The culinary principle that the best meals start with the best ingredients — garbage in, garbage out, you might call it — applies to a much greater extent to steak tartare or trout amandine than it does to a sandwich. Sandwiches, at least the good ones, are inherently greater than the sum of their parts. They rely on technique, proportion, construction, and contrasts of flavor, texture, and temperature. By and large, getting these things right matters far more than whether a cheesesteak is made with shaved truffles and sliced Kobe beef or grocery store sirloin.
Of course, no rule is without exception, and arguably the best example of a failure in the gestalt theory of sandwiches is the New England-style lobster roll. Lobster claw meat, in my humble opinion, is the hands-down greatest, most satisfying single bite of food nature has to offer. Therefore, whereas other sandwiches employ occasionally complex combinations of contrasting ingredients, the most critical attribute of a good lobster roll is a scarcity of potential distractions. The ideal composition is nothing more than a generous heap of freshly steamed, unadulterated lobster meat piled on a butter-soaked split-top bun. Many recipes call for the meat to be tossed in a mayo-based salad with chopped celery and various herbs. Disregard such bullshit, always. In the century and a half since lobster made the transition from peasant food to white-tablecloth delicacy, no preparation or embellishment has improved upon the natural sweetness of simple steamed lobster. It’s time for chefs to concede to the brilliance of Mother Nature on this one.
I’m fond of saying that sandwiches are a product of their time and place, that where, when, and with whom you eat a sandwich is sometimes as important as the sandwich itself. My favorite way of illustrating this idea is to say that a lobster roll never tastes better than on a harbor-side pier, and I absolutely believe this to be true. (Alternatively: You’ve never eaten a po’ boy until you’ve eaten one in the French Quarter.)
The harbor-side pier I always have in mind when I say this is Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard, Maine. Ever since I was a little kid, my family spent our summer vacations in a series of cottages and rental homes along the banks of Bass Harbor, a working fishing harbor on the south end of Mount Desert Island. (Bar Harbor is located on the relatively bustling north end of the island.) Our current base of operations for these now biennial trips is conveniently across the street from Thurston’s. Like our family, Thurston’s has grown a lot in the past 20 years, adding a second level and, this year, an adjacent open-air bar. Thankfully, much more has stayed the same, and the lobster rolls are as flawlessly no-frills as ever. No trip is complete without three or four visits.
There are plenty of perfectly decent lobster rolls available here in Washington, D.C. I’m partial to the straightforward rendition at Luke’s Lobster, where $4 buys any of a selection of bottle Maine microbrews during happy hour. (CityEats has a pretty good rundown of other options.) Fair or not, though, I will forever judge any of these sandwiches by an impossible standard. Ordering a lobster roll from a food truck, however tasty it might be, will never feel quite right.
Thurston’s Lobster Pound is located at 9 Thurston Road, Bernard, ME 04612. Luke’s Lobster has multiple locations in D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia.