A few years ago, I ordered a steamed lobster at a little New England fish market and ate it outside on a pier, looking out at the same water the crustacean had been pulled from.
It wasn’t a luxurious meal in any of the traditional ways. I was handed the lobster on a paper plate, along with a beer in a brown paper bag, and the only chair I could find to sit on was an old crate, apparently discarded from a boat. Yet, I often think of it as one of the most luxurious meals of my life. Every succulent bite seems to be lodged in my memory, as clear as the fiery color of the lobster shell in the New England sun. Such is the simple, powerful decadence of a perfect lobster.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by Cousins Maine Lobster, a rapidly expanding fast-food chain. As the name suggests, the company was started by a pair of cousins from Maine who, with a little money and a dream, began serving lobster rolls from a truck in Los Angeles in 2012. What followed is a rather contemporary variation of the American dream: Just days after opening, the owners were invited to compete on the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” which scored them the capital and infrastructure to expand into a nationwide franchise. That rapid ascent has been immortalized in a business advice book, “Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business,” published earlier this year. Shortly after that, the latest franchise location opened in Atlanta at Lenox Square mall.
This high-end shopping destination is an appropriate setting for Cousins. Like the fancy handbags sold at Fendi and Prada, lobster has become a popular object of conspicuous consumption. Pop stars Drake and Rick Ross rap about eating lobster with the type of braggadocio typically reserved for driving a Bentley. Cousins makes a point of sourcing its lobster from Maine, a fine origin, not unlike the way a designer might work exclusively with Italian leather.
The restaurant at Lenox is rather small. There is only room for a short ordering counter with a couple of registers and handful of stools to sit on. To sit down at a proper table with your meal, you’ll need to step just outside into the mall’s concourse. I have to admit my initial skepticism with all of this. The Cousins business model is that of any fast-food chain. Change the signs and this could be any chicken nugget joint. Yet, the menu is composed almost exclusively of items made with Maine lobster, one of the finest forms of seafood this country has to offer. Can a fast-food franchise get something like that right?
As it turns out, the Maine lobster roll did away with some of my skepticism. It is served here as simply as it should be: a fluffy, split-top bun greased with mayonnaise and piled with a combination of claw and tail meat. After I squeezed the accompanying wedge of lemon over it, the roll tasted almost exactly as it should. The clean, oceanic flavor of Maine lobster is unadulterated and lovely. Was there a touch of stringiness in a few chunks of overcooked meat? Sure, but not enough to detract from the overall excellence of the roll.
The rest of the Cousins Maine Lobster menu, unfortunately, goes downhill from there.
The lobster grilled cheese is an outright abomination. This sandwich looks just like it sounds, two slices of griddled, golden brown bread glued together with melted pepper jack and cheddar cheese. It is served sliced in half, so that you can see all of the chunks of lobster meat stuffed inside. I certainly could see plenty of lobster chunks in the sandwich I was served, I just couldn’t taste them. The melty, greasy cheese overpowers the lobster’s delicate flavors to the point that it becomes a mere textural addition and not a particularly pleasant one at that.
Just as confusing is the lobster BLT, which throws a few thick chunks of lobster onto a hastily assembled version of the classic summer sandwich. I’ve mentioned before that the simple details of a sandwich like a BLT have a way of revealing a kitchen’s priorities. That couldn’t be more true of the one I ordered. The bacon, of no notable qualities, had been overcooked into a tangle. The tomato, not quite ripe, was cut oddly thick. The smear of herby aioli was actually quite tasty and worked with the flavors of lobster. Unfortunately, the handful of chunks were piled on one side, so the whole thing was an uneven, unsatisfying experience.
It is striking to me that nearly the same ingredients — a properly ripe tomato, a smokier slice of bacon, maybe a mince of herby lobster salad that could spread across the sandwich — assembled with better care would be an entirely different sandwich. Expensive lobster meat is not enough to make a sandwich like this work.
The closest you will get to picking lobster meat from the red shell at Cousins is a platter of tater tots topped with a single lobster tail. The underside of the shell had been removed, and the tail meat has been skewered with a pair of wooden spears. It is a neat, convenient trick that allows one to pluck the tail meat right from the shell and eat it, I guess, like a corn dog. The problem is that the tail meat has been fried, which leaves it tough and overcooked. You’ll likely be gnashing at it with your teeth, trying to tear a morsel off just as I was the other night. The ample portion of tater tots that accompanies this sad waste of lobster is paltry consolation.
If you must order something other than a lobster roll, I am rather surprised to say that the lobster tacos are the way to go. Unlike the overwhelming flavors of the grilled cheese, the bright cilantro lime juice and mild pico de gallo are fine pairs for the generously portioned lobster, amplifying rather than obscuring the flavor. A basket of fried clam bellies isn’t so bad, either, though the batter is a little thick for my taste.
The best option at Cousins Maine Lobster really is just the classic Maine roll. Would it be better to go to New England and eat a steamed lobster on a pier? I have no doubt. Is there enough lobster in that roll to justify the $16.50 price tag for this small, luxurious treat? I believe that’s up to you. I tend to think Louis Vuitton handbags are overpriced, but plenty of people at Lenox Square are happy to buy them, anyway.
COUSINS MAINE LOBSTER
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)
Food: New England lobster shack
Service: fast-food style
Best dishes: Maine lobster roll, lobster tacos
Vegetarian selections: one salad and fries
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays
Parking: free lot and valet parking
MARTA station: Lenox Transit or Buckhead
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 3393 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 770-212-2117