Sunday, June 24, 2018
Dining

Lobster Haven is a bit of Maine heaven right here

TAMPA

Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have increased every year since 1992, accelerating rapidly since 2004. I don't know what climate-change deniers make of that, but for the past couple of years all this warm water has had one big upside: plentiful Maine lobsters. In 2012 and 2013 there were record-breaking hauls that translated into a deluge of chowder and lobster rolls in New England states.

We've been a little slower to see the Maine lobster gravy train in Florida (hey, lobster gravy, not a bad idea), but one guy on Hillsborough Avenue has got seafood fans dialed. Dan Hall has been in the wholesale lobster business for the past 15 years. And for the past two years he's been corralling these live crustaceans at his seafood market called Lobster Haven.

You can swing by and pick out a live pound and a half big boy for $13.99 a pound, or treat yourself to a live 3-pounder for $16.99 per pound, or zip over to the frozen case for some alligator or fillets of cod or sea bass. But some of the most satisfying allures at Lobster Haven are to be had while wearing a goofy plastic bib at one of the six tables in the tiny dining room.

Just about everything on the menu starts or ends with lobster, with a little lobster in the middle in case you start jonesing. Chowda (yes, that's how they spell it) is the way to start, the clam ($4.99 cup, $8.99 bowl) and the lobster ($8.99) equally creamy, lush and studded with sweet seafood meat. This stuff is rich, so if you plan to move on to more lobster, you may be better served sharing house-smoked fish spread ($6.99), which is mostly salmon so it's got a nice richness and robust flavor to balance out the smoke. The little bed of greens is unnecessary, but the buttery cracker accompaniment is just right.

The U-Conn lobster roll (it's $21.99 with fresh lobster or $14.99 with frozen, or as they call it "re fresh") is a super buttery hotdog bun packed with glorious meat, no filler, not a lot of sauce or mayo so the flavor of lobster and butter are the stars. On the other hand, why mess with bread at all? Just a fresh-from-the-steamer piping hot pound a quarter lobster ($19.99) and a little metal cup of drawn butter, an ear of corn and pile of tender red potatoes easily ignored as you get busy with the cracking tool. I don't get into the tomalley (you know, the green stuff) and the little legs seem way too spindly to mess with — but still the claws and the body meat are sweet, fresh, hot and plentiful enough to make you wonder why you ate all that chowda.

This is a no-fuss kind of place. The server is also the woman behind the counter and also the woman who drops your lobster, mussels and littleneck clams into the steamer. The wine and beer list are bare bones, the appetizers served on foam plates. But Lobster Haven is one of the few places I know of in these parts where you can pig out for under $20 on a lobster that was swimming moments ago.

Would it be more fun eating one of these babies on a splintery picnic table on a summer day on the Maine coast? Maybe, but why wait? It seems wise to pack in a few more down here while I can before those Gulf of Maine temperatures change again for the worse.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
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