Years Later, Sea Breeze is Still (Lobster) Rolling
The first lobster roll I ever ate was purchased in a run-down seafood restaurant on Route 12, 60 miles outside of Boston, in a town called Fitchburg. I'd seen the sign on my way to a wedding in New Hampshire: "Lobsters, $3.99 a pound," it read, and it sat next to another sign that labeled the building as both a restaurant and a seafood distributor. I promised myself lunch at S.S. Lobster Ltd. on the drive back.
That afternoon, a counter worker handed me my first lobster roll, a hot-dog bun with a claw the size of a baby's fist protruding from the top. It required deliberate work with a plastic fork. I had to remove at least half of the massive chunks of shellfish before I could pick up and enjoy the soft-toasted, butter-soaked bun. The meat was fresh and sweet and sang of the ocean. It was dressed lightly, in the faintest bit of mayo, celery and onion. It was a simple seafood sandwich, and it left a serious impression.
Mark Alterman had a similar experience when he took his business partner, Rick Oruch, to Boston for a little lobster-roll research in 2006. In an endeavor deserving of my jealousy, they put down roll after roll at a dozen or more restaurants over a single weekend, studying the merits of a good lobster roll and honing in on its two most important tenets: the right bread and very few additives.
The right roll, they discovered, is a bun that's been split at the top instead of the sides like a conventional hot dog bun. Regular buns have a crust on the sides that, gasp, doesn't let in the butter. The New England-style bun is split at the top for stuffing, which leaves the exposed edges along the sides open to soak up as much butter as possible during toasting.
"Very few additives" leaves very little room for interpretation. Lobster rolls are about the lobster, not the filler. And that's more or less what they brought back with them when they opened Sea Breeze Fish Market and Grill, a casual seafood counter buried in a Plano strip mall.
"I've known Rick for 19 years," Alterman says. They had kids in the same preschool where Rick's wife was a teacher.
Oruch knew the fish business. He'd owned his own fish market and worked seafood sales in the past. Alterman owned a manufacturing business but had recently gotten out. Then he'd convinced himself that opening a restaurant was a good idea. (Which, by the way, is almost never the case.)
The two met over beers to hash out the idea in 2006. A year later their little market was open for business.
Over the next four years, the two built a loyal fan base of seafood freakers who coveted the freshness they missed from their coastal homes, in a casual atmosphere that didn't drain their wallets. Sea Breeze offered both of those things, coupling a pay-at-the-counter restaurant with a market that would let customers take home a pound of shrimp on their way out the door. They also courted native Dallasites who didn't know a fried clam belly from a fried clam strip, but didn't care because they knew what good food tasted like.
So in 2011, when the dry cleaner next door bolted, Alterman and Oruch took over the lease and took out the walls. They hired Bruce Russo, the designer responsible for both Nosh locations, who employed gun-metal blues, dark woods and a brilliant, white-marble bar. The new room has a sleek and modern feel. But not too modern — they just wanted to dress things up a touch. "It's all about the fish," Alterman says. "We don't think that tablecloths and waiters make the seafood taste better." As soon as they opened up shop, Oruch, who serves as the fishmonger, got right back to business.
For mainstay items that the market always carries (farm-raised fish, red fish mussels and clams), Oruch uses the same local channels that any seafood market in the Dallas area would. It's in sourcing the unique and seasonal fishes — the haddock, Arctic char and sole — where Oruch leverages his past connections.
"I pretty much have relationships throughout the country," he says, describing a process that starts at various dockside auctions as far away as Hawaii and ends in a UPS-shipped carton packed with frozen gel packs and dried ice. With seafood, every day and every degree of temperature during storage has a huge impact on the final product. Oruch says he buys as much as he can whole and filets the fish on site, to help the flesh hold up a little longer. That only works with fish of a certain size, though. Larger species, like the opah I ate on my first visit, come in already fileted.
The opah arrived at my table moist and almost jiggling, with the texture of an unnaturally tender pork chop. The kitchen pan-sears the fish, plates it with your choice of sides (coleslaw and mashed sweet potatoes, please) and tops it with a zig-zag of balsamic reduction that was used on every fish presentation I tried over two visits including the slightly overcooked scallops, and an Arctic char preparation, making the ingredient a little redundant. A note to the kitchen: Trust your product and its freshness, and let that flavor shine through.
Casual preparations that echo the more laid-back Sea Breeze days were as good as they were described in articles printed years ago. Fried oysters sported a crunchy coat of cornmeal with tender juicy bivalves inside, and an order of steamed mussels served in an aluminum sauce pan were lemony, herbal and bright.
A po'boy was a letdown, though. It needed several hundred more shrimp and was tucked into an under-cooked loaf. Po'boys in New Orleans bust at the seams with seafood and shed shards of crust with every bite, but bread across the board at Sea Breeze is lackluster. The restaurant should tell their baker to leave each loaf in the oven a little longer. Or maybe just find a better baker.
Fried steamer clams were worse, dredged in corn flour that yielded a soggy exterior. For the most part, however, and especially in the simpler preparations, Sea Breeze produces winning casual seafood plates.
That crabcake won't fool a native Marylander — there's far too much filler and not enough jumbo lump meat in each cake — but it just may, just barely, satiate a homesick food writer more than 1,300 miles from the dock he grew up on. Just like that lobster roll won't fool someone who's grown up in New England — the kitchen uses frozen meat, there's not enough of it and it costs twice as much as a casual seafood restaurant outside of Boston — but it's good enough for a fix, and without a doubt that buttery roll will take that New Englander back to the coast. Same as that Key lime pie: It might not stand up to a discerning Floridian's standards, but here? It's more than good enough.
"We're a seafood market first, a restaurant second," Alterman says. And while the fact that sit-down sales dwarf take-out orders might suggest otherwise, his principle illuminates a fact that will help many coastal expats find nostalgia when they're far from home. It's the same lesson I learned in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: Locate a market that sells a high volume of high-quality seafood to a loyal following of neighborhood regulars, and you'll likely find a killer sandwich inside, too.
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