To upset the bourgeoisie, the French poet Gérard de Nerval used to walk a lobster around the streets of Paris on a blue ribbon. Lobsters, he said, were “peaceful serious creatures who know the secrets of the sea, and don’t bark.”
You can see just about anything on the streets of Soho nowadays, but I have yet to come across a lobster on a leash. Instead, we now have a lobster bar, which opened its doors just a couple of months ago on Lafayette between Spring and Kenmare streets.
From the first day, Ed’s Lobster Bar has been mobbed. It’s a sliver of a space, barely wide enough to turn around in, with a long white marble bar that runs the length of the room and a handful of tables in the back. At dinner time, you may have to wait for an hour or more, because the restaurant doesn’t take reservations.
“Why not?” I asked crossly, after we’d been told about the wait (outside, moreover, since there was no room to stand in the restaurant).
“We want people from the neighborhood to be able to walk in when they feel like it,” said the apologetic man at the door, who was taking names down on a long list.
“I’m from the neighborhood,” I replied. We gave him a name and stood on the sidewalk while I got on my cell phone, trying to find another restaurant. Fifteen minutes later, the manager came out: “Because you’re a neighbor, I found you a seat!”
Fighting his way through the crowd, he led us to a counter near the back, and three of us climbed onto the stools. We were sitting directly facing the wall, like pupils being punished in a schoolroom. Meanwhile, people behind our backs jostled each other between the stools as waiters fought to get their plates through without dropping them.
Conversation over dinner? Forget it. The din was deafening (helped to no small extent by the woman out of P.G. Wodehouse with the laugh that can open an oyster at thirty paces—she dogs my footsteps in noisy restaurants).
But people will do anything for a good lobster roll. Or a really fresh steamed lobster. Or a plate of lightly breaded fried Ipswich clams. To be sure, Ed’s Lobster Bar on a busy night is about as comfortable as eating dinner in a packed subway car on a stranger’s lap, but there is a great deal to enjoy when it comes to the food.
Owner Ed McFarland was the sous-chef at Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village for six years. The style of his new place is similar—the plain, unpretentious New England seafood shack, as variously embodied in New York City by the Mermaid Inn, Mary’s Fish Camp, Ditch Plains and BLT Fish Shack.
The narrow room, which seats 30, is all-white, with white brick walls and wainscoting and lighting fixtures that look like portholes. Photographers’ lights with steel shades hang over the counters, and the place mats are stamped with—what else?—lobsters, as are the menus. Specials of the day are chalked on blackboards. Today’s oysters—blue point and pine ridge—are just $2 apiece.
Ed gets his lobsters flown in every day (and over the telephone, he told me he serves them each night until they run out). But this has not been a good year for lobsters. Cold weather and high winds have made them scarce, and their already-steep price has doubled. Ed says that he’s split the hit between himself and the customer. For now, he’s raised the price of a lobster roll from $19 to $25. Other places have raised their prices, too. Mermaid Inn’s lobster roll (made with a brioche instead of a hotdog bun) now costs $26, as does the one at Pearl Oyster Bar. At Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Fish Shack, it’s $24.
If there is any food that conjures up summer—specifically, summer in Maine—it’s the lobster roll. Ed’s version is pretty much the same as the one he used to serve at Pearl, made with mayonnaise on a buttered Pepperidge Farm bun. Instead of shoestring fries, his are thick-cut, lots of them, crisp and floury, along with a terrific house-made pickle that you can buy by the pint.
He hasn’t raised the price of the small lobster salad: a claw and half a tail with avocado and tomato for $18. Grilled lobster, fresh and juicy under a thin crust, is $25 a pound. And there are other things on the menu besides lobster. A generous helping of Prince Edward Island mussels, small and briny, comes in a white wine broth ($8). There are littleneck clams ($1.50 each or $7 for a half-dozen) and a jumbo shrimp cocktail with a pleasantly spicy cocktail sauce ($11). A raw sampler of seafood costs $29. There’s also a New England clam chowder, a steal at $6, laced with chopped clams and chunks of potatoes in a rich, creamy broth.
The service is friendly and the wines are well chosen to go with the food. They are also reasonably priced. A fine Sancerre, on the higher end at $49, was great with the oysters.
Desserts are somewhat peremptory. They include a smoked-almond ice-cream sundae and a riff on the ice-cream sandwich: vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce served on a hotdog bun. Not for me.
Lobster prices should start going down as the weather warms up. To avoid the crush, come here early. But don’t come too late—the kitchen may have already run out.
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