When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to discover Long Island’s best lobster rolls — i.e., every year around this time — I typically poll every sentient being in my orbit, neither hearing, nor expecting to hear, the words Panera Bread.
Then one day it happened.
“Have you tried the one at Panera Bread?”
A thousand sarcastic jibes suggested themselves. The winner: “Finally — a one-stop shop for lobster rolls and chocolate chip muffies.”
Then came pangs of privilege. Praising only the best rolls often means those that are the most expensive. Who am I to summarily cancel a cheap ($25-ish) New England-style roll? There's only one way to find out.
Wholesale lobster prices have actually declined lately and are now roughly at pre-pandemic levels. As lobster lovers will attest, most places charge market price (MP) dollars for rolls, a nod to the animals’ cost at market, as well as the Many Pounds of flesh diners must pay in return. And while this season’s rolls, generally speaking, are rarely priced more than a few bucks higher than last year, many required a co-signer even pre-COVID. In bringing back its rolls with a crowd-pleasing price point, Panera might be doing its bit to save democracy.
Anyway, lobster is back on Panera's menu for the first time since 2019, including mixed into mac ’n cheese. Full disclosure: I long ago concluded that pairing the sublime decadence of lobster with the tawdry decadence of shells and cheese does no favors to either, even when executed by surer hands. The OG mac has a salty-tribute-to-blah flavor, a texture for which words like gloppy were invented, and costs $4.99 per cup. The lobster version adds mainly chunkiness and $5 to the price.
As for the lobster roll — $25.99 at my location, bag of chips included — it is surprisingly formidable, boasting five-plus ounces of claw and knuckle meat, which is more than a few higher-priced local establishments. I felt like I’d discovered a veritable bargain for that one brief shining moment between eyeing the sandwich and tasting it. That the company uses previously frozen meat can be inferred from the dearth of burbling tanks and banded claws in the vestibule, but whatever Panera’s process, it has dealt a serious blow to its lobsters. The meat is limp and flavorless, not to mention defenseless against a lemon-tarragon-mayo dressing, despite two of the three having called in sick. As is the case with most places, the sandwich’s roll is decent but forgettable. Then again, most places don’t have the word "bread" in their title.
Of course, this verdict will come as no surprise to the get-what-you-pay-for crowd, but I question whether you’re getting even that. For some reason, every addition to the Panera menu these days, from lobster rolls to flatbread pizzas to fried chicken sandwiches, feels like an unintended advertisement for something better, and of better value, elsewhere. On the plus side, when it comes to muffies, Panera continues to best the competition, scarce though it may be.
Lobster rolls and lobster mac ’n cheese are available at Long Island Panera Bread locations for a limited time. For more information, visit panerabread.com.