Cooking with the Mermaid Inn: Lobster Knuckle Escargot
"You just twist here, pull there, and crack it open," says Michael Cressotti, executive chef at Manhattan seafood spot The Mermaid Inn, tossing the limp shell of a butchered lobster aside. He slides one blade of a kitchen shear into the joint between the claw and leg and slices the hard shell open, exposing the pearlescent meat within. “See, this is the knuckle,” he explains. “Simple.”
Simple, perhaps, for a chef whose restaurant specializes in the spindly crustaceans, but for those of us for whom dissecting a lobster is not a daily occurrence, the knuckle is an intriguing piece of anatomy. A walnut-sized joint below the claw, the knuckle houses a small piece of succulent meat, but like an oyster tightly clutching a pearl, it’s hard to extract. Cressotti used to crack them halfway for customers, then serve them up in a raw bar platter, six for $5. But last year, he was itching to find a more creative use for the joint — hence, a dish known as lobster knuckle escargot.
The creation is exactly what it sounds like: a butter-soaked morsel of meat, nestled in an indented ceramic escargot dish, topped with crispy breadcrumbs for texture. The only difference is that instead of snails beneath the blanket of garlic butter, it’s lobster knuckle.
It’s a whimsical, slightly cheeky play on the traditional French dish, a take that reflects Mermaid Inn’s overall philosophy. With three successful outposts across Manhattan, (in the East Village, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side), owner Danny Abrams has perfected a certain playful attitude (and aesthetic): nautical knickknacks for decoration, lighthearted specials like “Lobsterpalooza” and “Happy Hour and a Half,” and a fervent fan base the staff semi-jokingly refers to as “mer-peeps.”
“It doesn’t say in the staff memos, ‘Must greet customers like a pirate,’ but we like to have fun,” laughs Sarah McLellan, who runs the restaurant’s social media, marketing, and events. “I met a woman at one of our crab boils who told me her mermaid name was Lucy Ann, spelled Lu-S-E-A, and then she showed me all of her mermaid tattoos. People get pretty into it.” The attitude carries over to their Tumblr, which is filled with vintage beach pictures, surfboard sketches, and porny Instagrams of their daily specials.
Back in the kitchen, Cressotti is breaking down more lobsters before the dinner rush. He works swiftly, snapping tails from torsos and popping claws open with a knife. The Mermaid buys its lobster from Homarus (the word refers to a genus of lobster), a distributor that deals exclusively with the sea critter and works directly with Maine lobstermen. Cressotti buys pound- and a quarter-sized specimens, which yield about four ounces of meat, or enough to feed one person. Most of the meat — from the tail and claws — ends up in the restaurant’s ever-popular lobster roll, but the knuckles are a different story.
Cressotti had previously served bay scallops escargot-style, and the miniature mollusk was a hit on the ever-rotating Mermaid menu. So when he was brainstorming a possible alternative use for the heaps of leftover claws, knuckle escargot seemed like a natural fit. “I knew I had enough leftover claws to do it,” he shrugs. “And it’s fun. That’s why I like working here. As a chef I have a lot freedom to be creative.”
While much of the Mermaid Inn’s menu changes seasonally, the knuckle escargot has become a staple since its introduction last year. Its enduring popularity is likely due in no small part to the knuckles’ compound butter bath. In a nod to escargot’s French roots, the butter is infused with Pernod, the anise-flavored liqueur, plus garlic and parsley for a herbaceous kick and color. Cressotti pipes a quarter-sized round of the stuff onto each knuckle from a pastry bag, along with a scattering of Japanese panko breadcrumbs, which he prefers over the Italian style for their oversized crunch. From there, it’s into the oven to broil, during which time the entire kitchen is perfumed with the intoxicating perfume of warm butter and garlic.
When the dish emerges seven minutes later, knuckles bobbing in butter, Cressotti showers a fresh coat of chopped parsley on top for garnish. The finishing touch is a slice of olive oil-slicked grilled country bread, slid alongside the escargot dish to aid in the removal of every last dollop of butter.
Lobster Knuckle Escargot
Cressotti recommends buying a whole pre-coooked lobster and breaking it down at home (1 1/4 lb lobster will serve one person); or, if buying a live lobster, bringing a stockpot of water seasoned with Old Bar, bay leavess, and peppercorn to a boil and steaming the lobster for 6-8 minutes, then shocking the lobster in ice water to prevent overcooking.
* 6 lobster knuckle, poached and shelled
* 1 (6-compartment) escargot plate
* 3 tbsp parsley Pernod butter (recipe follows)
* 3 tbsp panko breadcrumbs
* Chopped parsley, garnish
* 1 thick slice country-style bread (grilled)
1. Fill the escargot plates with lobster knuckles
2. Top each knuckle with 1/2 tablespoon of parsley Pernod butter.
3. Bake in preheated 375 degree oven for 8 minutes.
4. Garnish with grilled sliced bread and chopped parsley.
Parsley Pernod Butter
* 1/2 cup butter, softened
* 1 tsp chopped garlic
* 1 tbsp parsley
* 1 tbsp Pernod
* 1 pinch salt
* 1 tsp white wine
* 3 tbsp panko breadcrumbs
1. In food processor, add parsley, garlic, salt, and Pernod, puree until smooth.
2. In mixer with paddle attachment, mix butter, parsley-Pernod mixture, white wine, and panko.
3. Store in disposable pastry bags.
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