Best Warm Lobster Rolls On The Connecticut Coast: 2015 Update

Lou Gorfain

Welcome to the end of July, summer’s center point.  The perfect time for our annual quest to find the best of Connecticut's official pleasure of summer: warm, buttery lobster rolls. 

At the suggestion of readers, chefs, CTBites staff and a food critic or two, we've added an array of food trucks, pounds, shacks, and even a high end restaurant to our previous portfolio (see 2014 edition here)

So take a ride up the balmy Connecticut coastline.  We start in the southwest and head northeast, as CTBites forages the best warm lobster rolls in America.

Since the sandwich is indigenous to our state, we dub it the "Connecticut Lobster Roll" (CLR), not to be confused with the construction served in other parts of New England:  a chilled salad of lobster and mayo mixed with celery and other fillers, all piled unceremoniously into a hot dog bun. 

Guess you sense where our loyalties lie.  After all, the CLR was invented in Milford and perfected across the state. There's Virginia Ham. Wisconsin Cheddar.  And Connecticut Lobster Roll. 

They're even served at selected McDonald's along the state's shore line.  The manager of the Double Arches on Boston Post Road in Clinton (aka Lobster Lane), told us he sells out his Big Lobs almost every summer day.

One disconcerting development since our last report: the brutal 2014-15 winter took its toll on lobster supplies, prices and selection.  (Because of the fluctuations, we don’t list prices this year.)

But bite into a grilled roll bearing a mound of glistening lobster chunks -- preferably near a sun splashed shore -- and ice bound harbors with empty traps seem a far-fetched Winter’s Tale.

LOBSTERCRAFT

LOCATIONS FROM GREENWICH TO ROWAYTON

It's not so much a food truck, but a Lobster Lab. Mike Hardon's perfect ratio of meat to bun to butter brings a uniform balance of the three flavors to almost every bite.  Start with the top cut buns.  They're baked each morning  at Muro's New York Bakery and Deli in Norwalk, then hand sliced in the truck, each roll lightly buttered and toasted so the fresh bread not only embraces, but stands up to the 1/4 pound of whole claw and knuckle meat piled into it.  Normally, LobsterCraft eschews fibrous tail meat in the mix, for the sweeter (and more visually vibrant) whole claw meat.  However, the frigid Down East winter has forced their distributors to break up the claws and include some white meat.  As a result, LobsterCraft must resort to serving both broken and whole pieces together.  Despite this nuance, the perfect adjective for their championship roll is "crafted."  (note bene: LobsterCraft has removed its name from the brick and mortar location on Tokenek Road in Darien because the store does not serve the same meat or roll as the truck.)  Check Facebook and their website for the location and schedules of LobsterCraft's two trucks.

LOBSTERCRAFT.COMFACEBOOK.COM/LOBSTERCRAFT

ELM

NEW CANAAN This sleek and trendy restaurant – and its inventive lobster roll-- seem a world away from the simple sandwich prepared in the humble seafood shacks along the Connecticut shore.  While most of the states’ cooks resist the temptation to vamp on the fixed CLR ingredients of lobster, bread and butter, Chef Luke Venner blithely adds a strip of bacon and shreds of arugula to the classic. Reading the menu description, we were skeptical. After all, when it comes to CLR, you don’t mess with tradition.  But after one bite of this luscious CLR, our mouth was watering and our eyes opening.  The bacon lent a savory zing to the delicate, perfectly poached lobster, the arugula offered a touch of color and a peppery note, and the  toasted brioche bun soaked the foaming butter sauce without wilting.  Voila, the Gourmet Warm Lobster Roll.  Exactly what you expect from a chef raised in that seafood mecca called South Dakota!  Tip: the crisp French Fries should be tasted between CLR bites. A textural counterpoint.

 73 ELM STREET  | 203.920.4994elmrestaurant.com/

WESTFAIR FISH AND CHIPS

WESTPORT

Westfair is a hidden gem, with the emphasis on "hidden."  You literally can't see this legendary seafood shack from Post Road East.  So rely on your GPS to lead you to some sweet fried clam bellies, succulent steamers, and their namesake fish and chips. But steer clear of the Lobster Rolls.  Unless you crave 3 ounces of tough, dry lobster pieces, a toasted hot dog bun that crumbles more than contains, and a wait that can last 20 minutes or more. The "Hot" Lobster Roll listed on the menu board thankfully was just warm, its only attribute.  We far prefer Westfair's otherwise fun and scrumptious catch.

