As reported by The Daily Meal months ago, The Lobster Place in New York City's Chelsea Market closed in January. News from owner Ian MacGregor has it that the shop (expanded by 4,000 square feet) reopens today at noon.
It's not the first time The Lobster Place has expanded. Retail operations were increased in 2008 to facilitate the addition of pre-made salads, soups, and sushi. But the oyster bar marks a new service-oriented era for the seafood spot. Among the improvements are a separate cooked and fresh lobster section, a new sushi bar dedicated to a daily omakase selection, and a standing oyster bar that's part of a 47-seat restaurant called Cull & Pistol. For the first time, The Lobster Place will now offer beer and sake to lunch and dinner visitors, but will also continue to function as a local market with a wider selection of fresh fish and grab-and-go options in their new layout.
The reason behind all the changes to a place that's always packed (and inexplicably surrounded by tourists from Asia)?
"We were one of the original tenants in Chelsea Market," Ian MacGregor told The Daily Meal. MacGregor's parents founded the company on the Upper West Side, and he noted that moving into the marketplace in mid '90s was a gutsy play. "The notion of a gourmet food concourse in Chelsea in the mid-'90s... let's just say that that was a little out of character with what was going on in the neighborhood," he said. "We started with a wholesale business in back and a small store in front, and since then we’ve watched Chelsea Market and the surrounding neighborhood change and grow, and The Lobster Place is growing along with it."
It all seems to have paid off — MacGregor said that he sells a couple hundred thousand oysters a month. And that's just a portion of their business.
In 2008, a lot of the residential development (including development of the High Line) made running a wholesale business increasingly difficult for The Lobster Place. MacGregor said that that fact, and watching Chelsea Market evolve woke them up to the fact that they should move their wholesale business to Hunts Point and to expand their retail business. "We did that five years ago and that put us on the path that we’re on. In five years, we’ve watched as the High Line has gained in popularity, residential development has gained speed, the Whitney Museum is being built a couple of blocks away... it's becoming a real place to be."
As Florence Fabricant reported in The New York Times, The Lobster Place is just one of several food spots that are expanding or renovating, and are slated to open in early May. The Lobster Place will be joined by sandwicherie Num Pang, the Green Roll (serving vegan sushi), Spices & Tease, and a new location for The Nut Box. Los Tacos No. 1 will share space with Questlove's new fried chicken spot HyBird.
Exciting times for what was once the site of the National Biscuit Company, begun in the 1890s, where ovens baked everything from Saltines to Oreos, and whose new and expanded food options are sure to delight workers from Food Network, Oxygen, MLB.com, EMI, and NY1, as well as the tourists who regularly pack the block-long hall. That foot traffic is another reason behind MacGregor's expansion.
"The number of people passing through Chelsea Market each day aren't necessarily destination shoppers," MacGregor said. "We want to also offer them an opportunity to interact with The Lobster Place. Hence we’re putting in a sushi place, stand-up raw bar, expanding our prepared food items, and doing hot food, too. But we want to remain known as the best fish market as anywhere in New York. We are fishmongers at the core."
While The Lobster Place didn't take on new space, it's going to feel a lot bigger. They reconfigured the space, moving "a bunch of stuff" into the basement. "We gained about 2,000 square feet of retail space."
The sushi bar is in the retail space and opens today. It will be helmed by Subash Gurung, a sushi chef who has been with the company for eight years. "There will be a cool omakase menu," noted chef Dave Seigal. "There will be whole fish omakase where five or six courses are from the same fish. The Lobster Place has some awesome fish, and the sushi counter is opposite the fish display, so it will be like eating in a fish market."
Cull & Pistol isn't ready to open, but will be soon. They'll be doing friends and family in upcoming weeks and plan to open the restaurant later this month. Those not familiar with lobster terminology might not immediately get the name, references to unfortunate lobsters who may find themselves, er, not completely whole (culls are lobsters that have lost one of its claws, and pistols, well they've lost both). Florence Fabricant characterized Cull & Pistol as "fish-shack-style restaurant," and a portion of the menu called "Shack in the back" does include lobster and shrimp rolls, an oyster po'boy, Ipswich belly roll, and Maine red hot among other options, but chef Seigal noted that it's much more than a shack.
Besides a robust raw bar offering (there will be 10 to 12 varieties from the East and West Coasts on any given day), there will be littleneck clams, crab claws, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, and seasonal things like soft-shell crabs. "We want to showcase the full variety of products we have at The Lobster Place next door," said Seigal. "We have hundreds of items to work with. I’ve been part of the project for four months but been a customer for 12 years. They’ve always been my fish vendor, and I'm excited to work with them at the source."
The influence in terms of flavors and accents is global. There will be a strong Mediterranean and Spanish presence because that’s his background, but with things like the hamachi collar you'll see a Japanese presentation. There are two soups, three salads, six appetizers, eight entrées, plus a whole lobster clambake, said Seigal.
"It’s a full-on menu. We're going to use all sorts of stuff, and being a fish market, we'll have fish offal too. For instance we'll have access to yellowtail collar and monkfish liver. We want to give people the chance to try lots of local fish, too. We'll have everything from shad and soft-shell crab to Maine shrimp, with a menu that changes pretty regularly, and includes local scallops local clams. We'll be serving fish tacos, whole fish, and whole lobster will be offered in restaurant split and grilled or steamed. Our version of the large-format rib-eye for two or chicken for two will be in the form of a clambake and include steamer clams, corn, lobster, and chorizo from Dickson’s."
Expect to see more of that cross-pollination in Chelsea Market too across the board. "We're trying to patronize our neighbors," Seigal noted. "We'll be using Dickson's bacon and guanciale, and getting our bread from Amy’s."
It's likely to be one of Chelsea Market's most popular spots, and you can see their picnic box (choice of a lobster roll, tarragon shrimp roll, or crab club packed with Cape Cod chips, oatmeal raisin cookie, and a Maine Root soda) becoming the frequent grab-and-go item for High Line walkers for this summer.
Another group of people likely to be very happy about the reopening and new options? The tourists from Asia who flocked to The Lobster Place daily before it closed. Asked whether he knew if his store was featured in guidebooks or otherwise that might explain the phenomenon, MacGregor laughed.
"It’s certainly a demographic that we're aware of, but it’s not the result of a targeted effort. We asked our PR team to investigate it, but couldn't determine the reason behind it. I did hear that when we closed there was crying in Tokyo. But yeah, it's not unusual for me to walk into the store and find two diminutive Asian women destroying a lobster at 9:30 in the morning. It's one of the great mysteries of The Lobster Place."