All Lobster All the Time
n the journalism business we strive, to quote the stirring overture to the old Superman television show, for "truth, justice, and the American way." Nevertheless sometimes you read something in the papers that seems so untrue and unjust that you figure Lex Luthor rather than Clark Kent must've been manning the rewrite desk that morning.
I encountered just such an item a few weeks ago -- and no, it wasn't one of those forgetfully fawning paeans to Ronald Reagan's presidency, either. It was an Associated Press story about the recent spread of some lobster disease that evidently does not affect the meat's taste at all but, because it mottles the shell an unsightly black, affects the crustaceans' marketability. To paraphrase the quote that left me reeling, a Maine fisherman explained that this disease, though harmless, was a huge problem for restaurants because diners naturally expect the best when they're paying eight dollars per pound for a lobster.
In South Florida, if you can find lobster at that price, best to assume the seller is fencing stolen goods at deep discounts. The two prices I encountered on Miami menus at the time the AP story appeared were $68 for a two-pound live specimen, and $46 for a defrosted tail. In Maine they can get a one-pounder for eight bucks? Isn't that a violation of our constitutional rights or something?
Perhaps it's just that summer brings out the patriotism in restaurant reviewers; Fourth of July seems practically a synonym for lobster salad and Mom's apple pie. But instead of calling the ACLU (or Superman) to right this wrong, I headed for the venerable Les Deux Fontaines Café, which, since my last visit there several years ago, had altered the last part of its name to "Lobster Café." To go along with the new moniker, most of the entrée section of the menu is now devoted to lobsters of many regions -- and in several preparations-- so diners can taste test. The crustacean is also represented in the café's starter, soup, and salad sections, making all-lobster meals a possibility.
Best bet is a weekly 2-4-1 night (which actually runs from 11:30 a.m. through dinner every Monday), when the restaurant offers an almost Mainelike meal deal: two live one-pounders for $36.95. Though this special is intended for one person, servers cheerfully advised me on three separate occasions that couples often split the dinner. To keep the café happy, I had a dining companion order as an entrée an inexpensive L2F house salad, a mix of romaine, radicchio, frisée, cukes, and tomatoes, lightly dressed with a not-too-vinegary house vinaigrette.
The steamed and split twin lobsters were very good. Both were sweet and tender yet firm, fully developed lobsters, not summer's thin-skinned "shedders," whose meat is often watery. And to the café's credit, both bugs had obviously been alive when they'd hit the steaming pot. This is, unfortunately, something not true at many places offering allegedly live lobster, but an important factor since the flesh of tails still attached to the thorax deteriorates quickly owing to the proximity of the crustaceans' organs. To check for freshness, the standard method is to note whether the tail's end is curved into itself. At Les Deux Fontaines, an easier method, as a note at the menu's bottom invites, is to pick your own snapping-clawed lobster from the eatery's live tank.
Another irritating standard practice at places that offer lobster specials is to serve the seafood unaccompanied by anything but butter, necessitating ordering veggies separately. But the café's came with a generous side of saffron-spiked rice, plus a strongly basil/oregano-flavored ratatouille. The abbreviated mélange (eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and onions; oddly there were no tomatoes in our serving) was refreshingly, if untraditionally, undercooked, so still crunchy. Additionally there was some crisp frisée atop the lobsters, though this crunch element would have been wasted had the waiter not brought a bottle of Khalil's Pomegranate sauce with the bread basket. This tangy pomegranate/olive oil/garlic/lemon potion (which some will remember from 5061, the defunct restaurant that Les Deux Fontaines' owners operated on Biscayne Boulevard) would make jogging sneakers taste good. It was fab on the frisée.
Two other lobster entrées sampled at succeeding meals did not measure up to the Maine natives, which was not surprising; spiny lobsters seldom do. Except for western Europe's Homarus gammarus (thicker-shelled but related to the northeastern United States' Homarus americanus), most of the world's lobsters, about 160 varieties including Florida's own local spiny variety, are clawless crustaceans from an entirely different genus, Panulirus argus. And with few exceptions, like New Zealand's sweet and succulent cold-water creatures, most spiny lobsters served in restaurants are from southerly warm waters, which improves their temperament but not their taste or texture.
The two six-ounce tails on a Florida lobster dinner were too dense and too stringy, and their flavor was bland. The current popularity of Latin mini-lobsters aside, three-ounce Caribbean tails were worse, dried-out studies in boredom. The watery grave of thin, one-dimensional saffron soup surrounding the tails could not resurrect the flavor-free trio. Even Khalil's sauce didn't help.
Among other lobster dishes, a bisque, inventively enhanced with vanilla bean, was velvety smooth, though a bit too salty. While absence of seafood chunks was acceptable, if disappointing, in the $5.95 bisque, it was infuriating for a high-ticket lobster cake to contain fewer than a half-dozen desiccated bits the size of shotgun pellets. Also absent were virtually all other elements touted on the menu, including scallions, onions, peppers, and a mixed-greens garnish. The $12.95 starter was basically a patty of lobster-flavored fried breadcrumb stuffing in a pool of "avocado-cilantro cream sauce" devoid of any discernible cilantro.
Fleeing back "Downeast" for a final meal was wise. Far from the mayo-bound, celery-studded All-American classic, a small but superb Maine lobster and lump crab citrus salad featured a delectable disk of crabmeat (not lump, but real crab, not surimi) flanked by a tiny, perfectly cooked lobster tail and claw. The seafood came with some sparely dressed frisée, endive, and grapefruit sections. And for dessert, my visiting brother agreed that Les Deux Fontaines' beautifully caramelized tarte tatin was the apple pie Mom should have made. Mellowed by the hefty shot of Calvados brandy that accompanied the tart, Mom would have agreed.
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