Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Last year, I sat down and put together a list of favorite dishes for this Must Haves series.
There was the burger, the pork sandwich and the french fries covered in gravy. There was also a lobster roll. It's served at a great little restaurant in Dupont. Having grown up in Florida, I wasn't exposed to this New England staple until I moved to the area, so the one in Dupont was my first. I've had others since, but this one remained the favorite.
And then a new lobster roll rolled into town, literally.
If you know anything about the recent food truck trend, you know about its brightest star: the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck. These guys need more publicity like I need a hole in the head.
The Washington Post, the City Paper and The Washingtonian have all praised the four-wheeled seafood shack. So why am I focusing on it? I'm late to the game and the big boys have already filled you in on how wonderful the food is, in particular the $15 lobster roll.
The thing is, they're right. In fact, they might not be stressing the point enough: for $15, you can buy the best damn four bite sandwich in Washington, D.C. (unless lobster's not your thing, in which case they're selling fondue in Penn Quarter).
Every time I order one of Red Hook's lobster rolls, I'm disappointed in how small they are. We're talking about a $15 sandwich that's served on a hotdog bun that's probably not six inches long. But man, do they stuff that tiny bun. Try as I might (and I try), I can't wrap my mouth around the lobster roll. There's just too much lobster meat. It's a buttery cornucopia of lobster plenty.
The rolls come in two styles: Maine and Connecticut. The lobster meat in the Maine-style roll is lightly dressed with mayo, celery and seasoning (I guess Maine invented mayonnaise). The Connecticut is nothing more than lobster and warm butter in a bun.
Both versions are outstanding, but the Connecticut is absolutely amazing. It's just you, butter and a pile of sweet lobster meat (which is how I'd like to be buried one day). Quite simply, it's the very embodiment of the lobster roll. It makes the long lines worth it and the price perfectly acceptable.
It is the best lobster roll in D.C.
Now, there is one other reason I wanted to feature Red Hook Lobster Pound's lobster rolls. I have a feeling this food truck thing might be more fleeting than the great cupcake craze of 2010. I hope I'm wrong. I do. But I like sitting down when I eat and maybe having an adult beverage. And when you're eating off a food truck, those options aren't available.
Besides, D.C. can be a fickle town and once the novelty of the trucks wears off, I'm afraid their legions of supporters will head back to traditional sit-down restaurants and turn their attention to the next big thing (I hear it's pie).
If that happens, it'll be a shame. Good food is good food, regardless of whether you buy it in a restaurant or from a food truck. And when it comes to lobster rolls, the best you can buy may be rolling through a neighborhood near you.
In these harsh economic times, decadence gets put on the backburner.
But what happens when these harsh economic times makes decadence affordable? A few weeks ago, I came across a New York Times article reporting that the price of lobster was down because budget-conscious seafood lovers were opting for fish sticks, making the crustacean not nearly as decadent a treat. So what to do? Why go buy lobsters of course.
That’s what I did last weekend. With visions of grilled lobster dancing in my head, I headed down to the wharf on Main Avenue. If you’ve never wandered down there, you’ve been missing out. Even vegetarians can fall in love with the hustle and bustle of the open-air seafood market. True, the boats that the fish mongers work on haven’t left the dock in decades, but the place looks, sounds and smells authentic.
After a bit of haggling with the guys at Captain White’s Seafood City, I picked up pound-and-a-half live lobsters for less than $20 each.
In fact, I picked up 15 of them. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to take advantage of the suddenly affordable lobsters.
When cooking lobsters on the grill, there are really two ways to do it – split them in half or leave them whole. Seeing that I was doing Caribbean grilled lobsters, splitting them was the only option.
The first time I had grilled lobsters was on my honeymoon in St. Barths. On our last evening on the island, my wife and I ate dinner at the small beach-side restaurant, La Langouste: the lobster. I ordered a rather delicate lobster and puff pastry dish. It was adorable. My wife ordered a two pound rock lobster she picked out herself. It was emasculating.
To prove to us the lobster was fresh (apparently, watching it crawl around the tank minutes before wasn’t enough), the restaurant’s owner carried it over to the table and flicked it on the head, causing the startled crustacean snap to attention. Her grilled lobster was absolutely delicious. Split in two, so the meat could roast directly on the grill, the lobster tasted smoky, buttery and incredibly sweet. For the record, the two and a half pound grilled lobster I had the first night we arrived on the island was just as good.
My goal last weekend was to recreate this experience. Although I was using Canadian lobsters, the effect was the same. This big difference was that in order to eat my lobster, I had to kill the poor bugger first. When faced with this, you can either parboil the lobster for two minutes in a covered pot before splitting it, or you can plunge a knife into its head and kill it instantly. I did the latter. I figured that if I was going to revel in its meat, I should look it in its little doll-like black eyes and kill it.
And for what it’s worth, by the time you kill and halve the sixth or seventh lobster, you don’t even think about it. Once the gory business is done, grilling lobster is really pretty easy. Brush the meat with butter and grill meat-side down for a few minutes. Flip, brush with basil-infused butter for a few more minutes and you're done.
Now, sit back, turn on CNBC, watch your 401(k) disappear, and enjoy the lobster. Remember, it’s not decadent. We can’t afford decadent. But we can afford grilled lobster.
Captain White's Seafood City
1100 Maine Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20024
(Tip: The more lobsters, shrimp or other seafood that you buy, the better deal you can get. You just have to be willing to haggle for a better price.)
Grilled Lobster with Basil Butter and Spicy Sweet Jícama Salad
(Makes 4 servings)
(Adapted from Steven Raichlen's "The Barbeque! Bible")
4 live Canadian or rock lobsters (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each)
8 tbs. (1 stick) salted butter, melted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1 to 2 limes, halved
Spicy Sweet Jícama Salad
1/2 Jícama, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 yellow tomato, cut into bite-size pieces
3 plumb tomatoes (or 2 beef steak or other red tomato), cut into bite-size pieces
1 mango, cubed
1/2 red onion, cut into long slices
2 Serrano peppers, diced
1/4 cup of fresh tarragon, minced
2 tsp. of all spice
3 tsp. of dried thyme
3 tbs. of olive oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
For the salad, prep the ingredients and combine in a large bowl.
For the lobsters, preheat the grill to high.
If using lobster tails, cut them in half lengthwise with kitchen scissors or a sharp, heavy knife; use a fork to remove the intestinal vein running the length of the tail.
If using live lobsters, keep the rubber bands on the claws and kill each by inserting a sharp knife in the back of the head between the eyes; this will dispatch them instantly. However, this is messy business, so do this outside, or lay down newspapers or something else to absorb the liquid from the lobster. Cut the lobsters in half lengthwise and remove the vein and the papery gray sac from the head. Break off the claws, remove the rubber bands and crack with a nutcracker.
Brush the cut sides of the lobster tails or lobsters with some of the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Add the chopped basil to the remaining butter.
When ready to cook, oil the grill grate.
Arrange the tails and lobster halves and claws (if any), cut sides down, on the hot grate and grill for 6 to 8 minutes. Turn, using tongs, and grill on the shell sides until the flesh is firm and white, 6 to 8 minutes more, squeezing lime juice over the lobsters as they cook and brush generously several times with the basil butter.
Transfer the lobsters to serving plate or a platter and serve immediately, accompanied by the remaining basil butter in ramekins on the side.