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Sunday
Jun022013

The Best Warm Lobster Rolls on the Connecticut Coast

Connecticut's signature food may not be New Haven Pizza or Steamed Hamburger.  And it’s certainly not Nutmeg (indeed, not a single nutmeg seed has ever been planted, much less harvested, in the Nutmeg state.  But that's a tale for another time).  

Actually, Connecticut’s truly indigenous dish may be the Warm Lobster Roll, a state treasure.   According to the new edition of John Mariana's authoritative Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, the Connecticut Lobster Roll was likely born in 1927 at Perry's Restaurant in Milford. A customer asked owner Harry Perry to serve his lobster meat off the shell, dressed in butter, and placed in a bun.   No need for a cracker, picks, or bib.  As the New Haven Register tells it, the new sandwich proved to be so popular that Perry soon mounted a large sign over his restaurant that read "Home of the Lobster Roll."     

Today, order a lobster roll in most of New England and you'll probably be served something quite different:  a bun filled with chilled lobster salad, the crustacean mixed with mayo, celery, and various condiments.  But travel along the Connecticut shoreline and your sandwich will likely be similar to Perry's original:  warm lobster meat drizzled in butter and piled high in a grilled bun, either long or round.  

With summer starting, CTBites embarked on such a trip - up the state’s entire coastline in search of the best Connecticut Lobster Rolls. 

Before setting out, we questioned whether there would be much diversity.  After all, the recipe calls for only three simple ingredients: bread, butter and lobster.  To our surprise -- and often dismay – we tasted extreme differences.  The meat ranged from sweet, warm and tender to fishy, rubbery, and dry.  Some lobster chunks were gently poached in butter while others were nuked in a microwave. We tasted buns that were fresh and grilled to perfection and a few that were stale and soggy.  Proportions of tender claw to chewy tail meat also varied considerably, not to mention price points.       

Very early in the hunt, we decided that the makings of a great CLR should include a fourth ingredient:  Setting.   By land or by sea, going for a lobster roll is destination dining. So place as well as taste played into our picks.  

Herewith, the very Best Connecticut Lobster Rolls, any of them worth a trip to the state’s scenic shoreline.   (Listed from South to North -- or West to East.)  

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 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: avoid the rest of the menu.

$17.95  

520 SNIFFENS LANE |  203.378.5999 l KNAPPSLANDING.COM

SEVEN SEAS | MILFORD

Steps away from the birthplace of the warm lobster roll, this Irish Pub in downtown Milford serves a version 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.

$16.95 (WITH FRIES AND SLAW)

16 NEW HAVEN AVE I 203. 877.7327

THE CHELSEA | FAIRFIELD

Matt Storch is known for creative riffs on standard fare.  But his take on the simple, unpretentious lobster roll?  To our delight, Storch doesn't outkick his coverage.  His rendition is a heartfelt homage to the classical CLR he grew up with along the shore: a quarter pound of chopped lobster, slowly warmed in butter, ready for a spritz of lemon. His lone tweak: the bun.  It’s a sturdy, top-cut pretzel roll, salty and nuanced with umami flavors, but also built to soak up any excess butter without getting soggy (a roll problem that was fairly common at some of our stops.  When buttering meat destined for a thin, hot dog bun, drizzle actually works better than drench) The playful plating promises a picnic.  Just gaze at the colors and shapes on the plate: the warm, reddish hues of glistening lobster heaped high in the golden pretzel bun, the sea-green stack of citrus slaw, and a “bag o’ home made chips” burnished barbecue brown.  You can’t help but grin. And salivate.  Tip:  During the summer, Storch also serves a higher end CLR at Match, his flagship in Norwalk.

$19.95 (WITH TWO TASTY SIDES)

12 UNQUOWA PLACE   l 203.254.8200 l THECHELSEA.COM

LENNY AND JOE’S FISHTALE SHACKS | VARIOUS LOCATIONS

Their award winning CLR is the quintessence 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 featuring 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 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.

$15.50 WITH SLAW ($1.95 EXTRA FOR FRIES)

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

1301 BOSTON POST ROAD  I  MADISON I  203.245.7289

86 BOSTON POST ROAD I WESTBROOK I 860.669.0767

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. 

$15  ($13 for Seniors every Wednesday)

152 COMMERCE STREET  l 860.669.2005

CAPTAIN SCOTT’S LOBSTER DOCK | NEW LONDON 

Overlooking the bustling New London marina, Scott’s took a pounding from Sandy’s surge and has only recently reopened, just in time for our visit.  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 sublime premium IC once enjoyed only in D.C .parlors, but now available in New England.

LARGE (WITH SLAW) $15.95  

SMALL (WITH SLAW) $10.95 

80 HAMILTON STREET | 860.439.1741 |  CAPTSCOTTS.COM 

ABBOTT’S LOBSTER IN THE ROUGH |  GROTON  

This legendary lobster pound – the size of a small campus -- lies just miles from the Rhode Island border, which explains why customers can order either a cold lobster salad roll or a CLR.  Opt for Hot.  Lobsters ("still swimming as you order” at the counter) 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 gold standard of a Connecticut Lobster Roll.  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 crave 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

$19.95 (WITH SIDES) 

117 PEARL STREET | 860.536.7719 | ABBOTTS-LOBSTER.COM  

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Reader Comments (39)

I couldn't disagree you with you more regarding the Chelsea lobster roll. Really?? I had this roll when they first opened. It was scarce with the lobster meat and I was very disappointed. More roll than lobster and that's a problem. Unless they have improved it since opening... I would not recommended their LR.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBennyLou

My 91 year old mother and I have sampled lobster rolls all around lower Fairfield County (it's one of her favorite summertime dishes) and our favorite is actually at SBC Brewery in Stamford, of all places. Just the kind you're talking about with just lobster meat, butter and a great roll. So many times we order a lobster roll only to find that it is a cold lobster salad with hardly any lobster!

