Calvin Trillin once said that he raised his two daughters, Abigail and Sarah, in Kansas City even though the girls grew up in Greenwich Village. I can relate to that, because despite the fact that I am a native New Yorker who has never lived more than fifteen miles from the city, I seem to be living in a small corner of Maine on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This life comes complete with lobster pillows and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife posters, and we even feed our cat New England Boil. My husband’s Maine roots go back to the 1600s (before Maine was Maine), and I seemed to have, by a combination of proximity and osmosis, absorbed some of the most important lore of the Pine Tree State—that is, I’ve learned to cook Maine. (None of this “Vacationland,” please, which appears on Maine license plates, and is universally reviled by natives).
During the early years we could not find a top-split hotdog bun anywhere in the city, and had to resort to frying the inside of the bun to make a crab or lobster roll. Dark days indeed. I’m talking about that far-off time when a decent lobster roll was not to be had south of Cumberland County. Today's youth will find this hard to believe, I know. But I was there.
The crab situation was even more dire. Maryland crab (known around here as “you-call-that-crab?”) was available at pretty much every fishmonger in New York City. If I asked for Maine crab, all I would get was a funny look.
In 1997, that would change when Roderick and Joan MacGregor, long-time Maine rusticators, decided to take their twenty-five-year-old wholesale seafood business, The Lobster Place, from the Upper West Side to the Chelsea Market, where it would also operate as a retail business. It’s always a thrill to visit the enormous space and check out the hundreds of lobsters waiting for someone to take them carefully home, boil them, and dip them in butter.
I recently visited the two-year-old, smaller branch of The Lobster Place, located on Bleecker Street, right next to Murray’s Cheese. They carry fresh and prepared seafood, including icy buckets of oysters—but crustaceans are what it’s all about. I order myself a lobster roll and buy a pound of unpasteurized Jonah crab, while looking longingly at the twenty-dollar-per-pound packages of Jonah claw meat, but that will have to wait for a grander occasion. The lobster itself was utterly succulent and tender, but the roll itself was ungrilled, alas. Others may disagree, but I find the buttery crunch essential.
Licking the last bit of lobster from my fingers, I hurry home, eager to make one of this tiny Maine outpost’s favorite meals: Crab cakes.
The Lobster Place
252 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014 (nr. Leroy; map)