Catching lobster in the dead of winter isn’t for the faint of heart. As the temperature dips and lobsters grow hard shells, they migrate to warmer waters in deeper seas, far from shore. Only the most determined fishermen will face open seas and hazardous conditions to bring in a winter catch.
Demand for the crustaceans at local restaurants doesn’t decline, though; at Occidental Grill & Seafood, chef Rodney Scruggs says he still sells 75 to 100 orders each week, no matter how cold it gets outside. Red Hook Lobster Pound’s D.C. food truck will keep rolling, too, returning from a holiday break this past week.
Which just means more steady work for a couple of local folks who’ve made a name for themselves ferrying fresh lobster from Maine to D.C.
Every Tuesday and Friday—even during the winter—207 Lobster, a one-year-old distribution company with ties to Maine lobstermen and D.C. restaurants, delivers a fresh catch to a large, and growing, list of clients.
The company is a partnership between Alex Harris, 25, a host at Occidental Grill who got hooked on lobster as an undergraduate at the University of Maine, and Nick Olson, 23, a Mainer who’s on track to join his family’s long line of lobstermen. (So long, in fact, that the Olsons have a grandfathered permit that allows them to trap near Cushing Island, where no new permits are issued.)
207 Lobster is a by-demand outfit without a brick-and-mortar location. Restaurants place orders, Olson and his family pull lobsters from traps in Maine, pack them in seaweed and ice in a wax-coated cardboard box, and send them off to a shipping company. They’re transported south in a refrigerated truck. Here in the District, Harris picks them up and delivers to clients. Besides Occidental Grill, 207 Lobster serves CityZen, Vidalia, Brabo, Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, DC Coast, and Tackle Box.
“In winter, there’s not much of a difference in catches or sales on the whole except the price,” says Harris.
Restaurants pay 207 Lobster $7 per pound during winter, rather than $4 or $5 per pound they pay during the summer; most pass the higher prices on. At The Occidental, a summer lobster is $16 or $17 for a pound-and-a -halfer, whole. For the same price, the winter lobster makes for a beautiful plate: a butterflied tail on a bed of braised fennel, layered with one claw and a douse of micro-greens, dressed with a ruby-colored Sauterne pomegranate sauce.
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Over the last few years, the lobster business has boomed for both suppliers, like 207 Lobster, and the restaurants (or trucks) that sell to consumers. What used to be a luxury beyond the reach of most diners is getting closer to becoming a commodity, says Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters.
Until the fall of 2008, says Corson, half of the Maine lobster catch was going to Canadian processing plants that supplied parts like frozen tails to grocery stores, or sent frozen lobster to mid-level restaurant chains. Prices stayed high because middlemen and processing costs kept it that way.
Then globalization stepped in. The collapse of Iceland’s economy in 2008 pulled lobster prices down, not because Icelanders like Maine lobster, but because Icelandic banks had been the primary lenders to Canadian processors. Since banks elsewhere perceived fishing as a risky investment, the businesses haven’t been able to secure funding since. The result, says Corson, is more lobsters on the market, driving down the price.
On top of that, cod, lobster’s natural predator, has been overfished. As a result, Maine lobsters are more plentiful than ever. Tack on weight and size restrictions, and the numbers off the coast of Maine have proliferated beyond what anyone had expected.
Though other New England states also have successful lobster fisheries, Maine’s catch is prized. They’re not imported, like Canadian competitors, but they taste sweeter than those from waters farther south.
That sense of place—in wine, it’d be called terroir—is part of the appeal of the lobster businesses that have thrived in the District. 207 Lobster ships directly from Maine, and the restaurants that sell their product get a specific local supplier to tell diners about.
Red Hook Lobster Pound sources its own lobsters from Maine, as well. Until recently, co-owner Susan Povich and her husband drove north from Brooklyn (where the business began) every week. They met fishermen. They sampled lobster from hundreds of processors. Recently, she hired off-duty firemen to shoulder the drives. Povich has relationships with fishermen and processors, but won’t reveal who supplies her. She says her processors get lobster for $2 to $5 a pound, but she was mum about how much she herself pays.
At Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn, Povich keeps whole lobsters in storage tanks for up to 24 hours until they’re sold, whole. The Lobster Pound doesn’t warehouse its product; they tend to order only as much as they’ll need to serve lobster rolls or retail lobsters for home cooking.
Povich can spend upwards of $30,000 a week on her business, which includes maintaining tanks for the sales of whole lobsters in their Brooklyn storefront. “There’s an art to keeping lobsters in tanks,” says Povich. “They need them to revive. It’s hard to keep them healthy and not to lose them.”
At 207 Lobster, Harris and Olson agree; they don’t use tanks at all. It’s in part out of concern that prolonged storage hampers freshness by stressing the lobsters, which tend to be territorial. The stress releases an enzyme that could degrade the flavor of the meat. Worse for business, tanks can cost anywhere from $20,000 and up. Journeys and maintenance of the Gale Ray, Olson’s boat, are expensive enough as it is.
The real difference between winter lobster and summer lobster has nothing to do with logistics or cost, though. Like anything else involving a fresh seasonal product, it’s a matter of taste.
“Ask a Mainer on the street and he’ll tell you hands down, he likes a summer lobster way better than a winter one,” says Harris. The shells are softer. The meat is less dense and more succulent. There’s more “juice,” or water weight in the shell.
But Harris prefers winter lobster to summer meat. “I like that you get more for your money,” he says. “I like the dense meaty stuff.”
I was skeptical: Isn’t this like comparing a rib-eye to flank steak? But the other night during a lobster taste test at The Occidental, my dining companion suggested I think of it the way northerners and southerners view Gulf oysters. New Englanders dismiss them as fryin’ oysters—i.e., not as flavorful as those from colder waters—while a Louisianan views a fat meaty raw bivalve from local waters as the be-all. When it comes to lobster, winter versus summer is a matter of preference.
“Winter lobster is amazing,” says Povich. “It’s less sweet and more briny, but still delicious.” She cites lobster bisque and the Connecticut style lobster roll as seasonal favorites, since the sandwich is served warm.
Perhaps winter meat is a little less sweet, but I hardly noticed, since at The Occidental, it’s doctored with the fruit in the sauce. It is certainly denser than during the summer. I could have used a steak knife on the butterflied tail; it was tough enough. The claw was more the delight. But that’s the way they usually are: tougher tails, more supple knuckle and claw meat. It’s why Povich and company don’t use tails in their sandwiches, ever. She thinks they’re too tough.
Tough also describes the shells in winter, so hard you might poke someone’s eye out as you’re cracking a claw, or so I learned at Tackle Box, when I order a whole grilled one for $29 (with two sides) the other night. As was the case at The Occidental, the lobster meat was slightly bitter, almost herbal. The meat was dense. But it was, nevertheless, delicious. That said, I had to apologize to people surrounding me eating fried clams and crab cakes as I impaled them with shell shrapnel. It makes sense that 207’s lobsters are selling for “beauty plates” in winter, with fine dining as the majority of their clientele; eating a whole one in public is a delicious debacle.
While 207 Lobster sees steady sales year round, the nature of the lobster truck and its outdoor clientele means that Povich and company will take a hit. But “we’re definitely staying open,” she says. “It’s worth it for marketing. And, I have to keep my people employed.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery