On a muggy, overcast August afternoon, spitting mist and foggy, Commercial Street is bustling with groups of twos and fours. We were headed to the Portland Lobster Company, on a plum assignment, research for our part of the lobster roll roundup. Some locals don’t care for the Portland Lobster Company, but I still consider myself new in town, with a fairly fresh perspective and a sincere affinity with kitsch. I do think it’s overpriced. I do think there are cooler places in and all around town. But I appreciate the effort being made and have witnessed tourists appearing to have fun, twisting and cracking their ungainly crustaceans.
What a remarkable knack for design and marketing is on display! From the modern vintage signage, to the whitewashed, seaside shack interior, and the waitress-less process which involves you, the customer, ordering inside, winding down the dock to an outside bar to pickup drinks, then sliding past the Wind Jammers bluegrass quartet into a picnic table-lined tent, waiting with your light-up lobster for your number to be up. It’s just pleasant, clean and crisp and efficient. I like watching the Yankee Candle couple pouring over a map, the parents of ten-year-olds regarding their kids’ faces for signs of pleasure or allergic reaction, the groups of college students ordering many rounds of beers for some old-fashioned daytime drinking.
This lobster roll ($15.99), it’s peculiar. It was neither the hot-and-buttered version I grew up eating in Connecticut, nor the mixed-with-mayo type I have come to adore from my favorite seafood spot of all time, Patty’s in Edgecomb. Instead, a somewhat sparse pile of unscathed claw-and-knuckle meat, served, as the menu observes, “brushed with sweet butter,” but with none of the promised “mayonnaise on the side,” sitting within a chlorophyll-color leaf of lettuce tucked into a bun, shiny and toothsome, like a Fox News correspondent. It’s also chilled and, I thought, though Malcolm disagreed, a tiny bit slimy, which may have just been the sheen of butter. The meat was not sweet, as I have learned to expect after over a year of living in Maine. Nearly naked lobster meat doesn’t make for a more satisfying lobster roll experience. It needs to consort with fat and mellow into something better. This was not to my taste. Not grodi, or rancid, or fishy. Just not for me.
Malcolm’s plate of fried haddock ($12.99) was plentiful and pleasing: three pieces of cornmeal (“and other stuff,” the kitchen described, when I asked) battered, firm fish that flaked into easy chunks between your fingers, sprawled over fries, served with tartar sauce and cole slaw. The day’s most delicious surprise, however, came in the form of clam chowder ($5.99). This was not the typical cup of chewy, glutinous, white viscous liquid. This chowder was rich and nearly green with an herb I could not identify but really, really enjoyed. It was extremely satisfying, and I am so happy that I ordered it. Because.
Deep breath/drum roll. I did not like the lobster roll. The lobster roll was why we made the journey. What we are reporting on. And the one that won the 2011 Portland Phoenix Readers’ Pick for best lobster roll. For me, however, it fails.
I understand why you might wish to avoid the Portland Lobster Company at high season, brimming with vacationers gawking at seagulls, in favor of J’s Oyster or Susan’s Fish and Chips. It’s definitely putting on a display for visitors, all cocksure and swinging. When I’ve walked past at happy hours on earlier, sunnier evenings, I have, felt a little grossed out by the wine cooler, popped collar, searching-for-my-lost-shaker-of-salt atmosphere. But when we brought my sister last autumn and it was chilly outside, warmed inside the tents by patio heaters, all was perfect, with salt air, wine and wet naps to last all afternoon.