1787 POST ROAD EAST   |  203.255.3184    |   WESTFAIRFISHANDCHIPS.COM

KNAPP’S LANDING 

STRATFORD

Chunks of claw and tail meat are first poached in butter, and then ladled onto a grilled soft roll. A generous 6 oz. portion (the meat found in a two pound whole lobster) makes this colossal sandwich one of the heftiest along the coast – worthy of its name on the menu:  “King Lobster Roll.”   Knapp’s offers table service only, but the view from those tables is breathtaking, a panorama of the Mouth of the Housatonic, where the river meets the Sound.   Sit outdoors on the new patio built after Sandy’s ravages and take in sails billowing in the wind, clam boats plying the waters, and gulls wheeling overhead.  The briny air adds its own garnish to this top tasting lobster roll.   First come first served on the patio.  Tip: ask for the mussels in warm gorgonzola sauce and avoid most ot the rest of the menu.

520 SNIFFENS LANE203.378.5999 l KNAPPSLANDING.COM

LAZY LOBSTER

MILFORD

We were somewhat disappointed by their version of the CLR, especially in the city where the sandwich was invented. The roll overwhelmed a 4 ounce serving of lobster, but it still failed to sop up the excess butter pooled at the bottom of the cardboard tray. However, the lobster was top quality, a combination of whole claw, knuckle and tail meat. But here’s the best reason to try Lazy Lobster:  it stands caddy corner from the amazing Walnut Beach Creamery and its array of ice cream.  Talk about the flavors of summer”: rich, warm lobster, cold, sweet sundae, and cool salty breezes wafting in from the Sound.   Tip: Lazy Lobster is only open Thursday through Sunday.

6 BROADWAY  | 203.283.1864 |  THELAZYLOBSTERRESTAURANT.COM

SEVEN SEAS

MILFORD

Now this Irish Pub in downtown Milford serves a Connecticut Lobster Roll that’s a fitting tribute to the original.   The atmosphere may be strictly dive bar, but what’s wrong with that?  Pass by the tables in the tavern, belly up to the bar like a local, and order the pub’s shibboleth -- a brew and a roll. Fermentation, malt and hops make the perfect pairing for a buttery lobster roll.  As you’re downing your frosty, the bartender slides over a plate burgeoning with a 3 oz. mound of warm meat, stuffed into a grilled top cut long bun, flanked by a pile of hot, thick cut fries, steam rising, and a cup of creamy coleslaw. Forget those fancy gastro-pubs.  Bar food doesn’t get much better than this. Tip: there's a double lobster roll on the menu.  Dare you to finish it.

16 NEW HAVEN AVE | 203. 877.7327

THE CHELSEA

FAIRFIELD -- and MATCH. SONO. Matt Storch grew up on Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (see below), so the lobster rolls he serves at both his restaurants are an homage to its CLR, albeit with a few Storchian touches. The Chelsea’s rendition is classical: just lobster, lots of butter and bread.  The big tweak: their bun.  It’s a sturdy, top-cut pretzel roll made to soak up the excess butter without getting soggy (a roll problem that was fairly common at some of our stops.  When buttering meat destined for a thin, long bun, drizzle actually works better than drench) With Chelsea’s substantial pretzel bun, “drown” works just fine.  And so does playful.  The plating promises a picnic.  Just gaze at the colors and shapes on the plate: the warm, reddish hues of lobster heaped high in the golden pretzel bun, the sea-green stack of citrus slaw, and a “bag o’ home made chips” burnished barbeque brown.   Match’s version substitutes a brioche bun and ands aioli to the mix.  What fun. You can’t help but grin.  

12 UNQUOWA PLACE  l 203.254.8200 l THECHELSEA.COM

98 WASHINGTON STREET  l  203.852.1088 l  MATCHSONO.COM

MEAT & CO.

NEW HAVEN

John Ginnetti is celebrated for his creativity behind the bar and in the kitchen. But when it comes to a CLR, he admits "The real challenge was deciding whether or not to change it from the Classic."   So far his version has remained true to the original construction of meat, butter, and bread (though the butter is sautéed with a sprinkle of tarragon).   What distinguishes his sandwich is the generous 6 ounce portion of lobster fresh from the Front Street docks (just down the block), augmented by artisan rolls sourced daily from Port Chester, New York. A slice of cold watermelon brings a playful summery finish. The sandwich has yet to make the daily menu -- though given the huge demand (and the fun it brings to the shop), John may offer it more often.  As for a nickname similar to the other inventive sandwiches on his menu, Ginnetti promises "Only if we do a riff."  Check social media for when this outstanding iteration of Connecticut's most beloved sandwich is offered (in what might be the state's best sandwich shop.)

