Editor’s note: Last fall, during what turned out to be an incredible visit to Prince Edward Island, we had the good fortune of meeting East Coast writer Sandra Phinney. Lucky for us, we’ve just secured the following post from this delightful writer. Her subject? The politics of lobster rolls – one highly subjective P.E.I. tradition. Enjoy!
It started off innocuously enough. During a break on the last day of a conference in Charlottetown, P.E.I., I found myself discussing one of my favourite topics – food – with a couple of friends.
“Lobster rolls,” said Shelley, rolling the words off her tongue. “Where do you suppose is the best place to get one?”
“P.E.I.’s a mecca for lobster,” mused Judy. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
The small gang of us decided to meet in the lobby of the Delta Prince Edward Hotel at 4:30 p.m. Surely, within a couple of hours, we could suss out the definitive lobster roll and be back in time for the conference’s closing gala that evening.
Let the Hunt Begin
Our first stop is the Water-Prince Corner Shop & Lobster Pound. It’s so busy, there’s nowhere to sit. “Let’s get one to take out,” says Shelley. Agreed.
While waiting, I glance around. The place reeks of atmosphere. Folks are sitting cheek by jowl, happily wolfing down a variety of seafood – including the object of our quest.
Here, lobster rolls are served on white bread “steak rolls” (no butter, not toasted unless requested) with just enough Miracle Whip to bind the lobster. Chunks of celery add crunch. A little lettuce adds colour. No seasoning. Simple and uncomplicated – unlike the shop’s shelves and walls, which are loaded with everything from license plates and mermaids to metal trucks made out of Coke cans and carved wooden ducks. It’s a flea market waiting to bust loose.
Heading toward the waterfront, Judy spies The Chip Shack and its sign: Fish & Chips. Lobster Rolls. Free Hugs. As we sidle up to the counter, the owner, Caron Prins, leans out and bellows, “Best fries in town!”
I’m intrigued by the tattoo she uses as a trademark. “Want one?” she proffers, pulling out a large ink stamp depicting her silhouette with the words, “Queen of Fries.” As I already have a tattoo that takes up a huge hunk of my forearm (three purple thistles but that’s another story), I decline.
She breaks out in a mile-wide smile, stamps her left bicep and makes a muscle that would make Popeye proud.
Alas, Prins has had a busy day and is out of lobster, but she’s such a character that we shoot the breeze, browse through a box of her mother’s hand-carved wooden caricatures and swap business cards.
Next stop, Lobster on the Wharf. Jeremy, our server, doesn’t bat an eyelash when we ask to share one lobster roll. “That doesn’t apply to beer,” Judy notes. We explain our mission. He grins, pirouettes, and is back in a flash with our order.
Before taking a bite, I ask, “Is the lobster fresh or frozen?” You’d think I’d speared him through the heart. Jeremy recovers lickety-split, assuring us that lobsters are cooked on the spot. I’m delighted to discover that the lobster is firm yet moist – and there’s plenty of it. Judy and I say “m-mmm” at the same time.
Shelley nods. She’s already tweeted a photo showing part of the menu that says: “Lobster is synonymous with P.E.I. Make it your most appealing souvenir. Treat yourself or those unfortunates back home…”
Judy picks up the tab. I think of my unfortunate husband back home, likely living on peanut-butter sandwiches; we bid Jeremy farewell.
Still in hot pursuit
Soon we pass a place that looks like a cross between a bakery and bistro called Youngfolk & The Kettle Black. Through the window, I see “lobster roll” chalked on a menu board. It’s 6:05 p.m. and the door is locked; they closed at six. A young man with a baker’s apron is sweeping the floor. I knock. He opens the door. “Any chance of coming in?” He shakes his head. “Can you come back tomorrow for lunch?” We shake ours. “Our flights are early in the morning.”
Minutes later, we’re seated in the Merchantman Fresh Seafood & Oyster Bar. By now we have our lines down pat. One roll. Split three ways. A round of beer. Although tempted by the many sides on offer, we decline, not wanting to spoil our dinner at the gala.
Our server brings not only one roll cut in three pieces, but also three plates, three forks and three napkins. We learn that Chef Adam Loo makes his buns in-house. (Secret: he uses onion flakes to flavour the dough.) To accent the lobster, he adds fresh dill and a squeeze of lemon, plus red onion and sweet peppers for crunch. Buns are always toasted but never buttered.
Uh-oh. It’s almost 7 p.m. We have two choices: make a mad dash back to the hotel and change (no time for a shower), or not. The thought of “dashing” anywhere sends me into a fit of giggles. By now, we’re waddling. We look at each other and grin. Gonna play hooky.
Hail the mayo, and lobster in many pieces
We waddle down Grafton Street and turn into The Pilot House. Yes, lobster rolls are on the menu. The place is packed, so it’s takeout again. Here, Chef Jared Acorn doesn’t do store-bought mayo. Rather, he makes his own, with bacon fat – that’s right, bacon fat, into which he slowly whisks egg yolks. Oh. My. God. Once it’s emulsified, chef adds juice from grilled lemons, a dollop of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Voila!
