Like many a lobsterman in the year 2012, Captain William Michael Harden discovered he needed a new business plan. Lobsters never recovered after the die-off in 1999, and he couldn't sell the 1,000 a day he needed to make a profit.
When he came home from a day on the Jenny Lynn, his 38-foot Maine lobster boat, Captain Mike liked to cook, to feed his family, his wife and two kids.
"My wife said, 'You're good at it and you like it. Why not sell the lobsters retail?'" Which got Harden, a strong-looking man whose face has the open, ruddy, lined look of a man whose spent his life on the water, thinking... "from boat to bun..."
But first, he needed to do some market research. "So I made a whole bunch of toppings and dressings and invited our friends." He offered them about 10 different lobster rolls. "Some were complete failures," he says. "Some were awesome." He bought a food truck and painted a giant, orange, line-drawing of a lobster across it.
Lobstercraft's specialty is the Coastal, made-to-order, traditional Connecticut-style, butter-drenched lobster on a toasted soft bun. The buns are baked at Muro's New York Bakery in Norwalk. "It's a great roll. You can kill with a bad bun. And we toast every bun," he says.
He doesn't make Maine-style lobster rolls, those cold, wet, mayo-based abominations made ahead of time and stored in the fridge. "I don't do it. I don't offer it. We stay local and fresh." (He does, however, give in to orders for Maine rolls at the private parties Lobstercraft caters.)
When I saw Lobstercraft's menu I thought, "LBLT, yes!" That's lobster, bacon, lettuce and tomato. And the California Roll with avocado, cucumber and wasabi mayo sounded terrific too. Then I heard about Captain Mike's Lobster Dinner Cruises.
Captain Mike (he's a Coast Guard Captain) takes groups of six adults out for evening lobstering-cruises on the Jenny Lynn. You pull on rubber fishing slicks, haul lobster traps, learn about the health of our waters. Then Captain Mike and his partner Captain Bill Solder find a nice little cove in the Norwalk Islands and, as you watch the sun go down, they cook a full lobster dinner — using the ones you just caught. Captain Mike says you've never had a lobster until you've eaten a just-caught one.
He turns down one for every two people who want to book the cruise. You need to be a boater and like the water. "It gets dark," he says, "You can't be sea sick."
| What's Killing Our Lobsters?|
In 1999, 75 percent of the lobsters in Long Island Sound died. They've never completely recovered and we don't know why. The evidence is clear. There's the die-off. And there's shell disease. Pesticides used to kill mosquitoes and warmer waters are suspects.
There's not a lot of in-depth research and the sample sizes are small. Which raises the question — Why? Why, with all the brain power at our disposal, haven't we figure this out? A recent joint Connecticut DEEP and Uconn study showed traces of pesticides in lobsters. The report is no longer available on DEEP's website. Some lobstermen have pointed to insecticide dunks in storm drains in New York and Connecticut leading to continued lobster die-offs in times of rain and flooding.
Another recent DEEP report implicated climate change. Over six years, four lobstermen in Long Island Sound recorded temperatures. "All of the temperature data gathered by the lobstermen and the DEP monitoring program revealed a direct negative response to rising temperatures," the report stated.
These are our waters.
And you've got to be cool. The first year Captain Mike did the lobster cruises, a woman called to say there were eight in her family who wanted to go. He told her he could only take six on the boat. She showed up with eight. "I couldn't choose," she said. "OK," Captain Mike replied, "Then I'll choose for you."
Having left two of the family members behind, the Jenny Lynn set out off onto Long Island Sound. As Captain Mike prepared the lobster dinner, the woman asked if she could have something other than lobster. "I'm allergic," she said. "Do you have any chicken?" Chicken is not served on the lobster cruise, and that's why Captain Mike is discerning about the people he takes out.
At $800 for six people, the lobster cruise is out of my budget, but I could live vicariously and try a $16 lobster roll, so I caught up with Lobstercraft (whose ever-changing schedule is best followed on their website, lobstercraft.com) at the Westport Country Playhouse's open house last weekend.
Now, Captain Mike will tell you, for your first time, start with the Coastal. It's the Connecticut roll. It's the most popular. "The second time, you can begin to experiment."
Instead, I went straight to the California roll. Little did I know I was making a gender-based decision "Guys order the LBLT, the girls get the California," he says.
Lobster is the most important ingredient in the lobster roll, and Captain Mike is proud he keeps it that way. "We want you to taste the lobster." The components of Lobstercraft's California roll were great, the toasted bun, the creamy avocado (wonderful with lobster), the crisp, thin-sliced cucumbers, the wasabi mayo. And yet, and yet, as much as I wanted to love this lobster roll, I didn't. It didn't sing. It was a polite lobster roll, neatly eaten in its red-checked cardboard dish, thick ridged potato chips on the side. It was the lobster itself, slightly tough, orange-hued from the spice mix, that didn't thrill. It wasn't luscious. The coleslaw was a crudely chopped container tasting of raw onion and hot dried pepper, without the benefit of the flavors of sour-sweet vinegar. Two forkfuls were enough.
Captain Mike indulged my request for a taste of his lobster bisque. It had a deep lobster bisque flavor and a pleasing body, and it was garnished with a chunk of knuckle meat.
New specials are on the menu. "This week I have a shrimp roll," he says. And he's working on a crab roll. "A couple crab fisherman are going to sell their fresh crabs to me," he says.
I didn't love the lobster roll I tried, but I'd give it another shot. I will head over to Two Roads Brewery in Stratford on a weekend (check the schedule) to try the LBLT, and eat it with a beer in Two Roads tasting room. Mid-week, Lobstercraft can be found parked in downtown Stamford, and at the Rowayton Farmer's Market. Nothing's set in stone, so check the website.