It might be impossible to name the single best lobster roll in Maine, but one that's never far from such discussions is the lobster roll served at the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport. Open since 1968 and under current owner Steve Kingston's direction since 2000, the Clam Shack is known for its rendition made with fresh lobster meat, mayonnaise, and melted butter all served on a non-traditional round white roll. With only a few components to work with, Kingston's dedication to doing things the right way is at the heart of the dish. "I'm very fanatical about a very simple sandwich," he says. "You can screw it up or you can hold true the tenets that a five-star restaurant strives for every day."
To that end, Kingston has lobsters harvested from Kennebunkport's Cape Porpoise Harbor delivered to his seafood market, located right next to the Clam Shack. (Open since 1938, it's one of the oldest continuously operated seafood markets in Maine.) He steams the lobsters in ocean water and then picks the meat by hand. "It's an awful lot of work," he says. But it's this painstaking attention to detail that has made his lobster roll such a hit. He can sell 200 to 300 rolls a day — and that's when it's slow. Kingston says at the height of his summer business he sells as many as 500 lobster rolls a day.
Eater Maine editor Adam H. Callaghan weighs in on the enduring appeal of the Clam Shack:
"Who makes the best lobster roll in Maine? It's such a fiercely debated subject, it has become practically white noise to Mainers, like the sound of gulls as they circle a messy picnic table. The secret is that ambiance matters at least as much as the simple preparation of the iconic sandwich. The Clam Shack combines both quality and scenery, applying a flavorful layer of tradition to round out what many consider the best lobster roll in Maine. Put it this way: If you're going to wait in line for an hour, it might as well be a beautiful line."
Below, the elements of the Clam Shack lobster roll.
1. The Lobster
"What it really comes down to is the meat," says Kingston of why his lobster roll has become such a standard bearer. To that end, Kingston uses only fresh Maine lobsters harvested from Cape Porpoise Harbor, right in Kennebunkport. Kingston receives the lobsters at his neighboring seafood market, where the lobster is stored in tanks of ocean water taken from the Kennebunk River twice daily at high tide. The salinity of the tanks is critical and often tested. "They live in the ocean until we cook them," Kingston explains.
Next the lobsters are steamed in more ocean water, which Kingston says is the best natural seasoning for them. He cooks 50 pounds at a time, and notes that when the lobsters are cooked, their meat becomes extremely delicate. "It should be illegal to serve frozen lobster meat in Maine," he says. "It's sacrilegious. You're on the water next to millions of pounds of these creatures."
One of the unique features of the way Kingston makes a lobster roll is that the meat is entirely shelled and picked by hand. Kingston avoids using knives because he says their metals can "taint" the flavors of the lobsters. Kingston ensures that each sandwich has a bit of claw, tail, and knuckle meat to create a more balanced sandwich in terms of flavor and texture (too much claw would be mushy; too much tail, chewy). Each portion is hand assembled and sent over to the Shack.
2. The Bun
While many Maine lobster rolls are served on hot dog buns, the Clam Shack's version has long been served on a round white roll baked daily for the restaurant by Reilly's Bakery. "The bun is like a hot dog roll," says Kingston, "if you don't look at it and just taste it." The decision to use white rolls was actually made by a previous owner, but Kingston agrees with the idea behind the choice: that the quality of a mass-produced hot dog bun cannot match and complement the quality of the fresh lobster meat.
3. The Condiments
Patrons of the Clam Shack are posed with a choice when it comes to condiments: mayonnaise, butter, or both. Mayonnaise is a traditional accompaniment in Maine, but it should be noted that where many lobster rolls are made by mixing lobster meat with mayonnaise, Kingston offers mayonnaise as a condiment only. ("It's a lot cheaper to sell mayonnaise with a little meat than the other way around," Kingston explains.) Spreading the mayonnaise on the bread allows diners to "to taste the meat ... not mayo flavored with frozen lobster or even fresh meat." Kingston tried making the mayonnaise in house but found it near impossible to produce the quantity he needed at the quality and consistency level he desired. For years he's used Ken's Extra Heavy mayonnaise.
Butter is a traditional accompaniment in Connecticut and elsewhere in New England. When it comes to offering butter, Kingston doesn't skimp. He uses Kate's Homemade Butter from Maine and says the steep price (roughly $110 a case) is more than justified: "[The butter] is phenomenally good. I don't care what it costs … it makes the difference." Kingston always keeps a pot of melted butter on the griddle. He says that the butter and mayonnaise combo has become a popular order since that's how he preps the roll on the competition circuit.
4. The Assembly
The assembly process begins with the rolls, which get a dose of the melted Kate's butter before they're placed face down on the griddle. It takes about 30 seconds for the rolls become golden brown.
Next the bottom half is placed in the traditional red gingham paper boat. Kingston then places the fresh lobster meat on top of the bottom roll.
Next Kingston takes the top roll off the griddle and spreads the mayonnaise and drizzles the butter directly over the lobster meat. He then tops the sandwich with its bun and garnishes the dish with a lemon wedge.