It was chef Andrew McConnell who three years ago got us by the pincers with his New England lobster roll at St Kilda's Golden Fields. That dish – hot buttered bun, cold poached crayfish, watercress, Kewpie mayo – became an instant classic, a fixture on foodie bucket lists and triggering a lobster-roll wave that has washed over Melbourne.
Golden Fields became Luxembourg Wine Bar, and the much-hyped lobster roll migrated to his city restaurant, Supernormal, which has just introduced a lobster roll takeaway option.
"People love it because they can have a little hit of luxury without breaking the bank," says McConnell.
The Supernormal lobster roll, at $16, is a small, sweet brioche bun, toasted and smeared with butter and Kewpie mayo with a squirt of lemon juice, topped with watercress, shallots and about 50 grams of rock lobster, usually from Western Australia, although he's been known to use Victorian lobster and even lobster imported from the US, "but only as a back-up" when the WA product is in short supply.
The boys from Collingwood's Huxtable and Huxtaburger outlets, Dante Ruaine, Jeff Wong and chef Daniel Wilson, are jumping into the lobster pot with confirmation that they'll be launching their new concept, Mr Claws, at Taste of Melbourne in November.
The team haven't yet confirmed a site for Mr Claws, but hope to have the business up and running by the end of the year.
Why lobster rolls? "We have a good business model set up with Huxtaburger, and everyone loves lobster in bread," says Wilson. They'll use lobster meat imported from a Canadian fishery, and serve it in a light, soft and sweet roll similar to the Huxtaburger bun. It will come with a choice of four sauces: buttermilk and herb, miso and wasabi, Sriracha-spiked mayonnaise, and XO sauce.
Wilson says accessibility is the name of the game for Mr Claws. "To be honest, the hook of Mr Claws is to make lobster meat more accessible," he says. "I don't think the price of Australian lobster will suffer."
Jesse Mctavish, chef and part-owner of the Kettle Black in South Melbourne, says his popular $21 lobster roll was inspired by crayfish cooked over an open fire on a King Island beach. But the reason for its success is elemental: "I think everyone loves the idea of seafood stuffed into soft bread."
Kettle Black's lobster usually comes from King Island, but while the season is closed for breeding (mid-September to November), he sources lobster from South Australia.
Kettle Black pays about $89 a kilogram for the crustaceans. About 50 grams ($4.50 worth) of lobster meat goes into a soft charcoal-dusted roll, along with house-made yuzu mayonnaise and seasonal leaves. Mctavish cooks the flesh sous-vide in a water bath. Vacuum-sealed inside the bag with the meat goes a good amount of house-made "cray butter", richly flavoured with the lobster heads and shells.
"It's a beautiful delicate meat with a luxuriousness about it, but it's put into a very basic form - between two pieces of bread," says Mctavish.
According to Emma Lloyd, manager of the Piggery Cafe in Sherbrooke, lobster roll ($19) ticks all the lunch-menu boxes – it's fresh, tasty and easy to eat. The flaked lobster, sourced from Clamms, is slathered in mayo flavoured with Worcestershire sauce and dill, with seasonal greens grown onsite, and stuffed into a brioche hotdog roll baked at the adjoining Burnham Bakery.
But John Susman, director of Sydney-based seafood consultancy Fishtales, sounds a note of caution about our ongoing love affair with the lobster roll, fearing that if consumers get used to cheap imported lobster, they'll resist paying top-dollar for a premium Australian product.
He views lobster rolls as an extension of the dude-food phenomena, "cartoon-like in its popularity".
"Hopefully the roll is the cask-wine entry point that will get punters engaging with one of the truly great luxuries of the culinary world, and hopefully we'll see a renaissance of luxury seafoods in Western restaurants soon. Go the lobster roll … I guess!"