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The Clam Shack – Kennebunk, Maine

clam shack lobster roll

This truly is the lobster roll to which all others are compared and found wanting.  I have mentioned it many times, including in my standards section, but this is the actual review.  I suppose I’ve taken so long to write this because I knew my words just wouldn’t do justice to the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.  In the interest of full disclosure, Clam Shack was actually the first lobster roll I ever tried in my life.  Sure, I had grown up eating lobster, my grandmother being from New England, but I had never experienced, or frankly even heard of a lobster roll.  I did grow up in Delaware, which for those of you in New England, it is actually a half  hour from Philly, not in the deep south as is often assumed.  Turns out, my grandmother knew about them, she just wasn’t a fan.  I took a trip to visit my great aunt in Maine with my brother in the late 90′s (yes, I came to lobster rolls that late).  We decided to stop in Kennebunkport to check it out and have a lunch break.  When coming in to the town of Kennebunkport, right before the bridge I saw a little, no frills shack.  It is literally, a shack, just a tiny white shack with a window in front.  With an equally minimalist Coca-Cola sign alerting us to the fact that it was indeed The Clam Shack.  It just looked so authentically Maine and frankly, hilarious to me that I had to stop there to eat.  There I saw on the menu the words that would change my food life – Lobster Roll.  I didn’t know what this was, and didn’t ask, but figured what can possibly go wrong with those two words involved.  The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing as I found out on my first bite.

The lobster in the Clam Shack lobster roll is quite unlike most you will taste on the Maine coast.  Since that first moment, I have eaten probably 150 lobster rolls and feel at this point, I can say with some authority that the only other places with meat that comes close to being as amazing are Five Islands, Boothbay Lobster Wharf, Red’s (Atlantic Lobster Co. in Boothbay’s lobster skill) and also Sprague’s who also use Atlantic.  I’ve since learned from reading and watching many interviews with the owner Steve that the real secret is very fresh soft shell lobsters, caught very recently, then steamed in sea water.  I think there must be more secrets because I know others who do the same, but don’t get the same result, but he’s not telling.  The next key is leaving the meat whole, they just split the tail, put both halves with two claws and some knuckle on the bun, then drizzle with butter or spread the bread with mayo or both.  They serve the meat cold, but when they’re not busy, they have been known to heat it up for me.  Wow, that’s almost too delish for my taste buds to handle!

When I first had this lobster roll, I had no idea how rare it is to see tail meat involved in a lobster roll, let alone whole tail.  But, it seemed perfectly logical to me, I mean the way I see it, the point of the lobster roll is to eat the whole lobster that you might have gotten if you had ordered a whole steamed lobster, but for lazy folks who want lobster in their mouth quickly.  I would say that less than 10% of all lobster rolls use tail meat at all and only a handful use uncut tail meat (Boothbay Lobster Wharf, Red’s, and Derosiers).  The use of uncut tail meat or even tail meat is not for everyone I’ve learned.  Tail meat is naturally a different texture than claw, more dense and less flaky.  Some say chewy, but that’s not it, if tail meat is chewy, it has been overcooked, which I think is easier than with claw meat.  Perfectly cooked tail meat is amazing and absolutely my preference.  The very different texture can cause some who are used to eating only claw or knuckle in a lobster roll to have a problem with rolls that contain tail meat.  But, I happen to think they should say they don’t like tail meat, not that the lobster roll was overcooked and chewy, not the same thing.  As for uncut tail meat, the problem can be that one bite and you pull the whole thing out of the sandwich.  This is a sure sign of non perfectly cooked tail meat.  Perfectly cooked should be tender enough to bite off without a battle.

On to the other thing that I think sets this lobster roll apart from the pack.  A bakery fresh roll is even more elusive than tail meat in the lobster roll world and it is always a sure indicator of greatness.  The only others I know of that use bakery fresh are Sanders Fish Market and Muscongus Bay Lobster.  The Clam Shack uses bakery fresh rolls from Reilly’s Bakery in Biddleford, Maine.  There seems to be wide consensus among connoisseurs of lobster rolls that a lobster roll must be done with a white bread, split top hot dog bun.  They speak as if there is some difference between the widely touted J.J. Nissen bun and the top split Wonder Bread bun.  I don’t know any self respecting foodie on any other topic who would have the nerve to admit to eating Wonder Bread, let alone include it in any type of gold standard.  I know, I’ve heard the argument that J.J. Nissen is denser and wider.  Not true, I did a side by side comparison of the two, which I’ll get around to posting sometime, and they are exactly the same size, look exactly the same, and taste strikingly close.  I actually preferred the Wonder.  Also, J.J. is owned by Hostess, mass produced and sold in grocery stores, designed to sit there quite a bit longer than a bakery fresh bun.  I rest my case.  Just kidding, I’m sure I’ll rant about it again.

