Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Shell Maine Lobster Aims for San Francisco

I don’t really do that much writing about solid forms of nutrition, but last night I had an invitation to a food event that I just couldn’t turn down. It was a Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative event at The Progress in San Francisco. I figured it would be worth the trip across the bay, and it was.

Here on the West Coast we don’t really have any great substitute for lobster. The Caribbean has its spiny lobsters, Western Australia has smaller, fresh-water marron, and Northern Europe has langoustines. Maybe the closest sort of regional substitute we have is spot prawns from Santa Barbara, and that’s not even apples to apples, and they’re not local to the Bay Area either.

According to one of the public relations folks I spoke with last night, that was the rationale behind this event. San Francisco is a fine dining epicenter where you don’t often see lobster on the menu, probably because it has to be shipped all the way across the country from the East Coast (live or frozen).

The fact that Maine lobster isn’t local can be a strike against it in the Bay Area, where many chefs like to use local product. But let’s face it, a lot of us love lobster, and rules are meant to be broken.

The main purpose of the event was to explain the seasonality and sustainability of Lobster harvesting to those of us who know a lot about oysters, but a lot less about lobster. It was also to explain the difference between “Hard Shell” and “New Shell” lobster.

In mid-summer to mid-fall, Maine lobsters molt, or shed their shell, as they out-grow their old, well-hardened shell in favor of a new, more flexible slightly bigger shell that will continue to calcify over the next year. Some people refer to these freshly molted lobsters as ‘Soft Shell,’ but I don’t really like that term, because the shells are still pretty firm, even though they are more flexible and easier to break by hand. They aren't nearly as soft as soft-shelled crabs, where you can just eat the whole thing, shell and all. 

“New Shell” seems like a more accurate moniker to me, and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (made up of Maine lobster harvesters, dealers and processors since 2013) wants you to ask for New Shell lobster by name.  I suspect it won’t be long before you start to see “New Shell” lobster distinguished on dinner menus around the country to note the ideal season of the lobster harvest.

What’s the difference? Fortunately some Maine lobster men (lobster fishermen, not men with lobster claws for arms) were on hand to show me and a few hundred other guests the difference first hand, offering samples of both Hard Shell and New Shell lobster side by side. When you taste them next to each other, the difference is pretty clear.

Hard Shell Maine lobster is firm in texture with a mildly sweet flavor. It’s essentially what you generally would expect from Maine lobster. The New Shell lobster is discernibly more tender and sweet from tail to claw. It’s pretty easy to see how an in-season New Shell lobster would be preferable, or considered a distinct delicacy. It's better.

Here is a good article about New Shell Lobster and how it is different from Hard Shell lobster.

Maine lobster man explaining the difference between Hard Shell and New Shell.

Going in to this event I really didn’t know much about how sustainable the lobster business is in Maine. I was pleased to learn a few things about the long-standing historic self-regulation of the lobster trade in Maine that has made it a very sustainable enterprise that has led to substantial recent rebounds in the lobster population. Based largely on an honor system of throwing back undersized lobsters, egg-bearing breeders and even over-sized breeders, the Maine lobster industry has generally done a great job of policing itself and creating a sustainable lobster harvesting program. Read more about that here in this Food Republic article.

I also want to note that the food, drinks and service at this event were all extraordinary. The space was teeming with guests, everyone from writers like me to restaurant employees of all stripes, and a few celebrated chefs like Roland Passot of La Folie

The Progress just does not disappoint. I had a feeling we weren't going to be eating mini lobster rolls, and I was not disappointed. The menu was far reaching, with a lot of great, small lobster dishes. I think this is still one of the most forward-thinking, creative restaurants on the West Coast. 

I was particularly blown away by the pure lobster salad on the half shell, the tempura, the sweet corn pancake and the tacos al pastor. Everything else was damn good, too. 

Here's the menu:

And the staff at The Progress did an incredible job of serving up tons of food, delivering it to a very crowded room and clearing small plates all at the same time. Hats off to Jason Alexander, the GM and Chef Stuart Brioza for serving up some brilliant Maine lobster dishes at a feverish pace and making it look easy. 

I've only had one full-on dinner at the Progress - it was with my darling Elise for her birthday. It lived up to all of the hype. I can't wait to get back there again under less hectic and cramped circumstances.

The Progress Chef Stuart Brioza (L) chatting with a guest.

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