What does a land-locked state like Utah know about lobster rolls?
Enough for Freshies Lobster Co. of Park City to nab the World’s Best Lobster Roll title Saturday afternoon in a heated competition held at Thompson’s Point.
The VIP event which featured the ticketed lobster roll competition took place inside a brick warehouse on the property and was undisturbed by the violent thunderstorms that otherwise marred the two-part DownEast Lobster Roll Fest by forcing the evacuation of an associated outdoor event nearby.
Inside the fortified warehouse, Utah’s Freshies celebrated a somewhat geographically unexpected victory.
“That’s my son,” said Bob Smaha, the beaming father of Ben Smaha, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and eventually moved to Utah to ski. Missing the tastes of his youth, the Mainer opened a lobster roll truck, which became a bricks and mortar monument to Maine’s signature dish in Mormon country.
Smaha and his wife Lorin Smaha bested 11 semi-finalists, including Portland’s James Beard winner Eventide Oyster Co., and stalwarts like The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, at the first DownEast Lobster Roll Fest, which drew crowds from across New England, New York and Pennsylvania.
“I am in lobster heaven,” said a giddy Merritt David Janes, eating his way through the gourmet rolls in the brick warehouse. “I live in a landlocked state and this is lobster heaven,” the Vermonter declared.
Two hundred and fifty people with VIP tickets ate their way through diverse renditions of Maine’s signature dish from venues like Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery to Bite Into Maine of Cape Elizabeth. Whether they were cold, hot, buttered or spiked with maple syrup, the rolls bowled everyone over.
“It’s the best culinary event I’ve been to,” said 27 year old Matthew Wetherell of Portland, who made a PowerPoint presentation in anticipation of the fest to get his friends psyched.
Instructed to select their top three, the crowd whittled the field down to Freshies, Northern Maine Community College and The Clam Shack. A contingent from the Presque Isle college, the underdog runner up, kept spirits high with shouts and whoops whenever they were mentioned. Alas, the school’s head cook Rob Ottaviano did not take home the trophy.
Esteemed judges, food writer Scott DeSimon, Manhattan restaurateur Rebecca Charles, Roadfood.com co-creator Michael Stern, local lobsterman Sonny Beal and John Leavitt of Portland’s Ready Seafood Co., sampled, debated and clawed their way to Freshies.
“It was just kind of perfect,” said Stern. “Such a well balanced lobster roll, the meat was great, the bun was great. The seasoning was great.”
Stern, who has eaten thousands of lobster rolls in his time, said 20 years ago no one knew what a lobster roll was outside of Maine. Looking around the swarms, he marveled “how far the lobster roll has come.”