New England Seafood Company Fish Market
When English settlers first arrived in New England, they found the Atlantic shore full of lobsters, some up to several feet in length (the kind of thing that would be worth the cost of a used car if served in a restaurant today). Lobster was at one point so abundant in New England that servants and prison inmates were served the crustacean for meals, and Massachusetts eventually passed a law forbidding it being served more than twice a week after protests from inmates. And yet today we cherish the hard-shelled seafood and pay top dollar to put it in our bellies.
But the Atlantic Ocean isn't quite in the Midwest's backyard. Chicago's reputation as a steak and chop town is deserved and true, so it's a bit funny that we have a recent influx of seafood restaurants opening around town. Over the past few months I've had two very different, and yet both very good lobster rolls from Fish Bar and GT Fish & Oyster (ask for the roll Connecticut-style and they'll serve it hot and with drawn butter at GT). Chefs are looking to source and cook more fresh seafood, and purveyors are helping them (with a little delivery assistance via airplane) get more of it now—shipped the same morning it's purchased from a boat or auction—than ever before.
Like the guys at a little place in Lakeview called New England Seafood Company Fish Market. Run by brothers Jeffrey and Robert Mazza, who represent the second generation of the business behind their Boston-based father, the company caters to three different aspects of focus: wholesale, retail, and its own restaurant. On Lincoln, just northwest of Belmont, the small shop and ten-table restaurant has a lobster painted on its window and Cape Cod brand potato chips on display next to two empty lobster traps at its register. The display case is often stocked with bottom feeders like cod and haddock, shellfish of all sorts, and whatever fish becomes available as the seasons change. But it was the lobster—and there were a good dozen or so chicken lobsters in the shop's lobster tank that day—that I came for.
The restaurant's menu is a best-of collection of New England roadside clam and lobster shacks. There are fried plates and boxes, baked dishes, soups (like the lobster bisque), and the New England lobster boil (a workout of a meal that comes, as standard back East, with a boiled lobster, corn on the cob, potatoes, drawn butter and chowder). And then there's the lobster roll.
Of all of the lobster rolls I've ever had—and that includes four years of eating them while living in Boston—the one that the Mazza brothers have on their menu is hands down the purest, simplest version of the high-priced sammie. At $16.95 the roll comes with nearly a third-pound of lobster meat piled atop a griddled split-top bun. The lobster is served cold and undressed, the sandwich only seeing mayo when the bread is lightly brushed after toasting. The undressed lobster is stuffed into the bun and topped with a secret blend of paprika, garlic salt, and other seasonings inspired by the Mazzas' mother's own version, and then drizzled with hot drawn butter to give a contrast against the cold lobster.
Jeffrey Mazza, the older of the two Chicago-based brothers, is the one I talked to, the signature Boston drawl heavy when he spoke. "Robert is the better cook. He's the one who went to culinary school." But the menu, and more important the lobster roll, is something they've drawn from their lives spent in Massachusetts and summers on the New Hampshire shore. "We grew up eating lobster." Their father has been working with fish for nearly fifty years, and lobster was something their mother cooked constantly. They'd eat it with "no butter—nothing." Just plain cooked lobster, which is the inspiration for the simplicity behind the lobster roll at their restaurant.
"We wanted to keep the roll as simple as possible," while still drawing from some of the favorite lobster rolls at shacks in New England. That's where the introduction of the drawn butter, as well as their take on their mother's seasoning blend, comes into play. And in keeping true to their roots, the brothers sourced split-top buns from bakeries around Boston rather than working with a local bakery for a bun like other chefs have done. The roll they conceived is one that is a combination of how they've eaten it, and how they wanted theirs to be. "Simple as possible because that's where the [lobster] flavor is."
Since the restaurant and market opened late last year, the brothers have watched the buying patterns carefully of their customers to better understand the demand of the Chicago market. But more important, they've seen an outpouring of support from both New England transplants hungry for a taste of home and Midwest anchors who've yet to travel East. Plainly put, these guys have found a way to break the stigma of regional cuisine, and people love it.