Consider the Red Lobster

Michael Nagrant / 03.21.18

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Beyoncé is being literal or figurative. For example it’s abundantly clear that she is not really riding an actual surfboard in “Drunk in Love”. Skittle candies are also not being eaten in “Blow”. However, in “Formation” when she says, “When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster, ’cause I slay”, I think she really means she’s taking Jay Z to Red Lobster after sex.

We do have to consider that she’s being coy and there might actually be a sex act called the Red Lobster. Since Jay Z and Beyoncé, visitors to places like New York’s The Spotted Pig and also New Orleans’ legendary Dooky Chase’s, are noted foodies, and not given to irony, this is a real possibility.

Whatever Queen Bey’s meaning, what is known is that visits to Red Lobster restaurants spiked 33% when those lyrics dropped. And while you might say that a food critic like myself should never step foot in a Red Lobster, you are wrong. If it is good enough for Beyoncé, it is good enough for me.

It’s also good enough for Chris Rock and Nicki Minaj, both former employees. Rock worked at Red Lobster as a dishwasher. In a stand-up routine he claimed Red Lobster kept him in the kitchen because he had messed up teeth and they didn’t want people to believe shrimp gave you messed up teeth.

But again, I don’t need Rock or Minaj’s legitimacy. I actually became a food critic in some part because I was hitting Red Lobster long before Bey was celebrating there post-coitally.

When you grow up far away from the sea in Shelby Township, Michigan, a place whose nearest city center was once known as Hog’s Hollow, there are no authentic dockside seafood joints available. But even a third coaster wants some fish, and so you go to Red Lobster. At 10 years old, I was already a veteran of the scampi situation, and ready to take on a whole lobster.

I had been goaded by the live lobsters swimming around the tank in the lobby. Objectively, the tank, as metal crates filled with puppies in the pet shop are, is kind of a bummer. Lobsters are maybe kind of smart and as such are bearing the inhumanity, or maybe the incrustaceanity, of captivity. In support of this, a hostess on my most recent visit to a Red Lobster in downstate Illinois told a rapt audience of one lobster who had removed its rubber band and held it aloft in the water like an Olympian bearing a medal.

As a father, however, that tank is amazing. When your toddler is pissed and kicking you in the head with his light-up Skechers because he doesn’t like the microwaved Kraft mac from the kid’s menu, you can always take him for a walk to the front of the restaurant. In seconds an opiate-like trance will descend on your child as he regards the rubber banded claws. Also, faced with having to scarf down a bowl of pastalaya, that’s the Italian creole fusion of jambalaya over linguine, at Rainforest Café, kids will choose popcorn shrimp over Rainforest Café at the slightest mention of the lobster tank.

I was one of those kids. I grew up in a union family. My mom worked at Burger King and my father operated a milling machine. Money was tight. Splurging on lobster was probably a budget buster. My parents, God bless their supportive souls, recognized a burgeoning food writer and let me order the whole steamed lobster.

Even if it was expensive, the entertainment of watching me swaddled in a plastic bib, metal shell crackers and knife in hand, staring down the arachnid-like carapace of a dead sea animal, as if I were a tiny version of the barbaric doctor played by Clive Owen in The Knick, must have been priceless.

Though I was not yet smart enough to figure out the algorithm to conquer “Super Mario Bros”, I knew when I was being asked to dance like a circus monkey. I would not be their show. And so I went full bore. I even sucked down the tomalley, that green goo from the lobster’s gut. Tomalley then, as now, tastes like fermented rot. It may seem like a test of your foodie credibility, but unlike say sucking the briny essence of a shrimp head, it is not. Arguably it may even be poisonous.

But, in demolishing that lobster, I found a streak of adventure and a welling pride, a force which has propelled me to the rewards of other weird shit like foie gras, uni, sweetbreads and more. This same force has also punished me with the mucilaginous muck of goat eyeball tacos.

