Google "lobster bisque" and of the first couple of pages of recipe hits, the vast majority are thickened with roux.
Most "classic" French sources make bisques with a fish veloute, which has as you know, a roux base. I refer espicially to Pellaprat and E. Sainte Ange. I'm not sure whether Escoffier broke away from the dominant line, or whether Pellaprat and Sainte Ange represented the next generation. At any rate, Escoffier's method which became the method for Ritz hotels worldwide up into the fifties, involved pounding the shells with raw rice in a giant mortar and pestle -- until all was powdered. You could certainly do that today with the right blender or processor.
I'm pretty sure Julia Child's lobster bisque used flour -- but can't find her recipe. Maybe someone else can.
Modern French recipes (also researched on google "bisque de homard") are split between structuring without a starch thickener, ground rice and/or a flour based roux or beurre manie, in an amount besoin. I only looked at the first dozen or so hits, but the impression I got was that flour in the form of roux or beurre manie was the preferred thickener.
The bulk of American sources seem to call for flour. My first edition of Joy of Cooking calls for flour, as do the later editions. My old two volume Gourmet Cookbook calls for flour, and does Craig Claiborne's generation of the NY Times cookbook. On the other hand, modern American "gourmet" recipes from sources such as Gourmet, Bon Apetit, and Saveur call for cornstarch.
In a restaurant setting, where long holding was required, I'd choose flour over cornstarch.
Chef Ray's "powdered lobster shell" is almost certainly used for color (especially where there's no tomato paste) and flavor, not for thickening. It doesn't thicken.
Bottom line: Abe, you probably tasted exactly what you thought you tasted. Going a bit deeper: There's no reason why you couldn't make an exceptional bisque with a flour based roux, and there are several perfectly good alternatives.
Boar D Laze
I am giving away my age but back in the 50s when I was apprenticing in the NY Hotels and they were all French kitchens. I spent 2 monthes with the Chef Potage. When they made a Lobster Bisque the shells and sometimes the insides were put into a huge mortar, my job on a few occassions was to take the pestal and grind the shells into a powder which was used to inhance the soup and canape spreads. Today some lobster souip bases contain this , but only the high end ones. Corn Starch was not permitted into the main kitchen only the pastry chef had it. Those were the days, only thing I objected to was everyone spoke French except me, but you sure learned.
In the early seventies, at the Blue Fox in San Francisco (when and where I started), they (we) used broken-up, roasted shells to enrich the stock. It being San Francisco we used shrimp shells, crab shells, clam juice, fish stick and chicken stock to make the veloute.
At the next place I went to, Chez Panisse, we didn't make lobster that often -- but when we did, we considered the shells as garnish gold. No way were they going anywhere but on the plate. We used plenty of shellfish, I can remember a couple of bisques, but not lobster.
The only other steady cooking job I had was for myself, catering "at" Predominantly French in Los Angeles. I can't remember if I had lobster bisque on any of my lists. At that time in L. A. lobster bisque was strongly associated with a (then local) chain known as Hamburger Hamelet among my clientele (largely westside/show-biz or professional); and I know I never made it.
Didn't know you worked for Ms. Waters. In my humble opinion she started all of these so called celebrity chefs, only she could cook. I ate their once it was excellent. She was and is a vissionary and truly was ahead of her time .
And I ate in Ham. Hamlet I believe in Palm Springs.
Well, I never worked under Escoffier :lol: but according to him, a bisque is thickened with rice or bread, NOT a roux. Those may be good seafood soups, but they're not bisques. I'll bet the places that serve roux-thickened "bisques" also serve chocolate "Martinis." :mad:
At various restaurants where I worked (including Le Bernardin), we roasted the lobster shells, broke them up in the Hobart mixer, and added them to stock. They were strained out when the stock was done. Seems weird to me to powder them and add them to something a customer will actually eat. That's the same as adding bone meal -- would you really do that?
It also seems weird to use shells as a garnish, that is, without the lobster still in them. I was always told that if you can't eat it, it doesn't belong on the plate. Someone could get hurt trying to chomp down on the shell.
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004