Cut-price crustacean cuisine clash
A lot of people get upset at the idea that London merely follows the example of New York when it comes to the latest food trends and fads. Proper burgers and ramen, for example, made the headlines first in the Big Apple before becoming popular over here. This seems overblown to me. As long as we steal emerging trends and cuisines from all over the world, and not just from our Yankee cousins, then this inferiority complex of being little more than a transatlantic junior partner stuck in a culinary follow Friday funk is groundless.
Having said all that, there’s a lot of joy to be had in a lobster roll. Originating from the American North East, for me this simple dish should consist of:
- Boiled, steamed or grilled lobster, served either chilled or warm, with a firm bite and a tender follow through and with the distinct zingy taste of fresh lobster
- Melted butter, lemon juice and/or a light mayonnaise. These condiments can either be daubed on top of the lobster meat or served on the side. Onions, celery and other diced vegetables are often used as a garnish, but aren’t as essential.
- Although hot dog-style rolls are often used, the best are what I call ‘doorstop’ rolls – ones with flat sides, a light and airy texture that crispens beautifully when toasted and either a buttery or neutral taste, letting the fillings take centre stage.
It sounds simple, but it’s easy to screw up from overcooked lobster to misjudged sauces and thick, stodgy bread that gets in the way of the lobster.
Until recently lobster rolls had only been available at a handful of restaurants in the capital, but the selection has recently blossomed leading me to seek out the best lobster roll available. If I’ve missed out your lobster roll purveyor, then let me know in the Comments below. Oh, and keep the Comments polite and civil.
Table of Contents
Bob’s Lobster (or B.O.B’s Lobster as they insist on styling themselves) is a market stall that operates out of a converted VW camper van. They tend to trade only in the summer though, with occasional out-of-season appearances at special events and festivals, so they’ll be hard to find at the time of writing. Another problem is price and portion size. A lobster roll here costs £14 yet it’s roughly half to three-quarters the size of a roll from, say, Burger and Lobster (an even smaller mini roll is available for £7). This is unsurprising since Bob’s Lobster must have significantly less buying power than a big operation like Burger and Lobster.
Despite all this, Bob’s Lobster is well worth seeking out. The lobster meat, served chilled, has a firm bite and a tender follow through. It’s complimented nicely by a subtly fruity relish, melted butter and a mildly creamy dressing with a hint of lemon. It’s all quite rich, but with a clean aftertaste. The whole shebang is served in a flat-sided doorstop roll that stays out of the way. Sensibly, and unlike most of its competitors, wet serviettes were available and were highly effective at cleansing my grubby mits.
You’ll almost certainly need something else to fill you up and the lobster mac and cheese is a good choice. Although the shells and the melted cheese weren’t anything to write home about, the perfectly cooked hunks of lobster contrast nicely with the chewy fried onions.
Bob’s lobster roll isn’t as good value as some of the other rolls in this group test due to its price-to-size ratio. Even so, it still puts many of its competitors to shame in terms of pure taste and texture so it deserves a place in your belly.
Price per lobster roll: £14
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Burger and Lobster
I’ve covered Burger and Lobster before, but this spin-off of the Goodman’s steak house still does a mighty fine lobster roll. The crustacean meat has just the right texture – a firm bite giving way to tender flesh that actually tastes of fresh lobster. It’s served chilled in a light dressing which, combined with its fresh zing, helps it cut through the relative richness of the warm, buttery brioche-esque doorstop loaf. A slice of lemon and a ladle of thin but rich melted butter, available herbed if you prefer, is served on the side.
Like the burger and the whole lobster at Burger and Lobster, the lobster roll costs £20 which makes it one of the priciest options here but it does comes with fries and a salad dressed in shaved parmesan and a fruity olive oil.
Burger and Lobster may be a couple of years old and expanded across the capital with several branches, including the Oxford Circus outpost which takes reservations unlike the others, but its lobster roll remains one of the best you can get in London.
Price per lobster roll: £20 (includes fries and salad)
Star rating: ★★★★★
Fraq’s Lobster Shack
Fraq’s Lobster Shack is located within walking distance of most of the other restaurants here. Like Lobster Kitchen, you order at the till and wait for your food to be brought to you at your table. It too has attempted to replicate the look of a New England seafood shack, but with a more humorous decorative edge that distracted me from the general draughtiness of the place.
