Everything you need to know about the famous lobster rolls at Red Hook Lobster Pound in New York City.
It all could've been condos. When Susan Povich and her husband Ralph Gorham bought their property in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood nearly 10 years ago, they thought of turning it into an apartment building. But the longtime Red Hook residents received push back from the city (the building was zoned for manufacturing) and then the 2008 financial crisis happened; the cost of completing the project would have far outweighed any rent they could have earned from the hypothetical apartments. And so, after returning home from a November trip to Povich's grandfather's home in Maine, the couple decided to change gears: They would create a lobster pound. In April of the following year, Red Hook Lobster Pound was officially born.
It might sound like creating a lobster pound in an intended real estate investment was merely a whim, but Povich and Gorham could back it up. Povich, and FCI alum who had previously owned a restaurant in New York City, spent her summers in Maine. Gorham, a furniture-maker by trade, had the skills and the curiosity needed to become an expert at creating lobster tanks and sourcing the best lobster from Maine. When Povich agreed to be a part of the first year of Brooklyn Flea, she knew she wanted to sell lobster rolls. Her first weekend, she ended up serving 400 rolls in five hours. The next year, they renovated the kitchen and began selling lobster rolls in Red Hook. Then came food trucks in DC and in New York. Then came more street fairs, more locations on the Lower East Side and in Montauk, and an upcoming oyster kiosk in Midtown.
"People feel strongly about lobster rolls."
While the menu at the Red Hook home base is quite large, the heart and soul of the operation is still Povich's lobster rolls. Guests can order from a menu of lobster roll preparations, but there are two rolls that have made Red Hook Lobster Pound famous: the Maine Style roll and the Connecticut Style roll. While the traditional, cold Maine roll is the most popular, it's choice that has become the signature aspect of the Red Hook Lobster Pound experience. "I knew people felt strongly about lobster rolls," says Povich. "I didn't necessarily want to impose my tastes on anyone else, and that's where we had the idea of doing it two ways from the get-go: warm with butter and lemon, or cool with mayonnaise." Lobster rolls were something of a novelty in the city at that time: Povich says nobody was offering a choice, "and nobody was offering it on the street under a tent for then-$13." Today, if all the venues are up and running on a beautiful summer day, they can sell as many as 5,000 lobster rolls.
It's easy to forget looking at the freshly redesigned dining room that the Red Hook flagship and the business on the whole was not so long ago pummeled by the devastating Hurricane Sandy. "Red Hook is a special place," says Povich, who was able to reopen her shop and serve a lobster roll to then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in March 2013. Shortly after telling the story of recovering from Sandy, Povich is surprised by a visit from fellow longtime local Steve Tarpin, of Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, who wanted to talk shop a bit. Red Hook is still very much a real neighborhood, and at this point, it's hard to imagine it without Red Hook Lobster Pound.
Below, the elements of the Red Hook Lobster Pound's lobster rolls:
1. the Lobster
Since their first days, Gorham and Povich have been using fresh Maine lobster from the Five Islands area, close to Povich's family summer home. In their earliest days Povich and Gorham would drive to Maine twice a week, pick up lobsters and locally made rolls, and drive them back to Brooklyn. "We would meet a bread guy at a gas station and he'd load the bread into the truck." But their increasing success made this system unsustainable. "We started getting too big, and it started getting too hot. My husband would call me because the lobsters would be dying on the BQE." They eventually bought a refrigerated van to help.
These days, Povich and Gorham work with a distributor connected to a lobster co-op. The distributor helps her find the correctly sized lobsters — 1.4 to 1.6 pounds — which are a bit smaller than what many Maine lobstermen are bringing in. If Povich had her way, she'd go even smaller, but New York laws prohibit selling smaller lobsters.
