If you didn’t know it was there, you could easily walk right by the new Luke’s Lobster, just east of Third Avenue on East 43rd. Scaffolding next door has left the double glass doors at the front of the restaurant in the dark, and there’s only a small blackboard sign to let you know you’re in the right place.
So get there soon, before the rest of the crowd discovers this destination in the making.
Enter at the rear: the beautifully landscaped plaza running to Luke’s back door from the south side of 44th Street is one of the best public spaces in the United Nations neighborhood. It’s an ideal setting for a meal of fresh lobster with root beer or a microbrew from Maine.
The Midtown East location, which opened this summer, is Luke’s seventh in New York, proof that Luke Holden was onto something when he introduced reasonably priced hot-dog-style rolls piled with freshly caught Maine lobster in the heart of the Big Apple. The mini-chain recently expanded to Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. area, and more outlets are in the works.
The restaurant focuses on quality ingredients and keeping things simple. The menu is short, the decor is barely there, and the servers are . . . the customers. You order and pay at one counter, then move to a larger counter to await delivery. The staff is young and eager, the music level is low enough to encourage conversation, the packaging is mostly biodegradable, and there is even a bathroom.
Seating is available inside, but it can’t rival the tables in the plaza, where four young honey locust trees offer shade and a burbling fountain muffles traffic noise, or at least tries to.
Along with lobster, rolls can be ordered with crab or shrimp. Each is served barely dressed and heaped high on the traditional hot dog bun. Melted butter on thee rolls quickly give your fingers a tasty sheen.
The lobster roll tastes — and looks — great and is a decent buy at $15. One I measured was about 5.5 inches long, and the meat weighed in at 3.5 ounces. Even better, it was all good-size chunks of tail and claw meat, with no miscellaneous filler. The bun, in fact, was barely big enough for its contents; I found myself enjoying a first course of meat forked off the top before picking up the roll to polish it off.
According to Luke’s website, there’s also a swipe of mayo in there and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice in the butter, but I found these hard to detect. Although it’s generous as lobster rolls go, if you are the hungry type you can always grab a side of creamy New England clam chowder ($6) or spicy crab soup ($5). Another way to go: for $3 extra, your roll comes with a soft drink, potato chips and a pickle; for $6 extra, you can get a Maine craft beer instead of a soda with the pickle and chips. Call it a worthy splurge.
Luke’s crab roll ($13) is perhaps even more admirable than the lobster roll. The nicely flaked shell-free crabmeat is barely dressed and stacked high on the bun — again, no filler! This was a first for me — crab dishes are typically loaded with padding like breadcrumbs, cheese, mayo or celery chunks.
The shrimp roll, while also quite tasty, is the weakest of the three house sandwiches. Like the others, the shrimp is minimally dressed and seasoned to showcase the fresh seafood flavor. But in this case, the melted butter comes on a little stronger. Incidentally, Luke’s says it’s importing its shrimp from Canada this year because the Maine season was canceled from dwindling stocks.
Other menu items include a blueberry bar dessert ($4) and a tangy vinaigrette-based coleslaw ($2) combining shredded green and purple cabbage and carrot. Six different Maine microbrews go for $6 a bottle, and Maine red, white and rosé wines are $9 a glass, $30 a bottle.
Luke’s Lobster in Midtown East is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. It is located at 207 E. 43rd St. between Second and Third Avenues. The restaurant can also be entered through the plaza on the south side of 44th Street between Second and Third. (646) 657-0066
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.