured – i.e., the question became “is this one as good as, or better than, X’s?” Sometimes there will be two or three that will be neck and neck, making it hard to choose just one favorite. In this case, the one I chose was clearly out ahead.
I am not a professionally-trained chef or food critic but, as a true foodie, my palate knows what it likes. The other thing I have to point out is that I didn’t sample lobster rolls from every restaurant on PEI that has them on their menu – that would have been impossible and the waistline just could not have handled it! I also have to point out that I rated each based on one visit in summer 2013 per restaurant only. Therefore, there is no guarantee that if someone visited an establishment on another day with a different cook/chef on duty, they might come to the same conclusion as I did. Likewise, individual palates differ in terms of what tastes good to each individual person. What one person likes, another may not and vice versa.
So, how did I choose which restaurants from which to sample lobster rolls? Some were referred to me by other foodies; some, based on my own past experience, I suspected would serve good lobster rolls because other menu items they have are good; and others were purely happenstance – i.e., it was meal time and I happened to be in the proximity of a restaurant serving lobster rolls. Nothing any more scientific or orchestrated than that.
Therefore, my selection of my favorite lobster roll in PEI for 2013 is based on the nine (9) I sampled over the summer. It doesn’t mean that there might not have been excellent lobster rolls at other restaurants I did not make it to. What it does mean is that I found my personal favorite lobster roll at Richard’s Seafood Eatery right on the wharf at Covehead Harbour. This is probably one of the most non-descript eating establishments on the Island yet I have found their food to be consistently good, time-over-time (they were also my choice in 2011 for my favorite fish and chips on the Island) and I have had their lobster rolls in previous years.
Richard’s (as the locals refer to it) is not, by any stretch of the imagination, fine dining. It is essentially a take-out right alongside the fishing sheds on a wharf. It is well-known with local Islanders and, you know the old saying that, when traveling, try to find restaurants that the locals patronize as you know it’s likely to be good fare.
The amount of food that Richard’s produces out of what has to be one of the tiniest kitchens around is amazing. Don’t look for white linen and fine china here. There is a small inside ‘picnic shelter’ area with just a few tables or, on a beautiful summer day, venture upstairs to the outside deck where you can watch the fishing boats coming and going. Richard’s is a seasonal establishment, open basically during the summer tourist season and it is always busy. I have never been there when there hasn’t been a line-up and people will wait without complaining. I have waited up to an hour before the buzzer would summon me to the take-out window to pick up my food. Where else would people wait this long for a lunch without complaining? That tells me that people know it’s great food and well worth the wait. On the day I visited Richard’s this summer, I went shortly before noon to get ahead of the lunch crowd line-up but, as you can see in the photo below, other people had the same idea, too 🙂 It wasn’t long before the line-up got much, much longer.
So, what makes Richard’s lobster roll my favorite? Take a look for yourself – see the large chunks of fresh PEI lobster, easily identifiable with tasty mayo holding it together. I swear there had to have been meat from a 1-pound lobster in that lobster roll!
With some celery and chives added to it, that’s just about it for the filling which is served on a basic hotdog roll that has been lightly grilled. I liked how there was an abundance of lobster in the roll and nothing in the filling that would compete with or detract from the star lobster. It was served with Richard’s homemade fries and coleslaw. For $14.00+ tax (CDN$), this tasty roll delivered on flavour and content and is great value for the buck!
So, there you have it, folks, my favorite lobster roll on PEI in 2013 comes from Richard’s Seafood Eatery at Covehead Harbour. Now, how many months is it before they open next summer……
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