The privilege of eating as much foie gras and uni as I do is one of the few things I have. Which is to say, it’s my version of being like Floyd Mayweather who has a Lambo, Ferrari and Bugatti in both black and white, because that’s the perk of putting your brain on the line as a boxer. But, also, Floyd has both colors because he is bored. Similarly, when, as a food critic, you are lucky to eat as well as often as I do, going to franchise restaurants or carb castles can be a welcome diversion.

And so recently I found myself in downstate Illinois in a commuter hotel located next to a broken-down mall and a Red Lobster. I knew there was a reputable mom and pop BBQ restaurant about a mile away. The pictures on yelp promised ribs with reputable pink smoke rings. But I was down here for my non-food job, and this evening I did not want to work my other job, which is sussing out really good food. I just wanted to crash in to Lobsterfest and pass out.

And so I did. Red Lobster is the bric-a-brac king of fake kitsch. There are lots of corrugated tin and faded driftwood signs embedded with neon lights promising bay shrimp and scallops. These signs are likely fabricated for Red Lobster and have never seen the side of a salty dock. Not all at Red Lobster is multi-colored wooden lures and bobbers the size of a whale. I noticed the bar featured a brass overhead railing on which hundreds of pieces of glinting stemware hung over the patrons. I know Alpana Singh did not model the breathtaking wine glass sculpture over her bar at The Boarding House on this, but you do wonder whether as haute couture filters down to Old Navy’s selection, this glassware décor conceit of Red Lobster invaded her subconscious.

Which is to say, Red Lobster, amidst any of its faults, has been influential on restaurant culture as a whole. In 1974 they invented popcorn shrimp (or maybe it was Paul Prudhomme). From a cynic’s perspective this was obviously a smart way to move high margin U1000 krill-sized shrimp. But also, Red Lobster gave us deep fried fish candy. Red Lobster has also maybe not been fully transparent in their menu names, for example, once serving langostino in their “lobster” bisque.

But Red Lobster buys millions of pounds of seafood annually, and by most accounts they have established a sustainable supply chain and were a founding member of the Global Aquaculture Alliance which promotes responsible aquaculture. As Red Lobster goes, so goes sea ecology. Though I don’t know for sure, I bet a lot of lobstah-men were able make a living because of Red Lobster’s demand and then sent their children to pahk their cahs in Hahvahd yard. Although, and I can’t find any hard evidence of this, one wonders if Red Lobster’s purchasing power allowed them to negotiate market-breaking prices which would have hurt fishermen?

But, it was Lobsterfest and my regard for these things was clouded by the promise of Cheddar Bay Biscuits. BTW, although they are now an inseparable part of Red Lobster lore (400 million consumed annually), the biscuits, which were rolled out in 1992, didn’t exist when I was housing my first lobster.

But they exist now, and my server brought me a couple before I even placed my order. I am sure this is some kind of violation. What if I had walked out with free biscuits without placing an order? But my server only cared about my utmost comfort, so much so that he apologized that this was not a new batch and that he’d bring those as soon as they came out. The new ones were indeed superior to the old crumbly lukewarm ones, but in the hasty rush, the new ones were gooey and undercooked. But they were both filled with a heady cheddar and garlic perfume, so I barely noticed. Yes, these are not biscuits by the White Lilly flour and southern granny standard, but they are the ultimate in Bisquick and cheese alchemy.

A server sat down in the booth seat across from me to take my order. He looked like Caleb Landry Jones, the pale, vaguely meth-addled-looking actor who played the Armitage son in Get Out and the dude who was thrown out the window in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. He also had a bit role as Louis Corbett, the friend of Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t normally take the time to mention this except that Jones was the second actor to play Louis in the series. It’s worth noting that even though Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is the greatest of all time, he somehow swaps out actors as if he were a showrunner for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (the original Aunt Viv was best).

Caleb was now literally in my booth. He called me “buddy” more times than Adam Sandler in a father-son movie. He did not muss my hair, but this was beginning to feel like an uncomfortable Tinder date.

