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December 13, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter V - Neptune Oyster

Neptune Oyster Dominic Armato

Well, The Clam Box was meant to be a jumping-off point -- a no-frills benchmark that'd fall somewhere near the middle of the pack. But the rankings are looking pretty lopsided so far, and headed in the wrong direction, no less. We need to reverse this trend. Time to bring out the big guns. When it comes to lobster rolls in upscale locales, two names always seem to receive mention as favorites. One of those two is Neptune Oyster. Can one of the city's favored upscale seafood eateries get us out of the lobster roll doldrums?

Neptune Oyster is a tiny, tiny place, crammed into a small storefront in the North End, and seemingly always packed wall-to-wall. When seats are filled, it's impossible to navigate the single aisle without getting up close and personal with other diners. Seven or eight high tables, a long marble(?) bar, dark wood, white tile, brass details here and there -- it has a classic look. And for the most part, it sells very classic seafood, including a raw bar for which it's particularly well-known. Today's goal, however, was the lobster roll, and from the look of things, I wasn't alone. I saw perhaps eight or nine plates on other tables, and I was shocked to discover that all but one or two were lobster rolls. Hyped, indeed. I'd actually partaken of Neptune's lobster roll before, but had opted for the hot version with butter and garlic. It was, as is widely reported, fabulous. But there's no sense in comparing a hot butter roll to a cold mayo roll, so a return trip for the cold was in order.

Lobster Roll - Neptune OysterDominic Armato

What's immediately evident about Neptune's lobster roll is that it's pretty darn straightforward. The bread's a little different (we'll get to that), but the salad looks to be completely unadorned. Medium to big chunks were the story, a mix of pieces that were a little firmer than places like The Clam Box and Belle Isle, which wasn't entirely unwelcome. I know some are all about the meltingly tender, but I think there's something to be said for a little bit of toothsome texture -- a reason I dig the tail just as much as the beloved claws. For me, this is just the right amount of mayo... noticeable, but not overpowering. And I don't know if there was some kind of super sneaky seasoning mixed therein, but the lobster had an unusually strong flavor, not just the light sweetness, but a light hit of that unmistakable lobstery funk -- the kind that comes to the fore when you make lobster stock. The seasoning was almost a touch briny, which I think might have brought out that character in a way typical salting wouldn't. Maybe I'm making this all up in my head, I don't know, but suffice it to say, the flavor was notably good. The bread, not so much. It came atop a fairly large brioche bun, the flavor of which I thought worked well, but the size of which was problematic. I think the lesson for places like Skipjack's and Neptune is that fancier bread isn't necessarily better bread for the intended purpose. But still, I really enjoyed this one. And it came with some great, fresh fries to boot.

Where to put it in the standings? This one was an agonizing call. I dug that little extra something in the seasoning that The Clam Box's lacked, but the bread was an issue. I waffled back and forth on this one a good 15-20 times, and finally decided to let price performance be the deciding factor. At $25, even if I can say I prefer Neptune's -- and I'm not 100% I can -- I'm certain I can say that I don't like it $10 more. Our "benchmark" remains at the top of the pile.

(The hot roll with butter and garlic, however, is another story... big winner, even if not applicable here.)

Neptune Oyster
www.neptuneoyster.com
63 Salem Street
Boston, MA 02110
617-742-3474
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sun11:30 AM - 10:30 PM
  1) The Clam Box
2) Neptune Oyster
3) Belle Isle Seafood
4) Skipjack's
5) Fred's Sea Foods

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