The three-and-a-half-pound lobster is seductively presented with the tail cut into easily accessible halves, the massive claws pre-cracked, and the head section standing festively upright. A veritable vat of drawn butter rests between the curls of two bright red antennae. My mouth is watering like Pavlov's dog, and all of my ethical ambiguities have suddenly disappeared.
They only had two giant lobsters left when I called Truluck's Steak & Stone Crab, so I made up a story. Then I forced a young woman named Sonia to tell it on my behalf. Sonia is the friend of a friend and an avid reader of this column. Hearing that Red and I had broken up, she offered to keep me company at dinner sometime. So I took advantage of her offer.
"Call up Truluck's and ask them to reserve one of those big lobsters for you," I said. "Tell them it's your birthday!" It seems a little craven in retrospect. But I was desperate.
I like big lobsters better than small ones. The claws and tail contain a lot more meat, and the flavor is as good or better. And each leg of a big lobster has a nice piece of meat.
This lobster is steamed so the claws don't hold any excess water. The messy insides have been thrown away. The tail is enormous. I soak a mop-like chunk of succulent white meat in the butter, and then lean over the plate as I guide the dripping morsel into my mouth. The first bite is a gusher of butter and sweet briny richness. I close my eyes and savor the satiny texture and the faint aroma of seaweed. This lobster has a tasty pocket of bright red coral in the tail, which I spread on a piece of the soft white meat. But I miss the tomalley.
The kitchen has discarded this greenish goo, actually the lobster's liver, to save us the trouble. But the tomalley is incredibly flavorful. It is sometimes eaten on buttered bread or used in a stuffing. Jasper White, a respected Boston seafood chef and author of the Lobster at Home cookbook, gave me another idea for what to do with it in a restaurant: Use the tomalley to flavor the drawn butter.
Every year at about this time, I go on a lobster binge. I developed this habit in my twenties while living in New England. The price of lobster hits rock bottom in August up there. I can remember buying them for $3.99 a pound. We would gorge on lobster for days at a time, with nothing but native corn-on-the-cob, steamer clams and butter on the side.
New Englanders view their local crustaceans a little differently than folks in the rest of the country do. To New England's early settlers, lobster was not a fancy food. In fact, they weren't even sure it was edible. Legend has it that when huge lobsters washed up on the shores of Cape Cod, settlers fed them to their pigs. When not swine feed, lobster was also used as fish bait, a practice that continued late into the 19th century.
Even today, lobster as a luxury is a strange concept to many New Englanders, as is the idea of eating such a messy food in an upscale restaurant. Old-time Yankees eat the crustacean at home or at a lobster shack, which is usually a ramshackle building near the ocean where food is served on paper plates at picnic tables.
In my later years, I have attempted to give my lobster binges some dignity. One August, I wrote a magazine article about Jasper White, who gave me a tour of some of his favorite East Coast lobster shacks. That was perhaps my best lobster pig-out ever. Except for two summers ago when a gang of us bought lobster right off a fishing boat and boiled them in seawater on the beach at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine.
This year's binge was not quite so bucolic. Attempting to recapture the spirit of summer lobster fests in New England, I'm afraid I did some strange things. What can I say? It was August in Houston, and the heat got to me. At one point, I was so delirious, I ordered steamer clams at The Stables on Westheimer. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
There are two Stables (7325 South Main, 713-795-5900; 3734 Westheimer, 713-621-0833), and both sell lobster for the modest price of $17.95 a pound. The Westheimer location is a funky joint that probably hasn't been remodeled since the Johnson administration. When I first sat down, they served a little plate of crudités and a crock of cheese spread. The waitress sounded like a country music singer. I loved the place. I thought that maybe this could be Houston's equivalent to a lobster shack -- sort of a surf-and-turf shack. They had steamers too, and that was the clincher. I love eating steamers with lobster.
Steamers (a.k.a. Atlantic soft-shell clams) have long necks (siphons) that stick out of a thin, elongated oval shell. The fragile shell breaks easily, so they don't ship well. I ordered a half bucket. They came with the authentic accompaniments of clam broth (for rinsing the sand off) and drawn butter. There was a plate covering the bucket when the clams were delivered to the table; when I took the plate away and reached in to grab one, I could tell that something was wrong. Too many shells were smashed. I took a whiff. It smelled like a bucket of pelican guano.
