Calgary travel writer Jennifer Allford contributed this guest post.
White Point Resort, Nova Scotia—My training regime includes eating lobster poutine, creamed lobster and lobster in the shell. There is gravy, cream and butter, forks, bibs and long silver picks. We have a lobster omelette at breakfast, lobster on a burger at lunch and lobster tossed with pasta at dinner. In just a few days of Nova Scotia’s first South Shore Lobster Crawl, I happily eat my weight in lobster.
But as we peruse menus from Peggy’s Cove to Barrington, I avoid ordering the lobster roll. I want my palate to remain pure for the big event — helping judge the first Lobster Roll Challenge at White Point Beach Resort. I shun the roll so as not to become familiar with, or swayed by, any of the restaurant’s entries before judgment day.
The lobster roll is almost a religion in Nova Scotia. The oldest and purest version is simply lobster and mayo on a buttered bun with salt and pepper. Some have gone rogue over the years adding celery or green onion. The debate rages whether to add shredded lettuce in the mix and what size the lobster chunks should be. Parsley is tolerated but purists roll their eyes (and hold their noses) at cilantro.
On February 11, a chef in a kilt, Alain Bossé (The Kilted Chef), becomes our host and asks us to sit at a long table set with water glasses, judging sheets and plenty of napkins. On my left sits a local writer who has written 27 books about Nova Scotia. On my right sits a woman who has written about Toronto restaurants for 19 years. Next to her sits a local foodie who routinely writes about lobster for her blog. Another judge is a London-based food writer who travels the world writing about recipes.
And then there’s me — the prairie girl who can count on both hands how many lobster rolls she’s consumed in her life. I tell myself bringing a beef on a bun sensibility to the lobster roll may be a welcome perspective. I have no bias. While I know that beef on a bun needs two things — tender beef and hot horseradish — I don’t have a personal preference for the lobster roll. In fact, I don’t have a clue.
A few dozen restaurant owners, chefs and servers stand across from us. I recognize the woman who served me creamed lobster and the guy who invented the Lunenburger. Someone’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “Save a chicken, eat a lobster.” As the entrants introduce themselves, the trash talking begins.
“Our lobster was caught this morning,” one says.
“We cooked ours 15 minutes ago,” boasts another.
“I’m not going to talk smack,” says a third. “Our lobster will speak for itself.”
And so it does.
The rolls come out fast and furious. Bossé shows us a plate for presentation and then we’re each served a sample. We chow down and mark for six criteria including ratio of lobster to bun, visual appeal and balanced taste and seasonings. We can give an extra five points for any “WOW factor.”
We sample rolls with herbs or a little crunch or neither. Some have a hint of lemon. The rolls themselves are brioche, long, round, grilled, toasted and cold. One is garlicky. Sides include artisanal relish, chips, fries, coleslaw, grapes or microgreens. They’re served on checked paper, a red star plate and one is artfully arranged on a wooden plank. One roll sports a little sign riffing off Valentine’s Day: “Lobster is for lovers.” Another is presented with a whole lobster holding the roll (and scoring some WOW points).
I try not to be swayed by the shellfish bling and stay focused on the flavour. I resist eating the sides, except for a chip here and a fry there, to ensure I have enough room to finish 10 mini rolls — the equivalent of about three big ones.
After the last bite we hand over our final scoring sheet, take a swig of Hell Bay Brewing Company’s Lobster Ale (which tastes strangely buttery) and wait for the tally.
Bossé announces there’s only a 10-point spread between the first and last entry, “which means they’re all winners,” he says with a grin.
Oak Island Resort & Conference Centre and the Quarterdeck Beachside Villas and Grill tie for third place, Lane’s Privateer Inn comes in second, and first place goes to the one with the lobster holding the roll, Capt. Kat’s Lobster Shack.
The crowd from Capt. Kat’s poses for photos with their trophy, but I feel like the real winner in the room.
It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon, I can hear the Atlantic rolling up on the beach outside and I just tried some of the best lobster rolls in Nova Scotia, ergo the world. And — bonus points — I’ve discovered that I like my lobster roll with a little dill, just a dab of mayo and a warm, grilled bun.