The problem with chef Eric Hara’s lobster macaroni and cheese—served at Pier 9, his newish Hell’s Kitchen eatery— was that people couldn’t recognize it. The line-up of seven bite-sized, cheese-coated plugs that come with each $12 order look nothing like the pot of bubbling elbows and béchamel (to say nothing about a pot of Kraft) that we’re used to, and the restaurant’s patrons were grumbling. Since then, Hara has added some quotation marks to the dish’s name—it’s officially Lobster "Mac ‘N’ Cheese"—but when something tastes this good, does it matter what it’s called?
"Who wants the same thing?" asks Hara one afternoon as we dissect his creation. "I don’t want to be the guy doing the same mac and cheese, but I still wanted to keep the basic elements there."
So instead of a pile of noodles coated with goopy cheese, he decided to do a take on a garnish for meals he used to make while cooking at The Oak Room. The dish at his previous employer was a pasta ring stuffed with various sundries that rested atop a piece of venison. But for the reinterpreted dish at Pier 9, he sticks with the seafood theme and allows the dish to stand on its own.
Now, Hara takes calamari pasta, which gets its name because—duh!—it looks just like a thick ring of squid, and stuffs the pasta with a bread-and-cheese mixture made from toasted and crumbled Alforno country loaf and a combination of white cheddar, Parmesan, Fontina and cream cheeses. The same cheese mixture, sans bread, coats the line of pasta, which sits beneath a succulent piece of Maine lobster.
The result is a surprisingly light bit of soft pasta with a sharp, salty cheesiness that doesn’t overwhelm the delicate taste of lobster. Unlike a lot of macaroni and cheese creations, the pasta remains firm enough to be enjoyable (none of that squishy, mealy texture that often ruins the dish) and soaks up the flavor of the pungent cheeses. The cream cheese gives the whole thing a liquidy smoothness, and the cheddar adds a nice, heady taste.
One dish is more then enough for a small bite at the bar or to share as an appetizer among friends. Both options are popular, the bartender chimes in as I gobble my fourth bite. So popular, he continues, that one guy recently ordered three all to himself. While that’s overkill, the one satisfying plate I devour delivers all the cheesy punch I want.
"All the experiments you do don’t work if it doesn’t taste good," says Hara. "We did it, it worked, and certainly it’s a keeper."
802 9th Ave. (at W. 53rd St.),