There is a simple rule about cooking clams: Only cook the ones still alive. It's easy to tell if they're alive because they move when you pick them up. And it's easy to tell when they're dead because they decompose quickly and smell awful. I summoned the waitress. "Please ask whoever cooked these to stick his nose in them," I said, figuring the kitchen would want to know that it had cooked up some dead ones.
"They always smell like that," the waitress said.
"No, they don't," I said.
"Yes, they do," she replied.
Well, maybe the steamers always smell that way here, I remarked to my dining companion. In which case, I added, the kitchen is completely clueless about how to cook clams. She shot me the kind of pained smile that said: "Duh, Robb."
Her prime rib was excellent, and the lobster was pretty good, too. The waitress had asked me if I wanted it steamed or broiled. I went for the latter. The lobster was a pound and a quarter; it came with the body stuffed and the tail covering removed for easy access. It was a little dry, as broiled lobsters tend to be, and the stuffing didn't change my mind about these unnecessary ingredients. But it was pleasant enough, particularly for $17.95 a pound, though not one that would begin to satisfy my serious lobster craving.
For that, I would have to descend to the depths. There is a place in Houston where you can get a pretty good imitation of a New England lobster shack. "King Fish Market?" a friend repeated dumbfounded. "That's one step up from Red Lobster." That's why I decided I had better do this by myself.
King Fish Market (6356 Richmond, 713-974-3474) is better known for its television commercials than its cooking. But Wednesday is all-you-can-eat lobster night, and like I said, I was desperate. So I put on an old T-shirt and pair of jeans and showed up hungry. I had to park a couple of blocks away. The wait for a table was half an hour, but there was no wait at all if you sat outside, far away from the dining rooms that looked like Army mess halls. This suited my lobster-shack fantasy perfectly. I took a seat at the outdoor bar. The counter was a piece of glass over a display of seashells on a sand background. I ordered the $45 lobster special and a Fat Tire beer. I expected to be miserably hot, but there was actually a nice breeze.
Twin one-pound lobsters were delivered with corn on the cob and a stuffed baked potato. A plastic shell bowl was also provided -- just like back East. When I broke the first claw with the provided nutcrackers, lobster water sprayed all over me. They were boiled lobsters -- the messy kind -- and all the tomalley was right there where it was supposed to be. I dumped some in the drawn butter and dug in, systematically cracking every joint and eating every tiny nugget of meat drenched in lobster/liver-flavored butter.
"Would you like more lobster?" the bartender asked when I finished.
"Absolutely," I said with a smile.
My T-shirt and jeans were dotted with white goo, and I was surrounded by picnic tables where everyone else was eating messy boiled lobster and corn on the cob, too. It may have been Richmond Avenue in August, but it felt like summer in old New England.
When the bartender came back, he set two more lobsters in front of me. One would have probably been enough, but I wasn't complaining. Since lobsters average around $20 a pound in most restaurants, the $45 all-you-can-eat special at King Fish Market doesn't make sense unless you consume at least three. I ate four and left satisfied.
It was quite a binge. Six lobsters down, with minimal collateral damage to clothing or passersby. Unless, of course, you count Sonia.
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After the lobster plates are cleared away, Sonia and I sit for awhile and finish our wine. Truluck's is an upscale version of an old-fashioned diner. It's decorated with dark wood and palm trees, and the booth where we are sitting is a wonderfully private nook. While I enjoyed rolling up my sleeves and gorging on one pounders at King Fish Market, I would have to recommend Truluck's to people who prefer civilized meals. The three-and-a-half pounder here is the single best lobster I ate this summer, and the presentation makes it easy to eat without making a mess.
"I'm sorry I made you lie," I tell Sonia as we finish the wine.
"That's okay," she says sweetly. She is a gorgeous Hispanic woman with a twinkle in her eyes. The waiter approaches carrying an enormous slice of carrot cake with a lit candle on top. He smiles as he sets it down in front of her. Then they both look at me expectantly.
I sing the song.