Food & Dining

Mild Florida lobster is easy to work with

The race will be on this week for the sweet taste of the fresh Florida crustacean.

The spiny lobster (Palinurus argus) is related to crabs, shrimp, crayfish and the Spanish lobster. In Florida, it is caught off the Keys and around the southern tip of the state from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida Reef Tract.

Although the demand is high for the fresh catch, there is some debate as to which is better—Florida lobster or Maine lobster.

“It seems like the people who are from the state enjoy Florida lobster a lot more than the people from up north,” said Ben Loftus, the executive chef at Pierre’s restaurant. “There’s a huge controversy. Some people from up north won’t even eat it.”

He said that he was on the Maine side of the fence because to him the northern variety has a sweeter flavor, and he enjoys cooking with the claw meat, which the Florida lobster simply doesn’t have.

“I think the temperature of the water affects the flavor. Florida lobster has a much milder taste. It will take on the characteristics of whatever you cook with it.”

He noted that the milder flavor was actually a great aspect for people who don’t particularly care for seafood.

“Those people are going to like the warm-water variety because it doesn’t have that real rich saltwater flavor,” he said. “It’s like the difference between king crab and stone crab.”

George Patti, the executive chef at Holiday Isle, said he preferred the flavor of the Maine lobster, but enjoyed cooking with Florida lobster more.

“It’s a lot easier than working with Maine lobster,” he said. “It’s like a big shrimp in a way, and it’s more versatile.”

Loftus said that he thought the meat of the Florida lobster was a little bit tougher than Maine and that he liked the fact that you could just split open the Maine lobster and serve it straight with lemon and butter.

His thoughts aside, he noted that Pierre’s rarely serves Maine lobster.

“We don’t have a live tank, and it’s hard to keep them alive,” he said. “Plus, it’s expensive to have them imported. At the end of the day, people don’t come down here to buy seafood from up north. They come here to eat local stuff.”

One of their most popular dishes is Florida lobster that is tempura fried and served with wasabi, soy sauce and sweet chili sauce. It sits on a bed of hearts of palm and bell pepper hash.

“It’s an excellent dish, and the tourists really like it,” he said.

One of the things that Patti enjoys making with Florida lobster also has an Asian flair —spring rolls with a ponzu ginger dripping sauce. (See recipe, Page 8.)

“I like the creamy texture that lobster has when it is served cold,” he said. “Then the spicy flavors of sesame and ginger balance out the sweetness of the meat.”

Also, Loftus said that Florida lobster can be excellent with creamy, buttery sauces like Bearnaise or beurre blanc.

“The lobster is very rich and meaty, and it will hold up to just about everything,” he said.

Both chefs agreed that you have to be very careful when cooking lobster so as not to overcook the meat because it can easily become tough and stringy.

Patti said that he looks forward to lobster season each year for both personal and professional reasons. He and his friends take advantage of the fresh catch and get together for low-country lobster boils, and the season brings in business to Holiday Isle.

“Lobster season is good for business for us both at the restaurant and the charter boats,” he said. “Plus, I enjoy it when people bring in their own catch for us to cook. Different nationalities will ask for it in different ways, so it’s nice to have that variety. The season is a good thing all around.”