Tip:  try their surf and turf interpretation, chunks of ribeye and lobster cuddled in top cut bun.

116 CROWN  |  203.766.MEAT  |  MEATANDCOMPANY.COM

LENNY AND JOE’S FISHTALE SHACKS

NEW HAVEN, MADISON, WESTBROOK

Their award winning CLR is the essence of simplicity…. and restraint.  This mini-chain boasts three seafood “shacks” off the Boston Post Road in New Haven, Madison, and Westbrook (a 20 mile stretch of so many seafood shacks that we have dubbed it “Lobster Lane.”)  Although the 2 ½ ounces of tender lobster meat may be the lightest portion we found on our expedition, the succulent claw and tail chunks fit just right inside the top cut grilled hot dog bun, so fresh it seems to float.  Neither meat nor bread is adorned by excessive butter, so best to begin by anointing the lobster with a squirt of lemon juice, and then take a bite. The burst of sweet flavor and freshness.is Lobster Haven, light and warm as a sun beam.  Even the daintiest diner will quickly finish the rest of this unfettered roll and be tempted to order a second.  Despite the crowds, service is fast and friendly. All three of these clean and spacious table service restaurants sparkle.  “Shack” is strictly a metaphor.  Tip: instead of another roll, order a side of fried clams.  The creamiest we’ve ever tasted.

501 LONG WHARF DRIVE l  NEW HAVEN  l  203.691.6619 I  LJFISHTALE.COM

1301 BOSTON POST ROAD |  MADISON |  203.245.7289

86 BOSTON POST ROAD | WESTBROOK | 860.669.0767

THE LOBSTER SHACK

BRANFORD

After they mounted a write in campaign following our last roundup, we paid a visit.  To our surprise, the place is actually a food truck tricked out to look like a permanent sea side shack. To complete the illusion, the truck is parked alongside an outdoor veranda overlooking an active marina. We gave our order and name, then waited in the patio  at one of the dozen or so crowded tables.  10 minutes later our name was called on the speaker system. Though the bun embraced just 4 ounces of lobster, the ratio of bread, butter and meat was well balanced. The truck may be camouflaged, but the CLR tasted authentic.  We’d like to provide more information to our readers, but the owners never returned CTBites’ repeated calls for background on the prep and provenance of ingredients..

7 INDIAN NECK AVE  |  203.483.8414 |LOBSTERSHACKCT.COM

THE GUILFORD LOBSTER POUND

Working pounds are common in Maine.  Not so in Connecticut.  But Captain Bart Mansi's operation in Guilford is true to its name.  Early each morning, the veteran Connecticut lobsterman pulls loads of lobster from the Sound, hauls the bounty to his Guilford dock and deck and tanks the catch in 38 degree salt water to await their daily fate.   As a result, his lobster roll may be the freshest we tasted in all of Connecticut. Ok, the buttered bun was only average, but the fourth ingredient of the CLR experience -- the setting -- was beyond delicious.  Falkner Island looms to the south, Grass Island rises in the east, and a vast Salt Marsh beckons a variety of shore birds and wild life. It's as if we were transported Down East, except, thankfully, the lobster was Connecticut warm, not Main cold.  The Pound is closed Mondays and Tuesdays during the summer.  Tip: rent the deck for an old fashioned bake.

505A WHITFIELD ST. |  203.453.6122   | guilfordlobsterpound.com

CLAM CASTLE

MADISON

To our disappointment, this venerable Boston Post Road seafood stand was shuttered during our lobster quest two summers ago.  The Madison favorite has since reopened under new management.  Alas, we remain disappointed. Not surprisingly, given the provenance of their CLR.   The lobster is delivered to the kitchen parboiled and frozen, the hotdog bun is store-bought Arnold’s, and the butter tasted off. Even lacing the sauce with sherry couldn't enliven the tough, over ripe lobster meat. What a shame; their fried clam bellies draw raves. The waitress suggested Lobster Landing down the road.  Read on.

1324 BOSTON POST ROAD |  202.245,4911  |  CLAMCASTLECT.COM

LOBSTER LANDING

CLINTON

Many crustacean connoisseurs claim the lobster roll at this tiny shack  in Clinton ranks as the best of them all --  not only in Connecticut but the entire East Coast.  Be that as it may, the 100 year old sea-worn shack is certainly the most authentic and nautical.  The landing perches on pilings directly over the water and every table sits outdoors atop a floor of broken sea shells. Even the restroom is al fresco (a PortaPottie).  Owned for the past 20 years by Enea and Cathie Bacci, the charming Mom and Pop operation is actually much more sophisticated than it first appears. The Baccis commission a fleet of 9 boats to bring them fresh lobster from the Sound.  They even get their special gluten-free long buns from a gourmet bakery in Vermont. Every aspect of the operation has been honed for maximum efficiency. You order at an outdoor counter and take a seat at a blue checker clothed table.  Within five minutes, you are chomping into a 10 inch bun loaded with a quarter pound of glistening lobster tail, leg, and claw.  Like Lobster Landing itself, the dish is plain, simple, un-presupposing.  The real deal.  And at their price-point: a good deal.  Tip: stop in at the retail market to take home a whole lobster, likely pulled from the Sound that very day. Also deductions for seniors every Wednesday.