Fraq’s lobster roll was really a lobster salad roll. There’s nothing with that in principle, but the kitchen here has seriously skimped on the lobster both in terms of quantity and quality. There’s far less meat here than in any of the other lobster rolls. The segments of lobster were firm with a reasonably tender follow through, but they’re rather bland. The parmesan shavings and lightly creamy dressing were the dominant tastes instead. Although the mildly buttery hot dog-style roll was a bit stodgy and thick, it did stay out of the way. It wasn’t nearly as crisp and fluffy as the warm doorstop rolls used by Hawksmoor, Burger and Lobster and Smack Lobster though.
The fries were nothing to write home about, but they were at least reasonably crispy and free from excess oil.
Fraq’s lobster roll wasn’t as poorly cooked as the ones at Lobster Kitchen, but its limp taste and meagre meat allocation means it’s still very poor value compared to the best lobster rolls here.
Price per lobster roll: £15
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Lobster rolls are only available at the Covent Garden Seven Dials branch of Hawksmoor, a steak house chain that I’ve covered many times before. A lobster roll from a steakhouse sounds like a mistake waiting to happen, but the grilled critter had just the right mouthfeel. It was served in a richly buttered and soft doorstop roll, while both the roll and the meat were enhanced by a careful application of the thin béarnaise sauce served on the side. Its buttery, herby richness complimented the various elements of the sandwich rather than overwhelming them. Bang on.
No trip to Hawksmoor is complete without the perfectly cooked, gleamingly golden and consistently crispy triple-cooked chips. And whoever invented the deliciously evocative and refreshing cornflake milkshake deserves a fat, wet, sloppy kiss. With tongues.
Hawksmoor’s lobster roll is by the far the priciest here, but it’s also one of the best. It’s worth every penny.
Price per lobster roll: £25
Star rating: ★★★★★
Lobster Kitchen can be hard to find with its small doorway squeezed in between the YMCA Gym and the VQ Diner. The interior feels like the reused set of a tediously unfunny American teen sex comedy, with its chintzy maritime-inspired decor and cramped tables filled with students slurping drinks out of red solo cups. You order at the till and the food is brought to you when ready. At least that’s the theory – on both of my visits, a drowsy Danny Dyer-lookalike confused my order with someone else’s. Twice.
Speaking of drinks, the root beer was a bland, flat disappointment. Given how increasingly common this once unattainable American tipple is, that is an achievement.
The skinny lobster roll is dressed simply, with just olive oil, chives, lemon and parsley. Although the amount of lobster was generous, it was cooked to within an inch of its life. The thick, stodgy and bland meat was very disappointing and it was almost a relief that its dreariness was obscured by the thick buttery roll. Giving the kitchen a second chance again a few days later didn’t result in a better lobster roll – if anything it was worse, with less lobster meat filling the roll. The garlicky variant of the lobster roll had a faint hint of garlic butter that faded quickly, leaving behind the nuked lobster carcass.
If you’re tempted by the split lobster instead, bear in mind that it’s a small beastie. The tail is sold separately which makes its description on the restaurant’s website as a ‘whole lobster’ misleading. In any case, it was even more overcooked than the meat in the rolls – hard, stodgy and tasteless. At least the meat is pre-shucked, so there’s relatively little mess, but that’s very small consolation.
Be wary of the sides, especially if they’re deep fried. The deep fried lobster legs were like scampi – bland, oily, meatless scampi. Even a second-rate coastal cafe in a seaside town in the middle of the off-season would be ashamed to serve this dross. Then there are the oily and monotonously chewy deep fried clams – I’ve had seafood-flavoured crisps from Chinatown’s supermarkets with more charm. Don’t be tempted by the lobster mac and cheese either. The pasta shells were far too soft and splooged in a sickly sweet cheese, dotted with the occasional hunk of lobster that was also far too soft.
Far less offensive was the bisque. Although thin and a touch too oily and salty, it was at least blessed with a generous amount of mushy tomalley (liver meat). The lobster salad was also largely edible. The selection of radicchio, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes and onions was joined by cooled hunks of lobster flesh. Surprisingly, these were far more evenly cooked than the roll meat with a texture that didn’t resemble vintage boot leather for once although it still lacked the fresh zing I would expect.
