In colonial times, lobsters were plentiful along our country’s northeastern seaboard. So plentiful, in fact, that they were fed to poor people and prisoners, according to one oft-repeated story, and early Dutch settlers described six-foot specimens being caught, or simply washing up on the beach during storms. Whether these tales are true or not, lobster was recreated as a luxury ingredient late in the 19th century, on par with caviar and wild salmon. Throughout much of the 20th century, a lobster dinner signified fine dining.
But the luxury was contingent on the supply of the crustacean being limited, and as the 20th century drew to a close, lobsters became more readily available, with the catch multiplying by an estimated seven times, depressing the price. Some attributed the phenomenon to control exercised by the fisheries, whereby young lobsters and egg-bearing females were thrown back, but others pointed to the steep decline in predatory fish like cod and tuna that once decimated the lobster’s larvae.
Whatever the reason, Red Lobster is pushing its eponymous product harder than ever, still hoping the luxury allure applies where its patrons are concerned. In fact, the Orlando-based chain, founded in 1968 and now boasting 705 locations worldwide, has just inaugurated its annual so-called “Lobsterfest,” featuring lobster served in all sorts of innovative and genre-bending ways, still with elevated price tags.
Just this Monday, it debuted its “crispy lobster and waffles.” I quickly sought out my local Red Lobster to give it a try. Would it be as good as chicken and waffles, a dish originating in Harlem jazz clubs that is now popular in bistros, and has spawned restaurant chains like Sweet Chick, which has four branches in New York City and Los Angeles?
I found the bi-level Red Lobster in Times Square nearly empty when I breezed in and sat down at the bar mid-afternoon. There on the first page of the menu, with a color picture splashed across the top, was my objective. I was somewhat crestfallen to discover that the “crispy lobster” was really just a lobster tail. Where were the claws and other tasty parts?
Priced at $25.99 plus tax and tip, the dish was described as “a split Maine lobster tail, buttermilk-battered and fried, served on top of our Signature Cheddar Bay [capitalization theirs] waffle and drizzled with real maple syrup.” I naturally wondered where Cheddar Bay was and ran for my atlas, only to discover that it’s a proprietary biscuit recipe that Red Lobster is inordinately proud of. (Before this visit, I’d only been to Red Lobster once and found it better than expected. Though they weren’t on my radar, a Google search proves that the Cheddar Bay biscuits are a beloved, and oft-imitated, menu item.) But then, a biscuit and a waffle are two different things, aren’t they?
Pondering questions of this sort became a moot point when my dish appeared 15 minutes later, set down by the bartender on an unfurled white cloth napkin like a religious sacrament. The tail of the creature was thrust upward like a red sail, and its two meaty halves, split down the middle, curled away to the sides; underneath spread a glistening waffle browned to a dark shade.
I first noted that the tail was not coated with the sort of thick breading one might expect from the description “buttermilk-battered.” In fact, it was very lightly dusted with a powder of indeterminate composition, and I couldn’t figure out how buttermilk was involved at all. The lobster tail, once bitten into, was fine, sweet, and fresh, though the appearance was somewhat alarming and the word “crispy” didn’t apply.
The waffle was another matter entirely. It was annealed with a nearly black substance and had a burned taste, making me think it had been reheated on a griddle after being brushed with syrup and cooking oil, or some combination thereof. The burned taste eclipsed a slight taste of cheddar that infused the breakfast staple, making me think it might not be bad if freshly made and eaten plain without syrup.
What this adds up to is an unsatisfying entrée that pulls in several conflicting directions at once (in general, cheese and seafood are an awful combination, strenuously avoided by Italian cooks for good reason). Most frustratingly, the dish wasted some doubtlessly good ingredients that, had they been better deployed, might have made a nice brunch.
Indeed, capturing the brunch trade may be the aim of Red Lobster, as evidenced by the fact that there are no vegetables or salad on the plate, or other sides that might scream “lunch” or “dinner.” The maple syrup is another tip-off, because 1) who would think of pouring syrup on a dinner entree and 2) no other options on the sprawling lunch menu belie even a hint of sweetness in the same way. In any case, perhaps what Red Lobster really needs is some sliced avocado on the plate, alongside that lobster. Then their brunch success would be assured.
Robert Sietsema is Eater NY’s senior critic.