Povich and Gorham's Red Hook flagship still has its namesake pound, where lobsters live in tanks designed by Gorham. "They're kind of like a showpiece," he says of the tanks, which unlike typical fiberglass, are agricultural tanks. He makes his own salt water and has a 500-pound biofilter making sure that water stays clean. The water is cold, anywhere between 39 and 41 degrees, which keeps the lobsters dormant. The lobsters go from water to tank within eight hours. Red Hook Lobster Pound gets shipments of fresh lobsters twice a week, so the lobsters are living in the tank only half a week or so (though Gorham notes that theoretically they could live for months there). Lobster prices have been rising, and the Pound can spend as much as $75,000 a week on lobster for their venues during a busy summer week.
In the earliest days at the Brooklyn Flea, Povich would pick her lobsters by hand and make her lobster salad to order. As her business has grown, she's had to streamline. She now has the fresh lobster hand-picked for her in Maine, whereas "a lot of people will use frozen meat" when they achieve Red Hook Lobster Pound's volume.
2. The Bun
No longer driving to Maine for their buns, Povich and Gorham now use Country Kitchen hot dog buns. Povich likes these top-split buns because they "don't have too much gluten and there's not too much sugar." Because she griddles each side on the flat-top in salted butter, Povich also likes that these buns have a larger surface area.
3. The Mayonnaise
One component of the lobster salad that Povich has been adamant about since day one is using a classic, French-style homemade mayonnaise. "I knew I wanted to make homemade mayonnaise because I didn't like sugary, sweet commercial mayonnaises," she says, noting she finds them to be too heavy.
Povich blends egg yolks together with powdered mustard, white pepper, sea salt, lemon juice, and soy oil ("canola oil gets bitter when put in a mixer"). Here's how it's done:
4. The Assembly
Povich makes her lobster salad in a commissary kitchen. When it comes to the lobster salad, Povich only uses knuckle and claws — "tail meat is too tough" — which she breaks into smaller pieces by hand. Making the salad well requires practice, says Povich. "Lobsters are always different... you have to know how to taste and how to adjust."
These pieces are tossed with just a bit of lemon juice and mayonnaise, which really acts as more of a light binding agent than a sauce. The salad also contains a bit of celery, a somewhat controversial ingredient that Povich chooses to include for its crunch. "It's one thing I haven't compromised on: I like celery, it works well in a salad." The salad is seasoned with sea salt and white pepper. "I'm a huge fan of white pepper," Povich seems to just realize. "It's mellow." The commissary can make upwards of 1,000 pounds of lobster salad a day at the height of their season (each roll takes a quarter pound). The salad is kept on the sandwich assembly line, always at the ready.
To assemble the actual sandwich, all buns are first griddled. Povich brushes a good amount of melted salted butter on the bun, placing the butter side down on the griddle. She then butters the other side, and flips.
While Red Hook Lobster Pound offers many variations on the lobster roll, their two traditional offerings are the Maine Style roll and the Connecticut Style roll. With a Maine Style roll, all Povich does now is scoop the finished lobster salad to a griddled bun that's been dressed with a little bit of shredded iceberg lettuce.
There's a bit of story to that scooper Povich uses. She wanted four-ounce servings, and originally was using a four-ounce scooper. But her numbers weren't adding up — she was going through way more lobster than what her four-ounce servings should have been. It was the scoop, she realized. Because of the lobster's texture, she wasn't leveling it. The solution was to downgrade to a three-ounce scoop and overfill it. And voila, perfect portions. After Povich scoops the salad onto the bun, she tops it off with scallions and paprika ("more for color than for flavor").
A warm Connecticut Style roll is a bit more complex than the standard Maine Style roll. Povich adds the lobster salad (using her trusted scooper) to a sauté pan with an impressive amount of salted butter. "Like my truck says, 'Butter tastes better with lobster,'" she laughs. She lightly warms the mixture with a splash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt. She occasionally checks the temperature of the lobster with the back of her knuckle. The heating is a delicate process. Overcook it and the lobster will be tough; undercook it and the roll won't be uniformly warmed.
The warm lobster is added to the warm bun (no lettuce) and, like the Maine Style roll, the final touches are paprika and scallions. "What's a lobster roll really?" Povich says, acknowledging that really there aren't that many components. "You have to make sure it all works."