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But they're just not all that easy to eat yet, as we discovered during a recent meal at Kelly's Landing, a 19-year-old Boston-style seafood house located in Fort Lauderdale's Southport Shopping Center. Releasing the meat from its plated armor is never very simple, though it does become a mite less problematic after the crustaceans have discarded their calcium-hardened winterized shells. Judging by the delicious one-and-a-quarter pounders that nicked my fingers and aggravated my premature arthritis at Kelly's, this hasn't happened so far this season.
It will, because nature dictates that an adult lobster molts once a year when the water warms a bit. This process, which usually begins in July or thereabouts, allows the creatures to grow and mate. And since the shell takes months to completely fossilize, it's possible for bug freaks like me to crack open a lobster with bare fingers until September or so. In other words, those are the days when you can decimate twice as many lobsters in half the time. Which is why I intend to monitor Kelly's pretty closely for the next few weeks. While waiting for the shedders to float our southern way, I'm up for the challenge of dismantling recently harvested but still hard-shelled specimens, achy-breaky joints be damned.
Naturally, I could choose to launch my vigil at, say, the Lobster House in Sunrise, Catfish Dewey's in Oakland Park, or Coho Grill in Boca Raton. These places not only carry live Maine lobsters but they're offering them in multiple-birth portions at ocean-bottom prices; one-and-a-quarter pound twins go for $13.95 at the Lobster House, for example.
But I have my reasons for staying faithful to Kelly's, a narrow storefront eatery with a couple of TVs, some New England sports memorabilia hanging on the walls, and a bar at the back that is clearly home to a bunch of salty regulars. In addition to a steady stock of the Maine event and friendly down-home service, they are, in order of digestive importance: New England clam chowder, onion rings, fried Ipswich clam bellies, and the "Saturday Night Special," a sirloin steak served over Boston baked beans with a side of buttered, grilled brown bread that was steamed to molasses-flavored perfection just as it should be -- in a one-pound coffee can.
With apologies to Legal Seafood, I'd rate the chowder at Kelly's as some of the best I've had outside Boston. Thick and creamy but not gloppy with flour or lumpy with corn starch, the soup supports an enormous number of sweet, toothsome clam bellies, along with tender onions and moist chunks of white potatoes. It's the kind of soup that makes you feel guilty for ordering it on several levels: because it's too good not to finish, because it certainly has its share of calories, and because it satiates part of the appetite that could be devoted to the rich, butter-dipped boiled lobster.
Likewise, the deep-fried goods possess all the qualities necessary to elevate them from hot to haute cuisine: a solid crunch, courtesy of a brief swim in clean oil of the right temperature; a fair amount of drainage to ensure little residue on the hands; and, most important, a high-end raw ingredient. Whether you're interested in the sweet, batter-wrapped onion rings or the crumb-basted seafood, you can be sure that the base product is fresh at Kelly's. My party sampled the Ipswich clams, which provide a generously fleshed belly that bursts like buttered popcorn in the mouth. We also discovered that the scrod, sea scallops, oysters, and shrimp were equally succulent. The way to enjoy all of them is by ordering the fried combination plate, served (as are lobsters and other main courses) with choice of starch and a house salad. And while the salad dressings are commercial bottlings -- Ken's Steakhouse, the server told us -- the kitchen enhances them with crumbled blue cheese for an extra 50 cents.
If fried fare carries a stigma for you, then be aware that the shellfish and scrod can be ordered baked or broiled and can be preceded by a starter of littleneck clams in an aromatic broth or the more potent mussels scampi. Several Italian specialties offer more-robust flavor options. Jumbo shrimp Parmesan, for instance, was a baked casserole dish of large shrimp moistened with marinara and sealed with creamy mozzarella. A side of linguini, also dressed with the marinara, was a bit watery, though.
Then there's the "Saturday Night Special," a large sirloin cooked to order that comes with a friendly $14.95 price tag. The beans that comprise its bed enhance the beef with both sweet-tangy flavors and textural contrasts; the round of brown bread is ideal for mopping up commingled beef-and-bean juices afterward. And despite its name, the special is actually available every night till it runs out. Just like the lobsters, which I admit are a main draw for me. Go ahead. Savor this fare, but not at the expense -- or reasonableness, I should say -- of the rest of the New England seagoing chow.