Photo Credit: Purple is a Flavor
New England Seafood Company | 3341 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 | (773) 871-3474 Hours: Closed Mondays, Sun,Tues-Thurs 11am-8pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
Those who know me know that it takes a lot to get me out of my apartment in January. After New Years, I become something of a happy hermit, content to simply stay inside, snuggled under a blanket. I’m not alone of course—my Christmas tree is there and will be until the day I sneeze a little too hard and knock every parched needle off its brittle limbs. This usually happens right around the time I start seriously thinking about replacing all the ornaments with plastic Easter eggs.
So why would I dare to venture out on a January day beset with freezing rain––a Sunday, no less?
Two words: lobster roll.
Confession number one: I’ve never had a lobster roll. Being from the Midwest, the very idea of such a thing—a soft, buttery roll stuffed with the Rolls Royce of seafood—is almost mythical; the culinary equivalent of a unicorn. Sure, I had heard there were places in Chicago serving them and serving them well. I just didn’t think I believed it. But the dropping thermostat had me yearning for beachy weather, and before I knew what was happening, I found myself trudging up a sleety stretch of Lincoln Avenue toward the New England Seafood Company.
Slush droplets were sliding down my forehead by the time I opened the door and found myself blasted by an unmistakable aroma. A wave of nostalgia washed over me as I recalled childhood Thanksgivings spent on the gulf coast. This was a smell, not of fish, but of the ocean itself: salty, clean, infinite.
I had done my research, so I knew there was one singular element that made this alkaline aroma so different from the odor of the grocery store fish counter: freshness. Run by two brothers from Boston, New England Seafood Company receives its fresh catches from daily deliveries from (surprise) New England. The company is so concerned with authenticity, they even source the split-top buns for their lobster rolls from a Boston bakery.
I strode to the counter to order, but not before perusing the chalkboard menu touting the day’s specials. Among them: the Heavy Hitter, a super-sized version of the shop’s regular lobster roll, a.k.a. a giant unicorn. I wavered, unsure of what to do, before finally blurting it out, “regular lobster roll.” I felt a brief tinge of disappointment in myself, but after all, these were uncharted waters I found myself in. “And a small clam chowder.” Ego partially repaired.
I made my way to a green-and-white checkered table, one of about six saddled against the market’s front window. Little touches of New England abound around the interior, starting with bottles of Heinz malt vinegar placed on each table. For the most part, though, the market is minimally adorned, its dining area blissfully devoid of ship’s oars, pirate hats or singing waiters.
I barely had time to revel in the calm, however, as my chowder was delivered with frightening speed and in a portion that was about twice the size of what I had expected for $3.95.
Second confession: I’m the type of person who orders clam chowder and then eats around the clams. Or at least I was that type of person. The first hint that this chowder would be different came not from the soup itself but from what came with it: a tiny package of oyster crackers bearing the name Westminster Bakers Co. Even the crackers came from New England. I sprinkled a few on top and dug in.
This wasn’t chowder at all. It was chowdah. Gone were the tiny, slimy bivalves of chowders past, replaced instead with tender meaty morsels that were anything but rubbery. Gone also was the thick cream broth capable of making a spoon stand on end; in its place, a salty, silken elixir dotted with caramelized onions and bearing the consistency of fresh cream. Many chowders use potatoes as filler, but this one was perfectly balanced, each spoonful yielding up clams, cream and starch in equal proportion.
Speaking of those potatoes, they might be the thing that elevates NESC’s chefs from chowder makers to chowder masters. Who among us has not faced the horror of an improperly cooked chowder potato? One that is either too tough or has been cooked to a virtual vapor, a mealy, steaming phantom waiting to scald an unsuspecting mouth? Neither were to be found here; each potato was perfectly al dente, cut into cubes so uniform it was almost maddening.
Then it came.
After the chowder, I expected the lobster roll would be generous, but this was downright magnanimous. Creamy, paprika-dusted lumps of lobster spilled forth from the soft, pillowy split-topped bun, its butter-strewn sides bearing grill marks applied with almost cartoon-like precision. Meaty morsels tumbled from the top of the mountainous roll as I struggled to lift it to my mouth.
With the exception of Connecticut, lobster rolls are traditionally served chilled throughout New England. The coldness somehow amplified the natural sweetness of the lobster, a sweetness that, when combined with the other sandwich elements, bordered on saccharine. That highly lauded Boston bun had a taste comparable to challah or brioche, but with a texture and shape that made it look much more like a hot dog bun’s bigger, handsomer cousin. A scant brush of mayo on the bun and a squeeze of lemon provided the only complements to the unadulterated crustacean, adding a touch of tanginess that kept the roll from veering into dessert-like territory.
Still, my lobster roll was so highly anticipated that there was bound to be a few disappointments. The super-soft bun lacked the strength to truly shelter so much meat, and by the end mine was dangerously close to disintegrating. An extra few seconds on the grill or a brief stint in the oven would likely do wonders for the sandwich’s structural soundness, while also lending the dish some much-needed crunch. And while my research on New England Seafood Company had led me to expect my roll would be finished with a light sprinkling of garlic salt, paprika and melted butter, of the three, only paprika was detectable, leaving the roll without any sort of salty component. Luckily, an accompanying side of homemade chips salvaged the situation nicely, leaving me almost perfectly satisfied.
A long-held obsession finally realized, I stood to leave only to come face to face with mountains of golden fried shrimp arriving at the table next to me. Surely my Christmas tree could stand being alone for a little longer…couldn’t it?