Roll-in’ on the River

Roll-in’ on the River

I n summer, the search for a great leisure-time lobster roll becomes a serious business. The classic seaside sandwich is a point of obsession for some, but for Arlene and Nick Crismale, it’s something more: a way of life. 

The Crismales own the Lobster Shack, a cherry-red trailer across the Branford River from Stony Creek Brewery, tucked away from the road behind a shipyard. It’s a small, cash-only, BYOB operation with a minimalist menu. There are two rolls: the standard, which has four ounces of meat ($16.95), and the Whaler, with half a pound ($32). There are also grilled clams and a few chowders, plus hot dogs for “the landlubbers,” as Arlene says. But everyone knows the main event is the Lobster Roll, which has netted many awards and write-ups during the Shack’s 10-year lifespan.

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While some places jazz up their rolls with condiments, celery or that clichéd add-on, bacon, Arlene isn’t having it. “The only way to make a lobster roll is with butter and lemon,” she says. “And that’s what we do.”

When a sandwich has four ingredients, they all have to be top-notch, and the Crismales are adamant that their product be fresh, never frozen. “My husband was a lobsterman for 35 years,” Arlene says of Nick. “How could I serve frozen lobster?”

I settled onto a bench—all the seating is outdoors, looking over the marina—and started with six of their Grilled Clams ($6), which, in keeping with the Shack’s straightforward approach to seasoning, were dabbed with butter and served with lemon wedges. Succulent and plump with just enough chew, the clams, still warm from the grill and sparkling from the hit of citrus, were salty and richly buttered without losing their briny goodness.

The lobster roll itself—I opted for the smaller of the two—arrived wrapped in foil. Inside, the crisply grilled and buttered roll was stuffed with rosy body and claw meat. And that was really it. No pesky toppings or dressings to distract from the main event. “I don’t even keep a jar of mayonnaise down here,” Arlene says, gesturing toward the Shack.

The appeal of the Shack’s lobster roll is its earnestness. It takes a decadent meat—often associated with strange utensils, high-rollers and cream sauces—and treats it simply, allowing you to appreciate lobster in a purer state. The saltwater taste of the meat was airy, subtly sweet and slightly floral. The sandwich itself is surprisingly light, allowing for beach frolics afterwards.

For the Crismales, the Shack’s success is especially poignant considering the beleaguered state of Connecticut lobstering. The bottom fell out of the industry in 1999, when the spraying of pesticides caused a massive die-off in the regional population. “It just put so many lobstermen out of business,” Arlene says. “And it never came back.” Nick, who looks the part of a lifelong lobsterman and clammer, says the ocean still hasn’t recovered, and he’s frustrated with the “pundits who refuse to believe or acknowledge the impacts of pesticides, nitrates and stuff like that.” Now, the Shack’s lobster supply comes from Maine and Nova Scotia.

Nick is still a treasure trove of lobster facts. I ask him about the urban legend that the king of crustaceans, given the right circumstances, can live forever. While he won’t confirm immortality, he says, “They’ve caught ’em up to 35, 38 pounds, which is a pretty big lobster. Those have probably been around 75, 80 years. Same as humans.”

Nick goes off to hammer a stake into the ground, and Arlene heads back into the trailer to whip up more rolls for the steady stream of customers who’ve found their way through the shipyard and to the shore. Arlene says a lot of customers bring salads, appetizers and booze down to the Shack, and that they stick around even after she packs up and leaves, drinking, talking and savoring, in addition to the food, the long evenings of summer.

Lobster Shack
7 Indian Neck Ave, Branford (map)
Sun-Thur 11:30am-6pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-7pm
(203) 483-8414
www.lobstershackct.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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