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Lobster’s no longer just luxury treat for some

The lobster pizzStout 642 N. Clark Street. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

The lobster pizza at Stout, 642 N. Clark Street. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Server Mandy Miller shows off the lobster pizza at Stout Barrel House, 642 N. Clark.

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Updated: October 13, 2012 6:04AM

In the not-so-distant past, lobsters were mostly the domain of fancy pants restaurants and the well-to-do diners who ate there. These days, it’s a much different story.

From lobster hash at Nellcote and lobster eggs Benedict at SushiSamba Rio to lobster pizza at Stout Barrel House & Galley, the king of the crustacean family has outgrown its special-occasion-only status. Need more proof? Quick-service chain Au Bon Pain has recently featured a lobster salad BLT on its menu.

Part of this lobster love can be attributed to slightly lower prices. (Note: To get in on those record-low prices reported recently in the news, you’d have to head to Maine, where a mild winter has created a glut in the lobster population, in particular soft-shelled ones, which, unfortunately for us, are too delicate for transportation.)

Price was part of lure for chef Chris Curren of Stout Barrel House (642 N. Clark) to create a Maine lobster week at the River North restaurant in August in which he featured a different dish each night. “It has dropped slightly, but for me it was the fact that lobster prices haven’t gone up like other items that was the incentive,” he says.

For the event, Curren created new dishes, including lobster pot pie and lobster bake with mussels, chorizo and potatoes. He also offered menu favorites, like his mini lobster rolls and his once-a-week special lobster pizza. “There are a lot of instances where mixing cheese with seafood is a big mistake, but this one actually works,” says Curren. “The great thing about lobster is that it will hold its own to a lot of flavor profiles.”

At SushaSamba (504 N. Wells), chef Lee Guidry has been experimenting with raw lobster in sashimi and nigiri dishes. “I poached just the outside so it’s still raw in the middle,” he says of the special. “Because of the pricing, we can actually play around with lobster.”

Presenting luxury ingredients in an approachable way is part of the overall concept at Nellcote (833 W. Randolph), says chef Jared Van Camp. And lobster, which is featured in two dishes, fits right into that.

For strozzapreti on the dinner menu, Van Camp prepares a squid ink pasta in house and serves it chilled with Maine lobster, Fresno chiles, mint and pine nut pesto. At brunch, the crustacean is featured in one of the restaurant’s top-selling dishes: lobster hash. While the drop in lobster prices came into play for using the ingredient, says Van Camp — the restaurant did, in fact, drop the price of the hash dish by $1 to reflect the change in their purchasing cost — there’s more to it than that. “When you put the word ‘lobster’ on something, people will buy it,” he says.

That’s something chef Roger Herring of Socca (3301 N. Clark) experienced at one of his monthly “Last Tuesday” special in July, which featured a $10 lobster dinner. While Herring did a similar event last year, this time around the demand was so high he added a second night. It didn’t hurt that his lobsters, which he gets through a friend’s family in Maine, dropped a few dollars in price per pound. Another incentive? The fun atmosphere. Says Herring, “Once you put a bib on, it turns into a party here.”

At Trenchermen (2039 W. North) chef brothers Michael and Patrick Sheerin like to create dishes that offer diners a unique twist. Case in point: their pigskin noodle and lobster pad Thai on the brunch menu. “Here’s pigskin, one of the lowest of ingredients, and to pair it with something that is considered a luxury sounded like a good idea to us,” says Patrick of the unique pairing.

Dirk Flanigan’s another chef who’s not afraid to play with his food. For his chicken-fried lobster, a once in a while special at The Gage (24 S. Michigan), Flanigan takes chicken skin and wraps it around Maine lobster pieces before a quick dip in the deep fryer. Lobster also appears in three dishes at next-door Henri (18 S. Michigan), where Flanigan is also the chef, plus the Gage’s popular caramelized lobster has been on the menu from the beginning.

While these dishes are quite different, one thing all the chefs agree on is buying lobsters live is the way to go — and that cooking them is way easier than home cooks think. “It’s one of the easiest thing to do,” says Van Camp. “Cooking eggs is harder than cooking lobster.”

First off, though, be prepared to get dirty. “It’s messy as hell but so worth it,” says Carl Galvan, who as a purveyor for Supreme Lobster, one of the city’s top restaurant suppliers of seafood and fish, should know. (Thirty-five years ago, says Galvan, the company’s founder Dominic Stramaglia used a kiddie pool to hold lobsters; now they have a 10,000-gallon tank.) Galvan’s next project is educating chefs about the “terroir aspect” of lobsters — similar to oysters, he says — and how different environmental aspects, influence how they taste.

Getting them into rapidly boiling salted water right away is crucial, says Galvan. (He also recommends separating the lobster parts first since they cook at different times but he realizes that might be a bit traumatic for first-timers.)

Once done, he suggests dropping the lobsters in an ice bath to stop them from cooking further, which will toughen the meat.

Herring likes to cook his lobster three-quarters of the way through or for about 3 to 5 minutes — “Unroll the tail and if it snaps back, then it’s just about done,” he says — and then lets them rest on a sheet pan. Right before serving, he cracks them open and reheats them.

At Trenchermen, a low poach is the preferred lobster cooking method. Added bonus: The cooking liquid, filled with aromatics like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onions, leeks, kombu and toasted coriander, can be used in the dish as well.

That second life is another incentive for cooking live lobsters. From stock for bisque and a base for a pasta sauce to lobster butter, those leftover shells can produce a variety of other dishes. “It takes nothing to make a lobster stock that then can become a sauce for another dish,” assures Flanigan.

Still not convinced? There’s the option of buying frozen tail and claw meat. That’s what Susan Goss of West Town Tavern (1329 W. Chicago) does for her crispy lobster and crab cakes appetizer, although she admits if she was serving lobster on its own as an entree, she would opt for fresh.

Or you can always have your vendor par-cook it for you, like they do at the retail side of Supreme Lobster (220 E. North, Villa Park). “You can then do what you want with it,” says Galvan. “It takes care of a lot of the mess.”

And for those who do opt for live lobsters, take note: that screaming sound coming from the pot isn’t what you think.

“Lobsters have tons of water in them,” says Patrick. “That water turns into steam and that’s what makes the whistling sound.”

“It’s not as intimidating as people think,” says Herring. “It’s just like cooking a big shrimp.”

Lisa Shames is the dining editor for CS.

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