Eating my way through Long Island lobster rolls this summer, prices are as high as I’ve seen them. And there’s a huge variation in cost, from a gentle $21 at DJ’s Clam Shack (in Wantagh, East Northport and Huntington) to a lofty $38 at Duryea’s in Montauk.
Price can be related to size, but not all similar-sized lobster rolls are created equal. Sometimes there are big chunks of meat clearly identifiable as claws, knuckles and tails; sometimes the meat is cut or shredded so small you can’t tell where it’s from. Sometimes the meat is firm and sweet; sometimes it’s spongy and watery.
Bart Molin, owner of the Copiague seafood wholesaler Gra-Bar said lobster prices have risen stratospherically since last summer when the pandemic lockdown shuttered many restaurants and clubs, driving demand lower than it’s been in a long time.
The live lobsters that currently cost Molin $12.99 to $16.99 (depending on size), are usually $7.99 to $9.99. Last year, the prices were down around $4.99 to $8.99. "And the prices can go up a dollar overnight," he added.
He explained that not only are there more restaurants open now, driving up demand, but they are competing with the "processors," companies that buy live lobsters, often imperfect ones, to extract the meat and freeze it for food-service customers. "Last year the processors couldn’t replenish their stocks off season when the prices were low — lobstermen weren’t going out, plants were shut — so now they are competing with restaurants during the high season."
Frozen lobster meat? If you’re eating a lot of lobster rolls, that’s probably what you’re getting most of the time. Few restaurants have the crew to shuck all the lobsters they’d need, although you’re more likely to get fresh meat if the restaurant is attached to a fish market.
Still, frozen lobster meat can be excellent. The thing to know is that there are many levels of quality. For lobster rolls, the most desirable meat is so-called "CK," claw-knuckle, big chunks from these two parts of the lobster. "Broken CK," which contains the same parts but not in discrete chunks, commands a lower price. Cheaper is "CKL" (claw-knuckle-leg) which also contains the skinny leg meat. You can keep moving down the food chain through "Broken CKL" all the way to "L" (all leg meat) which is what you’ll usually find in, say, lobster ravioli. On its most recent price list, Gra-Bar was selling frozen "CK" for $46/pound.
One of the advantages of frozen lobster meat is that you can buy it when the price is relatively low, making you less vulnerable to market fluctuations But the meat will exude water when it thaws (translation: soggy lobster roll) and lose about 10% of its weight when its drained.
Now, a restaurant that doesn’t shuck its own lobsters can buy fresh lobster meat. Gra-Bar is currently selling 10-pound tubs of fresh tail, claw and knuckle for $55/pound.Molin believes it’s a good value, but it’s extremely perishable, whereas frozen lobster can sit in the freezer for months.
When it comes to lobster rolls — especially this summer — you get what you pay for.