The Craignair Inn and Restaurant in Spruce Head village, south of Rockland, has done something apparently no other Maine restaurant has dared to attempt: Serve a vegan lobster roll.

“There wasn’t anything vegan-friendly on the menu when we bought the place, so we wanted to bring a few vegan dishes,” said owner Greg Soutiea, who along with his wife, Lauren Soutiea, purchased the oceanfront property with 21 guest rooms in December 2018. They have since turned the buildings into eco-friendly lodging.

Inside the inn’s restaurant, vegan entrees include jackfruit crab cakes and a veggie burger made in-house with Heiwa tofu and black beans. Yet the menu’s most notable dish is the vegan lobster roll, seasoned with a “buttery sauce.”

“Our inn is right on the water, and you can look out and see the lobster buoys and lobster traps,” Soutiea explained, when asked why it’s on the menu. “And a vegan lobster roll is something that vegans don’t get to have.”

Until now.

Restaurants outside of Maine have served vegan lobster rolls for years, yet the dish has been slow to arrive in the Pine Tree State.

The Soutieas, both vegans who moved to Maine from Boston, worked with chef Carrie Croth to create the restaurant’s recipe and eventually settled on hearts of palm as the lobster stand-in.

“We tried a couple different things,” Soutiea said before they realized “we liked the consistency” of the hearts of palm.

Hearts of palm are what vegan meal-kit company Purple Carrot use in its vegan lobster roll dish, which the Soutieas have tried and liked.

However, hearts of palm are not what chef Meghan Lynch of Portland uses to make vegan lobster rolls. Lynch is the host of the Maine-produced “Food Atheist” cooking show, which launched in April and can be found at foodatheist.org. In the vegan lobster roll episode, Lynch steams pink oyster mushrooms grown at home from a North Spore kit and tells the audience: “I’ve never eaten a lobster roll in my entire life. But I’ve made a lot when I was a prep cook at a cafe.”

The cafe where Lynch worked is Arabica in Portland, which serves traditional lobster rolls (but not vegan ones) during the summer. Lynch’s quest to veganize the Maine lobster roll was further influenced by the vegan lobster roll served at the Veggie Galaxy restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.

“They have a tofu lobster roll,” Lynch told me. “It was really good, but the texture was off.”

In contrast, the steamed then chilled pink oyster mushrooms “kind of had that rubbery and meaty texture and it was strangely accurate,” Lynch said.

Cooking videos end with the chef trying the dish, and when Lynch tries the oyster mushroom lobster roll she pauses then says, “That’s weird. That tastes like lobster roll. I’m a little confused.”

A trademark of the colorful “Food Atheist” shows is that Lynch is often cooking the dish for the first time. That was the case with the vegan lobster rolls.

Laughing, Lynch told me, “the texture was like way more accurate than I expected it to be. It’s like when you have the Beyond Burger for the first time and you’re like, ‘OK. Is this vegan?’ ”

The flavor of Lynch’s vegan lobster rolls comes from a combination of vegan butter, seaweed flakes, vegan mayonnaise, black pepper and lemon juice.  At the Craignair Inn, vegan butter and mayo are also key components, along with Old Bay Seasoning and “other chef secret ingredients,” according to Soutiea. Both Lynch’s and the inn’s vegan lobster rolls add chopped celery.

In Dustin Harder’s “Epic Vegan” cookbook, published last July by Fair Winds Press, the lobster roll recipe relies on both hearts of palm and artichoke hearts, dressed with mayo, lemon juice, dulse flakes, back pepper and Old Bay Seasoning. Harder also adds chopped red onions and roasted red peppers.

The star of “The Vegan Roadie” YouTube series, Harder writes in his latest cookbook that he ate lobster rolls on trips to Maine before he was vegan but never developed a “particular liking” for the sandwich. He then confesses that he hasn’t “been able to stop making” his vegan version.

When author Ilene Godofsky Moreno’s latest cookbook “The Colorful Family Table” dropped in December from BenBella Books, it included a vegan lobster roll recipe inspired by her honeymoon in Maine.

After marrying Freeport native Ross Moreno in 2015, she traveled with her new husband along the Maine coast and was struck by the number of places selling lobster rolls (none of them vegan).

In her Maplewood, New Jersey home, which now includes two small children, Moreno also makes her Maine-style vegan lobster rolls using hearts of palm.

“I’ve used hearts of palm to veganize other seafood dishes, like crab cakes, and the texture ended up being a close match,” Moreno told me. “Hearts of palm also have a rather neutral taste so they really take on the flavor of whatever seasoning you add, which made it the perfect canvas for Old Bay and the other seasonings in the recipe.”

Her dressing includes the usual ingredients, along with dried dill.

In the “Food Atheist” vegan lobster roll episode, Lynch makes a seaweed butter, which is spooned into the hot dog rolls first. Telling viewers lettuce is used on lobster rolls to keep the bun dry, Lynch then lines her hot dog buns with trimmed Romaine leaves.

Lynch’s experience working in restaurants led me to ask why we haven’t seen more Maine eateries attempt a vegan lobster roll.

“I think folks want to protect the integrity of what a lobster roll is,” Lynch speculated. “But I think that veganism is really permeating culture right now, and we need to loosen up the definition of what a Maine lobster roll is.”

Clearly, the vegan food world already has.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 

These vegan lobster rolls from Ilene Godofsky Moreno’s “The Colorful Family Table” cookbook use hearts of palm instead of lobster meat and were inspired by time spent in Maine. Photo courtesy of Ilene Godofsky Moreno

Vegan Lobster Rolls, Gluten-Free

Reprinted with permission from “The Colorful Family Table” by Ilene Godofsky Moreno, 2019, BenBella Books.

Serves 4

For “lobster” salad:
2 14-ounce cans of hearts of palm
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegan mayo
Juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

4 rolls
vegan butter
handful of greens
lemon wedges

1. Drain the hearts of palm and roughly chop them. Place in a large bowl. Add all remaining “lobster” salad ingredients and stir.

2. Toast rolls and spread with vegan butter. Sprinkle a few greens on each roll and top with “lobster” salad. Serve fresh with lemon wedges.


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