Acadia's lobster roll is one of our favorites in Chicago.
The lobster roll at Sable Kitchen & Bar is one of our favorites.
The lobster roll at the Gage is topped with crunchy onions.
The lobster roll at Shaw's Crab House's is one of our favorite versions.
The lobster roll at Sophie's is the most elegant one in Chicago.
The lobster roll at Wellfleet is one of our favorite versions and only available at lunch.
The lobster roll at New England Seafood Company Fish Market is our favorite in Chicago.
GT Fish & Oyster's lobster roll is one of Chicago's best.
Eating my way through Chicago's lobster rolls was part pleasure, part pain. I'm always up for eating lobster, but it seems like many Chicago restaurants serve it in ways that mask the crustacean's flavor. I don't want to find chunks of lobster in my mac and cheese, topping pizza or in tacos—lobster should be served simply or not at all.
When it comes to lobster rolls, since I grew up closer to Long Island Sound than to Maine, I am in the Connecticut-style camp, which means I prefer my lobster rolls to be served warm with butter on a toasted bun. That's not to say that I don't love a good Maine lobster roll, when the meat is bound with just a hint of mayo and maybe a little spice.
Over the past couple years, Chicago has embraced lobster rolls. Today there are dozens. So when it came time to assess Chicago’s lobster rolls, I needed a plan. I ate every lobster roll I could find at seafood restaurants, plus other versions I found especially promising or brand new this year. In all, I ate 20 of them: GT Fish & Oyster, Sable Kitchen & Bar, Shaw’s Crab House, Sophie’s, The Gage, Acadia, New England Seafood Company, Wellfleet, Pearl Tavern, Lockwood, Fish Bar, Little Market Brasserie, Tortoise Club, Da Lobsta, Joe Fish, Siena Tavern, Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen, Terrace at Trump, Stout Barrelhouse & Galley and Dusek’s Board & Beer.
It was a two-month long project that yielded mixed results. While I was impressed, on the whole, with the buns that restaurants were using, the majority of the lobster rolls had too much going on. I ate lobster swimming in drippy mayo. I ate what can only be called lobster salad, which had more vegetables than meat. I ate lobster rolls with shriveled, desiccated meat, doused in butter to cover it up, and some that were too large to pick up and eat—to eat lobster rolls, you use your hands. And I even ate a lobster roll topped with a whole claw, in which the hard cartilage was still present.
"I am eating a lobster roll topped with shredded lettuce," I texted my mother at one point.
She told my dad, and he called me.
"I hear you aren't having very good lobster rolls," he said. "Don't they know they just need butter or a little mayo?"
He’s right, and the lobster rolls that make my list are the simplest versions out there. While some of have extra, unexpected ingredients, they never overwhelm the lobster, which is the main event in all of them. No, there's nothing as good as eating a lobster roll right on the ocean in New England, but if you can't be there, these are the next best thing.
Chef and owner Ryan McCaskey spent summers in Maine, and it's clear the man has had good lobster rolls in his life. Take the meat: It's cool, perfectly cooked and lightly dressed with a little mayo and paprika, plus butter. And the bun: It comes in from Maine and it's warm and incredibly buttery. The whole roll is almost too buttery—it's the richest offering, for sure. But at $18, it's also one of the most affordable lobster rolls in Chicago.Read more
The Gage's lobster roll ($23) is topped with fried onions, which I expected to immediately disqualify it. But the meat is chilled, bright and lemony (there's a grilled half lemon to squeeze over the roll), the bun is perfectly buttered, and the onions add more texture and salt. I had one with a housemade blueberry soda, and couldn't imagine a better lunch.Read more
GT's lobster roll ($28) perfects the meat to bun ratio (which doomed many of the other rolls I tried). The buttery bun is large enough to hold the sandwich together, but there's so much cool, well-seasoned lobster that it's still primarily what you're tasting. Add in celery for crunch and a variety of herbs and you've got a killer lobster roll.Read more
New England Seafood Company's lobster roll ($17.95) turned out to be my favorite, and the kind of roll I grew up eating. There's the barest trace of mayo on the bun and a hefty sprinkling of paprika. A lemon wedge and cup of warm butter are served on the side, and I used both liberally. While the split-top bun cries out for a little more butter, the chilled lobster is so sweet, I'll give them a pass.Read more
Heather Terhune's lobster rolls come in two sizes ($16 for 2, $32 for 4), and they're miniature toasted buns stuffed with meat, celery and microgreens. An abundance of citrus keeps the lobster roll tasting light, and they're a great bar snack for when you're drinking Sable's cocktails.Read more
I appreciate the lack of pretension with Shaw's excellent lobster roll ($25). Big chunks of sweet lobster are dressed with Hellman's mayo, mixed with celery and chives, and tucked into a housemade buttery bun. Get it in the main dining room during lunch or at the oyster bar at any time.Read more
This one was a surprise. I didn't expect to find one of the better lobster rolls in town while seated amongst men's shirts at Saks Fifth Avenue. Nor did I expect to like a lobster roll that included pickled onions. But the lobster roll ($23) won me over by focusing on the lobster and just tasting really, really good. The meat is mixed with mayo, shaved celery and pickled red onion, then cradled in a lettuce leaf in a buttery brioche bun.Read more
This was my first visit to Wellfleet, but based on anecdotal evidence (and this publication), the lobster roll ($19) has vastly improved of late. There's just a hint of mayo to bind it all together, and lemon peel, cucumber, parsley and other herbs and spices are also added. The meat is served cold, but the bun is grilled in a ton of butter right in front of you. The result is glorious.Read more