Lobster Kitchen is deplorable. Its lobster rolls were dreary and poorly made, while the ‘whole’ split lobster is small, dramatically over-priced and probably in violation of trading standards regulations. Avoid.
Price per lobster roll: £15
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Smack Lobster is a curious beast – a spin-off of Burger and Lobster that dispenses with the burgers and expands the lobster roll selection to four differently-flavoured and garnished varieties. The Oxford Street canteen has fast food-style service – order at the till, pick up your quickly-prepared order at the counter and then grab a seat at one of the stylishly minimalist tables. Bland soft drinks are bottomless and you help yourself from the Sodastream-style dispensers.
All four lobster rolls here use the Burger and Lobster roll as their template, but with additional flavourings. The Mexican needlessly buries the taste and texture of the crustacean meat under a heap of sweetcorn, tame jalapeños and a thin mayo. Slightly more successful was the euphemistically-named Happy Ending. The creamier mayo here had slight umami hints, but it was the fresh coriander and crisp vegetable bits that dominated. Although these toppings didn’t obscure the lobster meat quite as badly as the toppings in the Mexican, it’s still hardly complimentary and seems utterly needless.
The pattern repeated itself with the California. The umami taste of tomato and a lightly fruit avocado-flavoured mayonnaise obliterated the taste of the lobster, while the crisp lettuce and cucumber slices obscured its texture. The most successful of the four was the Seven Samurai, but even this was relative. While the distinctive flavours of the pickled ginger and togarashi spice were pleasing in their own right, they smothered the zing of the lobster out of existence. The firmness of the crustacean was at least appreciable though.
Smack’s lobster chowder is what Lobster Kitchen’s bisque should’ve been. Mildly thick, creamy and dotted with slices of lobster and blessed with starchy, umami flavours. The floppy courgette fries won’t go down well with potato traditionalists, but I liked them. The distinctive butteriness of the courgettes was complimented by a dash of salt and the coarse breadcrumb coating. They were a bit oily, but that’s to be expected.
The very casual nature of Smack Lobster is appealing so it’s a shame that the plain original Burger and Lobster roll isn’t available, as Smack’s embellished versions are like cover versions of a much loved song from your youth – needless and unsatisfying.
Price per lobster roll: £9 (£7.50 if take away)
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
I debated whether to include Sub Club’s seafood sandwich in this group test as it’s very clearly not an attempt at a full-on lobster roll, traditional or otherwise, as it includes crayfish alongside its bigger crustacean cousin. I’ve included it here anyway – I aim to be nothing if not comprehensive in these group tests and the sandwiches from this market stall tend to be quite good.
Crayfish are smaller, freshwater-dwelling relatives of lobsters so its inclusion alongside its snappier relation isn’t as out-of-place as it first appears. Having said that, it was easy to distinguish the crayfish from the lobster – the latter was far firmer and less easily overwhelmed by the zestiness of the lemon mayo, the tart cucumber slices, crisp radishes and gently flavoursome chives. The lobster, served chilled just like the crayfish, wasn’t quite as zingy as I would’ve liked but it was still just about bold enough to stand out among all the garnishes and the thick, hearty roll.
Price per roll: £8.50
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Some of my group tests have been tricky to judge, but this one was remarkably straightforward. The best lobster rolls in London are those from Hawksmoor (Seven Dials branch) and Burger and Lobster. Their combination of fresh lobster meat with just the right texture and served in beautifully made buns with tasteful and tasty condiments is simply unrivalled.
The fact that these two chains are among the oldest purveyors of lobster rolls in London and are the winners of this round up is no surprise. Their significant buying power allows them a major advantage in economies of scale when sourcing what is still an expensive luxury foodstuff. Meanwhile, the high number of customers they serve every day has allowed them to quickly master and hone the production and serving of a high quality dish in large numbers. Bob’s Lobster, a lone market stall which deserves a mention as a worthy runner-up, just can’t compete for industrially-hvalue.
I therefore can’t see any of the lobster roll newcomers here unseating either Hawksmoor or Burger and Lobster – not unless something truly dramatic happens to London’s restaurant scene or to the wider seafood market. Still, as long as these two winners continue pumping out delicious, top-notch lobster rolls then I won’t be complaining about their reigning duoply.