Restaurant review with a side of historical fiction
One recent late summer’s eve we dined with friends at The Steam Room, a local fish restaurant which featured live music (a colleague of Terry’s from work) and an extraordinary deal on fresh lobster, i.e., two, 1.25 lb lobsters for $17…
The lobsters (along with a la carte steamers to start) were really exceptional – so good in fact as to cause our friend Debbie to state unconditionally, “Those were the best lobsters I’ve ever eaten!”
Well, that’s a pretty serious claim. With all of the awards given each year – The Oscars, The Tony Awards, The Lortel Awards (see A Boy and His Soul), the Grammies, the People’s Choice Awards and on and on…it’s no surprise that the American Society of Seafood Arts and Sciences (ASSAS) awards for Best Lobster, more commonly known as The Crustacean Awards get lost in the noise. But each year, true seafood lovers eagerly anticipate the tough competition and ceremonies. These Golden Crusty awards are not handed out frivolously. And of course there are many award categories including size, weight, age, price, value, etc. Therefore, one needs to narrow the field in order to have any serious discussion on the matter. So, these admittedly exceptional specimens were surely in the running in the category of Best Inexpensive Lobster Dinner, but not necessarily a shoe-in for a Crusty. I present my case…
For those of us lucky enough to grow up within a stone’s throw of the most famous seafood restaurant in NYC history (the legendary Lundy Brothers in Sheepshead Bay) it’s impossible not to bring it to mind when considering great, affordable lobster meals. Lundy’s was always near the top of the list in the Best Value Lobster Dinner category. Their specialty of the house was the Shore Dinner which included clam chowder or salad, steamers, fresh biscuits, a whole lobster (or a half lobster and half a baked chicken), corn, baked potato and homemade pie for desert, all for a very reasonable price. I cannot say exactly how much the dinner cost because my dad always insisted on picking up the tab and then would usually carry me up to bed after I fell asleep on the car ride home.
Growing up in Long Beach, NY we often went to a seafood place just over the bridge in Island Park called Brown’s Lobsters, which I remember as a take-out place but they may have had a restaurant too. They sold so many fresh lobsters that you had to call your order in, in advance and it would be waiting when you arrived. Live lobsters by the hundreds (from one all the way up to three+ pounders) were on display in huge tanks. We lived so close we’d usually order them steamed (same price) after a day at the beach sharpened our appetites and they’d be ready to eat as soon as you got home. During the summer this was a memorable ritual – in retrospect my folks knew how to really enjoy life without having much money.
After leaving my roots 50 yards from the ocean and moving upstate to land-locked Binghamton, Terry and I spent our “honeymoon” camping along the Northeast coast during which time we sampled lobster dinners from Cape Cod to Bar Harbour. Since we didn’t have a pot to piss in we stayed in campgrounds with bathroom facilities and only ate at inexpensive seafood restaurants that featured cheap lobster dinners. During this trip we had quite a few dinners that certainly were among the best we had ever eaten – in fact, we objectively established from the data a clear correlation between the sweetness of lobster meat and the geographical location in which the lobsters resided, corroborating the hypothesis that lobsters from colder, more northern waters, i.e., Maine are sweeter than their southern relatives residing off the coast of Massachusetts (on that note it would be interesting to know where the recent competitors were from). We also noted that the meat of larger lobsters is just as (or even more) tender and sweet than their younger counterparts, dispelling the fallacy that big lobsters are more tough and chewy. So during this intense, ten day lobster-fest the Crusty for Best Lobster Dinner was awarded to a roadside joint in Maine where the traps were unloaded by the local fisherman and the lobsters crawled out of their traps directly into the steamer pot and were served on your plate within 15 min. or you got your money back. This roadside joint took home multiple honors: Since these babies weighed in at 2 lbs. a piece and were reasonably priced at something like 3 for $10, it took home the Best Inexpensive Lobster Dinner honors (perhaps the price is somewhat exaggerated after all these years, but certainly well affordable to even those of us with a combined annual income of $12,000). It was literally the only time in my life where I can truly say, I had All You Can Eat Lobster.
As an aside, the winner of the Most Romantic Lobster Dinner was the meal we cooked at home in celebration of the first night both of our kids were away at summer camp for the first time. Caesar salad, fresh home cooked lobsters, local corn, and plenty of wine… I digress.
So with all of this legitimate competition, you can see my reluctance at having to rename the Best Inexpensive Lobster Dinner and drive all the way up to Maine to retrieve the Crusty from the roadside joint where it has been gathering dust for 35 years. However, in the spirit of Hollywood’s expansion of the Oscars to the point that they cannot even give them all out during the interminably long 3 hour broadcast because they now give out awards for such esoteric categories as Best Scenic Design for a Foreign Documentary Film with Subtitles, I propose we lobby the ASSAS to add a new category: Best Inexpensive Lobster in a Restaurant with Live Music, No Cover Charge and Free Parking. In this case, our end of summer lobster feast would definitely win the Crusty hands down!