Anyway, back to the Reilly’s bun.  Yes, it is a round (hamburger) bun, not split top.  I see the argument for why hot dog is better because for most, the lobster pieces do tend to fall out much more easily from a round bun, but in this case, because they leave the meat whole and uncut, there isn’t that problem.  Also, whole, uncut tail, just doesn’t fit properly in a hot dog bun, it is round and the bun is straight (see Red’s).  You can’t have it both ways.  I think this bun is perfectly sized to fit the exact amount of meat in the exact shape that they serve.  The meat:bread ratio is perfect, I have never had more bread left and I’m fairly picky about moving lobster meat down for each bite to have a perfect ratio.  The bread itself is a little difficult to explain, I would call it somewhere between white and sourdough, with an airier, lighter texture, not dense.  Which is why I think despite it’s apparent size, the ratio is still right, it squishes properly.

Something in that bread recipe or something in they type of butter or how they cook the meat seems to all complement each other perfectly to come together to make the best lobster roll on earth.  Sometimes when I haven’t eaten the Clam Shack roll in a while, I start to question whether I really like it as much as I think and maybe I’m giving it unfair advantage because I’ve thought it was the best for some time.  This summer, I stopped at Five Islands, which I thought may well be the best lobster roll I had ever eaten, quite possibly bumping Clam Shack out of the top spot.  So, on the way home, that same day, I had to stop by Clam Shack for a real accurate comparison while Five Islands was fresh in my mind.  I really thought Clam Shack was going to get bumped, but the second I bit into it, I remembered the key and the reason why no other lobster roll has come close.  It’s the way all of the flavors combine in your mouth in each bite, making it easily, the best thing I have ever eaten.  There may be better lobster, there may be better bread, there may be better toppings, but I have yet to to see all the elements combine with the perfection of the Clam Shack lobster roll.  That’s the key to great food, not one element, but creating a masterpiece.

Now the down sides, yes they exist.  The lobster roll is, in my humble opinion, lobster roll perfection.  The setting on the other hand leaves a bit to be desired.  Yes, it is on the water, technically, but when the tide is out, it kind of looks like a mud pit.  When the tide is in, you get to take in the back of some unattractive buildings across the river.  The red building is cute, and the town of Kennebunkport is very cute, but not so much from this view.  Also, the Clam Shack is right on the road with about 4 legal parking spots, otherwise, you have to go find parking in town.  The traffic on this road gets rather backed up, which since the picnic tables are one car length from the road, that can be less than ideal.  I usually like to go sit on the bench on the side of the building overlooking the water/mud and enjoy my lobster roll, but you have to use your lap as a table, which isn’t for everybody.  They serve cooked whole lobsters inside the building next door to the shack (same owner), but I’ve never tried it.  I can never bring myself to pass up a chance to eat a lobster roll.  They also close by 6pm.  This is not a destination restaurant by any stretch.  It is the place to grab the most amazing lobster roll known to man and scarf it down or take it to a more scenic spot to enjoy.  It’s also best enjoyed with the fresh squeezed lemonade that they sell at a stand on busy days.  Ideally, I like to be staying at the Colony Hotel and take my lobster roll back to enjoy in one of their rocking chairs on the lawn overlooking the ocean.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Clam Shack has been featured on Travel Channel’s food wars and featured in many magazine articles.  This is one of the rare moments where the popularity of the lobster roll is well deserved.  I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely owners this summer at the Lobster Roll Rumble in NYC where they took the prize for fan favorite from the other 20 establishments there.  But that doesn’t really cover it.  As someone who was there, you could get the lobster roll from every other place without more than a 2 minute wait, but the line for the Clam Shack stretched across the whole room the entire night.  It wasn’t just the fan favorite, it blew the others out of the water, and there were some major contenders and famous lobster rolls there.  It did my heart good to see that so many people agreed that this is the lobster roll to which all others are compared and found wanting.

Weighed in at 6.5 oz.

Visited last in August 2012, and countless times before

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