152 COMMERCE STREET  l   860.669.2005

FLANDERS FISH

EAST LYME

A deconstructed lobster roll?   Who would expect it from this Old School roadside restaurant, fish market and iconic East Lyme mainstay?   They actually serve the main ingredients of their CLR separately, inviting diners to reconstruct the meat, bread, and condiments to their own whim.   An affable team of waiters bring shredded lobster swimming in a bowl of buttery sauce laced with scallion. That is flanked by a grilled top-cut buttered bun, awaiting its bounty.  There's even lettuce for those inclined (we weren't) and a quarter of lemon to brighten the taste (we spritzed).  The lobster was rich, the roll sweet, the scallion pungent.   "Wonderful," our dining companion swooned after his first bite. "So complex."  An apt adjective for such a simple summer construction.  Tip: A world-class fish market greets you at the door, with catch brought in daily from the Boston docks.

22 CHESTERFIELD RD.   |   860-739-8866  | FLANDERS FISH.COM

CAPTAIN SCOTT’S LOBSTER DOCK

NEW LONDON  Overlooking the bustling New London marina, Scott’s took a pounding from Sandy’s surge, but has survived and prospered.  Good for us, since their two sizes of lobster roll are acclaimed all through Southeast Connecticut.  (It’s a favorite snack spot for cadets at the nearby Coast Guard Academy, sailors who know a thing to two about the sea.) The large sized CLR brandishes a hefty 5 oz. of succulent lobster loaded into a boat-shaped bun, very butter worthy.  For kids, and those watching their waistline and/or wallets, the smaller portion (2 oz.) sits in a dink-like vessel, that takes just three or four bites to devour.  Counter service only.  All seating outdoors.  Lines and waits can be long, so bide the time and watch the traffic of a working water way.  Tip:  forget calories and also order a shake, made with Gifford’s Ice Cream, a New England treasure.

80 HAMILTON STREET | 860.439.1741 |  CAPTSCOTTS.COM

ABBOTT’S LOBSTER IN THE ROUGH

GROTON  Though some readers regard this legendary lobster pound – the size of a small campus – as overrated, we have never been disappointed. Lying just miles from the Rhode Island border, customers can order either a cold lobster salad roll or a CLR.  Opt for Hot.  Lobsters ("still swimming as you order” at the counter), which are slow-steamed in 50-year-old cast iron vaults. Teenagers in the back mold a quarter pound mound of meat onto sesame seeded hamburger bun, and then add a bag of Abbott's own branded chips, a cup of slaw, and two sweet pickle slices.  Carry your “Lobster in the Round” to a picnic table overlooking the shore and savor the epitome of a Connecticut Lobster Roll and an iconic seaside vista.  Both taste and place more than made up for the long trip, the line and the wait. But keep an eye on the hovering gulls.  They love Abbott’s Lobster, too.  It’s BYOB, and many diners bring crystal, tablecloths, and silver fit for a feast.  Tip: also BYO GPS. Far off any beaten path, Abbott’s is not easy to find.  (But hard to forget.) 860-536-7719

117 PEARL STREET | 860.536.7719 | ABBOTTS-LOBSTER.COM

PEQUOT BAY

MASHANTUCKET Pequot Bay boasts no wheeling gulls soaring over a sparkling harbor. It's actually a small counter hidden at an out of the way food court in the vast Foxwoods complex.  Though this succulent lobster roll deserves a more appropriate setting, it stands out as an astonishing winner.  Steamed whole lobster claws and arms are warmed in a sherry butter, spooned into a hand cut grilled bun, and served atop a tray of homemade potato chips, garnished with a dill pickle.  Perfect for a picnic at an imaginary shore far from a casino. Though our bun broke a bit under the burden of 5 ounces of Lobster, we were amazed by the taste and presentation. If you're at Foxwoods, Pequot Bay's CLR may be the only sure bet in the house.  That’s the best tip we have.

GREAT CEDAR FOOD COURT: FOXWOODS.