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbswfeb25

I'm pretty sure the lobster roll at The Chelsea is pretty similar to the lobster roll at Match, and it is delicious!! Maybe you had an off day, but The Chelsea lobster roll has consistently been great when I've been there.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I know it is brand new...but Mediterraneo at Hotel Zero Degrees in Norwalk ( see recent post on CTbites ) also has a terrific Lobster Roll as an appetizer. I enjoyed it recently while watching the waterfall and feeling like I was anywhere but in CT!

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFood4Thought

Lobster Roll aka " LUNCH" on Montauk Hwy. in Amagansett, L.I.

Best by far.....not even close.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfoodieonline

I realize we're not talking food trucks here, but Lobster Craft serves up a dream of a Lobster Roll!

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Iseman

Although it just opened in Norwalk on the Post Road Brennan's Tap Room has a large 5-6oz Lobster roll on a fresh roll that will compare to any of these.

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbb

The Lobster Hut is a food truck in Milford located directly across the street from the Land Rover dealership. They have a wonderful CLR, and the service is great. They remain open as long as they still have lobster. So far I have not been able to catch them open this year, as they run out early.

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Lobster Landing crushes it

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAK

Must agree with Stephanie. Lobster Hut across from Land Rover of Milford is by far the best!
Friends of mine drive there from White Plains NY twice a month and bring back 15 to their office!!

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCB

Great post, Lou!

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

I second the Lobster Craft truck recommendation. He offers a variety of lobster rolls (but always includes the basic). Follow him on twitter to find out where he will be on a given day.

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commentershelby LeVino

My favorite is Lazy Lobster in Milford.....served on toasted french bread that will never get soggy.
And Walnut Beach Creamery across the street for dessert!!

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike D

You should consider adding the Lobster Roll from The Little Pub. It is, hands down THE BEST I have ever had.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Knapps Landing...a classic setting, a classic roll. Hands down winner.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdian

These are all good places but the Guilford Lobster pound is awesome.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVito B

Seven Seas is my favorite, but Westfair in Westport, Citrus and Lobster Hut in Milford, and Szabos Seafood Truck make good ones too. Gotta try Knapp's Landing and Lazy Lobster next.

For whatever reason it's really tough to find a good lobster roll in FFC. Westfair was the only one I've had.

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRK

Also, I had a terrible lobster roll at Abbott's. Maybe it was an off day, but it was bad in almost every way (bun, skimpy meat, tough/dry lobster).

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRK

What about the Clam Castle in Madison? A dive, but they have awesome lobster rolls!

June 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Having grown up near Abbott's ... never been a fan, so not worth the money or wait BUT Captain Scott's ... now there is a damn good lobster roll, also love that it's BYOB with diners bringing fancy tableware to match the fun outdoor setting

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersrm

I haven't been to the Lobster Hut ("cart/truck") across from Land Rover in Milford, but everyone I know has, and they swear it is Amazing!!! And shoreline people are some tough customers when it comes to CLR!

July 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLynn

bswfeb25, at your suggestion, and with lots of hesitation I, tried the twin warm lobster rolls at SBC. When the bartender asked howw I liked them, I said , "A left-handed compliment, but they were surprisingly good." I likec that he butter was served separately so that I could control the wetness. The meat was tasty, but I'm pretty sure it was taken from a cooler and microwaved. The bartendar claimed innocence. Had I tried it earlier, I don't think it would have earned a place on the list.

July 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLou

The Little Pub "Lobster Roll" is not the warmed LR I'm looking for, although I'm sure it's fine. Viewing their menu online, it sounds more like lobster salad on a roll. A true warmed lobster roll has: lobster and drawn butter in a top-split hot dog roll...that's it.

The Lobster Craft truck has it, Lobster Landing has it, even Sunset Grille has it. OK...now I want one!

July 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElise

Lou, thanks for at least giving SBC a try on my suggestion. My mom and I haven't had a LR there yet this year, so I don't know if there is any difference from previous years. When we've had them there in the past the meat didn't seem to be microwaved, but who knows. Admittedly, since my mom is 91+ we're not going TOO far afield looking for a great LR. Most of the ones we have found in some very nice restaurants in the Greenwich/Stamford/Norwalk area have been cold lobster salad with lots of filling (in fact the worst one we ever had was surprisingly at Rowayton Seafood!). We agree with Elise (above) that a true lobster roll is "lobster and drawn butter in a top-split hot dog roll..that's it." We'll keep looking in the lower FC area.

July 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbswfeb25@hotmail.com

Gosh you've left out my favorite and Shoreline standout The Lobster Shack of Branford! The lobster is sweet, the bun and butter are just right. The Shack is waterfront property at the mouth of the Branford River - beautiful! You can buy a soda or bring your own champagne. What's not to love.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravelerTF

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