May it Please the Palate: When is a lobster not a lobster?

 After a recent trip to deposit our last baby bird out of its nest and into a dormitory, my wife and I found ourselves in the heart of lobster country. New Englanders will argue passionately about their seafood, and one restaurant in particular has garnered quite a following after being open just ten years. So much so that my seafood guy in Ann Arbor recommended it. Although it was quite good, for reasons that will become apparent it shall remain nameless.

In particular, this restaurant specializes in raw oysters and hot lobster rolls. For the uninitiated, lobster rolls fall into two camps (or more accurately, onto two split brioche or hot dog buns). The first, cold lobster salad, with a bit of mayo and perhaps fresh herbs; the second, served warm, with drawn butter. For some reason, this restaurant has become an international tourist mecca. It is on many “best of” lists. As a result, it takes two to four hours to get a table; one must show up in person to get “on the list” and then find something to do nearby, while waiting for that call or text from the host.
Forget showing up when you’re hungry, or going with friends for a spontaneous meal. Think strategic planning of rides at Disney World. And when you’re done? I heard one fool ask for a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve coffee, sir. Or dessert. Please leave now, we have a four-hour wait.” Yes, our server actually told us that last sentence, after I dared linger two minutes after paying my $130 check to puzzle over a crossword clue.
The unintended beneficiaries of “Disney Seafood” are the neighboring businesses, including the restaurants serving far more plebeian lobster rolls. These unsuspecting diners have no idea they are missing out on warm buttered lobster on a toasted bun surrounded by international tourists, as opposed to warm buttered lobster on a toasted bun surrounded by, well, international tourists who were too impatient to wait for Disney Seafood.
Which leads me to the title question, when is a lobster not a lobster? Or more precisely, is there a qualitative difference between two places serving fresh oysters, or fresh lobster, inter alia? Does the caché of going to a trendy place make food taste better, even if one is crushed by tourists and given the bum’s rush by the staff?
Here’s how you’ll know: if you taste it and say, “Now that’s lobster!” then it’s a lobster. If instead you sadly shake your head and say, “That’s not lobster,” then it isn’t. It’s controlled largely by your preconceived expectations
This reminded me of a feature I wrote for another magazine a couple of years ago. Our “Hamburger Odyssey” took us to numerous hamburger joints in and around Ann Arbor to seek the best. As one might imagine, people swear by their favorites and disrespect the others. What we found was that more than half of the restaurants purchased the same beef from the same butcher. And if you’re still not convinced, and you really think that some restaurants have the market cornered on short order cooks who are much better at cooking that beef, I have a bridge to sell you. Fact is, the burgers were virtually indistinguishable.
This phenomenon has also interested chef and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt, whose “Food Lab” series consists of numerous taste tests that tend to expose people’s pre-dispositions. My favorite was one where he served two batches of carrots, one labeled “organic” and the other “conventional.” Tasters chose the organic as tasting better, every single time.
But they were two halves of the same carrot. 
Which leads back to my question, “When is a lobster not a lobster?” The answer, my friends, depends on what the diner is expecting.
And after a four-hour wait, it had better be the finest lobster in all the land. Your brain will expect nothing less!
 
Hot Lobster Roll
Ingredients:
Warm lobster meat (claw, knuckles, tail) – 4 oz per roll
Split top hot dog bun
Butter
Optional: fresh tarragon, dill, lemon, to taste
Directions:
1. Open bun and grill in butter until the outside is crisp.
2. Toss lobster meat in butter and any optional herbs or lemon
3. Assemble and serve with a crisp white wine or beer.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor.