Flavor: Focus on fresh seafood; steaks and other foods available
Ambiance: Casual but very nice
The Lobster Trap has made a bit of a splash (pardon the pun/cliché) in the downtown Asheville area since its opening earlier this year.
The aesthetically polished seafood restaurant is the brainchild of Amy Beard, who, according to the Lobster Trap’s promotional material, spent her youth working the docks in Portland, Maine. Under the tutelage of a Captain Tom, Beard would haul in the lobsters, fresh from fishermen’s traps, then steam and shuck some for local restaurants. During these years, she says, she “developed a passion for the sweet taste of Maine lobster and respect for the locally regulated industry.” The Maine fishermen, for example, place a size limit on the lobsters they catch. If they’re small, they likely haven’t had a chance to breed. The larger lobsters are left alone for their capacity to produce larger amounts of eggs – and thus more lobsters.
After spending some time on the North Carolina coast, Beard found her way to Asheville, where, she says, “the Blue Ridge Mountains give me a sense of peace.” Something was missing here, however – the ocean (not to mention some of its fine residents). Thus, the concept of the Lobster Trap was born, and Beard, along with executive chef Tres Hundertmark, brought a taste of the ocean to the mountains.
These days, Beard hauls in her catch not from a boat, but from an airplane. A fisherman in Maine sends the Lobster Trap live crustaceans fresh off of his boat. Once the lobsters reach our fair mountain town, the Trap’s kitchen has its way with them; customers can choose their lobster stewed, steamed, in deviled eggs, on toast, and on and on, much in the style of Forrest Gump ruminating over shrimp.
Lobster, however good it may be, is not the only sea or stream-faring creature to swim onto the menu (sorry, couldn’t resist). Green-lipped mussels or littleneck clams open their shells wide in steam baths of white wine to be further lubricated with slicks of drawn butter. Fresh local trout is grilled and topped with walnut-sorghum butter, or smoked in an irresistible creamy spread served with crackers while you wait for your meal. Shrimp appear Moroccan-style and cloaked in curry, steamed with cocktail sauce, or served Southern-style on a bed of grits. Your choice of three varieties of oyster rest naked and quivering on the half shell, or smothered with cheese and spinach, then baked (an injustice to the naturally tasty little bivalves, in my opinion).
Landlubbers are also well-represented on the menu, with steaks of Teres Major (aka Bistro Tender), pork chops and Yankee pot roast. This being Asheville, there are also options for the vegetarian, like edamame, salads of organic greens, and Portobello Florentine. There is, to toss out yet another cliché, something for almost everyone.
The interior of the restaurant is lovely, with deep red walls and a gorgeous bar that serves up myriad cocktails, wine from a cheeky little list, and beer on tap and in the bottle. A nautical theme is executed with grace and subtlety (no plastic swordfish or fish nets strewn about), and all furniture and fixtures, down to the dishware, are selected with an obvious eye for quality and detail.
There are some occasions, however, where that attention to detail falters. An appetizer of clams was delicious and expertly cooked, but the clams themselves had been lackadaisically prepped – their little shells were gritty to the touch, and a visible amount of sand and other particulate matter rested in the bottom of the bowl. The dish wasn’t exactly ruined, but my teeth felt polished quite clean after eating.
A lobster I ate on one visit to the restaurant was slightly rubbery, especially in the claws, but again, serviceable – he had not died in vain. The Wahoo special served on a subsequent visit was delicious, but a bit overdone as well.
A Caesar salad was served drowned in dressing, while the cataplana entree of linguica, various shellfish, herb tomato broth and linguini was good, but needlessly oily. The crab and sweet potato soup was extremely tasty, but too thick. The crab contributed only a textural addition, its flavor lost under its cloak of winter-spiced tuber.
However, there are plenty of positives. The seafood is undoubtedly fresh. Those tasty little clams smelled and tasted like sea breeze, as did that lobster. Those ridiculously plump gulf oysters that we ordered on our first visit were great, even though they weren’t in season (though I much prefer the flavor of the smaller Malpecs, which are available at the restaurant now, over the gulf leviathans.) A simple order of delicious and perfectly firm peel-and-eat shrimp was made a bit more interesting with the cocktail-sauce fixings on the side, rather than the pre-mixed sauce (though my Picky Companion muttered something about having already cooked enough for one day).
The Teres Major steak I ordered on my recent visit was excellent, and the Lobster Mac and Cheese on the side an homage to uppity comfort food. The creamed spinach, though a bit heavy with nutmeg for my tastes, warmed the heart and the belly.
The desserts, which are brought out on a table-side tray, are homemade, with the exception of the cheesecakes (though I’ve yet to have room to accommodate any of them).
The service is good and cheerful, though those who dislike casual service, beware. Though anyone is welcome at my table, anytime, I know plenty of people who cringe when the server hunkers down at the table and takes the order with the familiarity of a first cousin, addressing the group as “you guys.” The service goal is far from stuffy formality, which actually gives the Lobster Trap a bit of a homey vibe – a welcome feeling on the frigid October day I last visited.
This brings me to where Lobster Trap succeeds: Much about the restaurant is satisfyingly comfortable and fun. For example, on some warm summer evenings, chilled “peel and eats” with a good Pilsner practically seem essential. With the front windows thrown open to the sidewalk, lively music playing over the speakers (or from the stage), the Lobster Trap provides something a bit different. On a cold, blustery evening, where else can you always find thick, hot lobster stew or a clam bake and wash it down with a creamy porter from the tap?
However, there are kinks that need to be worked on. The concept is good, while the execution, at times, is not. Such details as the pretty black and white photos along the walls, the lovely light fixtures, the sail-like blades of the ceiling fans, and even the well-composed menu constructed around wonderfully fresh ingredients, can seem inconsequential when the reverence for food is not applied thoroughly, from start to finish. That said, the problems that I have encountered are fairly easily remedied, and judging from the customer comment cards passed out with the bill, the Lobster Trap seems to be interested in making sure everything works just right. Captain Tom would be proud.