Off we go in search of a place where we can eat this masterpiece. Close by, on Queen Street, we find a park bench with none other than Sir John A. MacDonald, one of the fathers of Confederation, taking it easy, all bronzed up. Judy offers him a bite. He’s not impressed, although I detect a smile. I’m happy to discover that the bun is toasted and buttered.
Undaunted, we continue on until we see a sandwich board with two words writ large: LOBSTER ROLL. In we waltz and our server approaches with menus.
“No thanks, we don’t need to look at the menu,” Shelly says. “We’re interested in ordering the lobster roll that’s advertised outside. Just one. Is that okay?”
Our server nods.
I pipe up: “And can we have that in three pieces, please?”
“Yes. Lobster roll. Many pieces.”
“Three pieces will be fine,” says I. Our server smiles. “Yes, pieces.”
Should’ve known. We’re in Ta-Ke Sushi. Even though we knew the restaurant served Korean/Japanese food, we assumed the chef was going “Western” by adding a lobster roll to the menu.
What arrived was the most elegant sushi plate I’ve ever seen. Lobster roll. Many pieces.
Over sake and green tea, we swap tales about families and work and solve most of the world’s problems, the conference gala long past by now.
Before we know it, it’s closing time. Wait! What about our mission? We agree. The evidence is inconclusive; more research is required.
The following month, in October, I return to Charlottetown on business, this time by car. I tack on an extra day to continue the hunt, and haul Barrie, my long-suffering husband, along for the ride.
Youngfolk & The Kettle Black does not disappoint. Although I blink at the price ($16 for just the roll; most lobster rolls run from $9 to $15, and that includes fries or another side) – I can’t believe the portion size. It’s a generous mound of lobster, seasoned with parsley, mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper, laced with shoestring slivers of cabbage and apple (skin on) and served in a large, house-made panini.
Messy to eat, it offers intriguing tastes and textures and is plenty for two.
Onward to The Chip Shack and this time we are in luck. Although it’s the last day, Caron Prins is open and lobster is on hand. Although hers doesn’t compare in size to the one we’d just eaten at Youngfolk, combined with fries, it’s a bargain for seven bucks. Bonus: Prins seasons her food with an herb-infused salt that she makes herself. And, as her sign promises, hugs are free.
One final stop: Through a friend of a friend, Barrie and I are invited to someone’s home for a mid-afternoon lunch. Surprise! That “someone” turns out to be Chef Ross Munro, the grand poobah of P.E.I. Culinary Adventures.
Sitting at his dining-room table, five feet from the open kitchen, we watch as he proceeds to roll out a three-course extravaganza. Yes, there are lobster rolls, bookended by killer seafood chowder and chocolate cake fried in a bit of butter (“it’s best served warm,” says chef) and topped with chocolate sauce.
For his version of the lobster roll, Munro starts with a loaf of bread from Chef Robert Pendergast’s new shop Boulangerie Pendergast Bakery, recently opened in Youngfolk. As we’re eating the chowder, he plops two lobsters into a pot of boiling water, then muses about making the perfect lobster roll. “Some people use Miracle Whip, but I find it too sweet. I like Hellmann’s mayo. Hellmann’s light, that is.”
We reminisce about the old days when lobster was considered to be a “poor man’s food,” lower on the food chain than bologna.
After the crustaceans are cooked, shelled and chopped, he adds mayo, chopped green onion and chives, a little celery, salt and cracked white pepper. Next: a splash of Sicilian lemon white balsamic vinegar and the zest of half a lemon. The bread (toasted) is brushed with garlic butter and more is drizzled over the lobster mix. In a word, sublime.
“It’s all about simplicity and interpretation, right?” says Munro.
And the winner is…
So, what’s the verdict? Here are my three faves for your interest (excluding Chef Munro; I reckon he’d not take kindly to my handing out his home address).
As a Maritime gal with traditional leanings, certain things are important to me: a hot-dog bun (toasted); lots of lobster; cooked onsite; mayo and a dash of salt and pepper. Lobster on the Wharf hits all of these. (I decided to forgive them for putting celery into the mix, only because the water view is so gorgeous).
Now, having ‘fessed up that I’m a plain Jane when it comes to lobster rolls, I do have a wild side. For the wow factor, Youngfolk & The Kettle Black tops the list with those shoestring apples and the sheer size of it all. (Bonus points for having the best coffee in town.)
And then there’s that bacon-fat mayo. Trips to The Pilot House for lobster rolls could be habit-forming if I lived in Charlottetown. Enough said.
So dear readers, did we miss any? For sure. I hear there are lobster rolls at Sims Corner Steak House & Lobster Bar and Water St. Fish & Chips and I bet there’s more.
What would YOU add to this list? Feel free to comment below. We’re standing by.