Though I normally go with the Parrot Isle jumbo coconut shrimp, because I can’t resist the pina colada dipping sauce and its mesmerizing aromas of pineapple, fake rum, and sun tan lotion, this was Lobsterfest. I settled instead for the dueling lobster tails featuring lobster tail baked in parchment and the other grilled and bathed in sherry cream sauce.

I also ordered the seafood-stuffed mushrooms. Having learned from their langostino/lobster controversy, I assume Red Lobster named these mushrooms so they can swap out the stuffing with whatever fish they’re getting a really good deal on in the global markets.

The sizzle plate arrived in moments, and white button mushrooms were charred within an inch of their gills and swaddled with bubbling cheese and tiny bits of shrimp. Somehow though the ‘shrooms were capped with more butter and cheese than an Olive Garden Alfredo (Olive Garden was invented by the same dude as Red Lobster!) they needed salt. One thing in Red Lobster’s favor is that they provide fancy sea-salt filled grinders on each table, and I showered my shrooms until they tasted right.

This does bring up one of my major quibbles with the evolution of Red Lobster. As a kid I never had a fish deboned tableside, but I did have the grandiosity of a Red Lobster server brandishing a gigantic pepper mill to grind peppercorns tableside. It felt special. This service technique also added an element of danger. Because kids are inherently sadistic, I would sometimes let the servers grind enough pepper to make everyone at the table’s eyes water just because I could.

Now you have to mill your own pepper with a decidedly inelegant plastic-capped grinder. I did this over my Caesar salad. I loved that the icy bowl felt like it had just been taken out of the freezer, but the romaine was somehow lukewarm, the dressing a gloppy mess, and the croutons disappointing. I know croutons. I make them myself and I eat a lot of the seasoned Texas Toast brand like some people eat potato chips. I suggest Red Lobster use the latter in the future.

I was soothed, however, because instead of Muzak riffs on The Little Mermaid soundtrack, the house system was inexplicably playing the very cool lullaby of Rhye. If you’ve never heard of Rhye, he was kind of like Portugal the Man before Portugal. Which is to say, Rhye is a man who sounds like a woman when he sings.

My reverie was interrupted by Caleb dropping down the dueling lobster tails and saying, “Hey buddy, be careful you don’t get burned by the steam when you cut open that parchment full of lobster.” He added with the verve of a man remembering the scent of his first lover, “Definitely stick your nose over it and inhale. It’s the greatest smell ever!”

I was simultaneously creeped out and intrigued, so I did as he instructed and was rewarded with the heavenly waft of lemon, garlic, and roast tomato. This is a long way to say that Red Lobster, purveyor of lobster pizza and fishbowl-sized neon blue cocktails, was serving lobster like Paul Bocuse, or en papillote. This was not a facsimile, but real parchment paper, charred at the edges.

While I dug in, another server had a lively conversation with an old couple (old people LOVE Red Lobster – the dining room looks like the gathering of creepy old white folks from Cocoon) about whether the grilled or the steamed was better. At one point the server got excited because one of the old men was from Orlando. The server, with all of the joy and haughtiness of Alex Trebek telling the right answer to a befuddled group of Jeopardy contestants, declared that Orlando is where Red Lobster’s corporate HQ is located. I knew the answer to their conundrum of grilled vs. steamed because my tails were dueling in this manner – which is an absurd menu construction, as no inanimate foods should ever fight or be angry, but for some reason they are.

The grilled won. The steamed was rubbery. The grilled was delicate and smoky and lacquered with a sherry cream sauce which had the finesse of a Cheez Whiz drizzle, but also the same kind of primal reward. None of this of course was Thomas Keller’s lobster tail poached in butter so the lobster flesh never experiences the rigor mortis curl that steaming provides, but it was a paragon of what it is that Red Lobster does best: provide a salty, soulful future of nostalgic cravings that just maybe inspires a 10-year-old to expand their palate until they become a food critic.