By Dan Curd
Okay. It may not be local but then again neither is salt or pepper. Still, they all rank well up there on my food pyramid. I just returned from a vacation on Cape Cod. I always make the joke when I'm there that I’m on the lobster diet. Probably, seafood diet would be more accurate since I also consume a lot of oysters, scallops and, of course, clam chowder. But no shellfish has as much status on my table as lobster.
There is a lot of confusion about what is actually a lobster. Technically speaking, it refers to the clawed lobsters of the family Nephropidae, most notably from the northern Atlantic Ocean but elsewhere, too. Crustaceans popularly called spiny lobsters and slipper lobsters are different species and really not closely related to the genuine article. The tails of giant freshwater crayfish are also frequently marketed as lobster. To be sure there is a similarity in the texture and taste of the flesh, but true cold-water lobsters are the most highly prized for their sweetness and succulent claw meat. They can live for up to sixty years and be gargantuan in size—the record setter was caught in Nova Scotia and weighed in at 44.4 pounds! Today, lobsters that make their way to restaurants usually weigh between 1-1/2 and 2 pounds. Lobsters molt and those with thin shells—those that have recently shed their skin—are the most prized, but are too delicate to be shipped any distance.
Fresh lobsters are sold live since like some other shellfish harmful bacteria are naturally present in their flesh. Once dead, these bacteria rapidly multiply and release toxins. Cooking the live lobster critically reduces the risk of food poisoning, though shellfish allergies are relatively common. Getting the product to market while still alive is the main reason for its inflated price since shipping, most often by air, is expensive. Unfortunately, as the supply of lobster in recent years has increased dramatically thanks to good conservation techniques and warmer waters so have transportation costs.
During the 1950s lobster tail was a mainstay on supper club menus around here, both broiled with drawn butter—sounding so much more sophisticated than "melted"—or Thermidor—the meat sauced with mustard and brandy, stuffed back in the shell, and browned with cheese. Less frequently to be found was steamed, whole Maine lobster. As a kid my first encounter with this oddity was at the Red Owl supermarket on East Washington Avenue, where it fascinated me to watch them swim around in the big glass tank. Back then, lobster was already my entrée of choice. I especially relished it at the Simon House where the waiter before me would sauté it in a chaffing dish before ceremoniously presenting it to me on a plate. Summer trips to the East Coast where everything seemed grander and food more refined only increased my infatuation with lobster. For a ten-year-old foodie in Maine, bibbed and armed with a claw cracker, grappling a giant red sea monster was the ultimate culinary experience.
As the years passed, the cost of this seafood delicacy rose, pricing it off of many menus in the Midwest. For a while crab legs often replaced it in availability, but for me they never mustered the same appeal. As they too became expensive, fish like salmon and tuna seemed to proliferate at local restaurants. Gradually, both whole lobster and tails have made a comeback though still a luxury dish for most. Yet, perhaps their rarity has always been part of their allure.
Here are area dinning options where the lobster may or may not be alive, but is certainly well done.
With one of the most extensive selections of fresh fish and shellfish in town, Tempest Oyster Bar offers a choice of 1-1/2 and 2 pound live lobsters, broiled or steamed to perfection.
Opening in 1947, the Esquire Club is arguably the oldest family-owned restaurant in continuous operation in Madison. This old school supper club remains popular today and features a10-ounce cold-water Australian lobster tail or an 8-ounce version paired with a sirloin.
Originally The Wonder Bar was a storied speakeasy, dating back to 1929. Its latest reincarnation channels its longtime reputation as an eatery with excellent food. Among the collection of old favorites is a 12-ounce cold water lobster tail served with drawn butter.
Frequently found at upscale steakhouses among the long litany of red meat is lobster. The Capitol Chophouse not only has a fine, big Canadian lobster tail, but an absolutely scrumptious side dish of lobster mac 'n' cheese.
The menu at Sardine changes seasonally, but always welcome are the lobster croquettes, a sort of French rendition of the American crab cake, sauced with a lemon and caper beurre blanc.
As much as its fine selection of wine by the glass and tantalizing small plates, Eno Vino is renown for its creamy and sublime lobster bisque.
The nightly menu at the Mariner's Inn touts a cold-water lobster tail at market price and twin 6-ounce lobster tails as well as a surf-and-turf option. The live lobster boils (by reservation only) held on selected dates July through October are a much anticipated summer ritual.
Well worth the drive to Lake Winnebago is the unusual and addictive batter-fried lobster, a special every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday night at Wendt's on the Lake. It's also available paired with the house specialty, fried lake perch, and prime rib on Saturday.
Being a bit off the beaten path adds to the aura of a supper club; the drive there, anticipation of what's to come. Little at The Buckhorn Supper Club disappoints, least of all the twin 8-ounce lobster tails or Sunday night lobster tail dinner special. Book well in advance for one of their outdoor New England-style live lobster boils with all the trimmings (August 27 and 28, September 25, and October 30).
RECIPE: Lobster Rangoon
Like so many foods now dubbed Polynesian, this one also originated at Trader Vic's. Traditionally served with sweet and sour sauce, for an updated dip try a mixture of Thai sweet chili sauce and sambal oelek (fresh ground chili paste), all readily available and large supermarkets and Asian food stores.
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
6 ounces cooked lobster
2 dozen wonton wrappers (defrosted, if frozen)
Peanut oil for deep-frying
In a bowl blend together the cream cheese, breadcrumbs and Worcestershire until smooth. Gently stir in the lobster. The filling can be made several hours ahead of time. Keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. (The wonton wrappers shouldn’t be filled until right before frying.)
Preheat the oil in a deep fryer to 375 degrees.
Place heaping teaspoons of the lobster filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Lightly moisten the edges using a pastry brush dipped in water. Fold in half diagonally to make a triangle.
Fry the Rangoon in the hot oil four at a time for about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve warm with dipping sauce.
Makes two dozen appetizers.