Residents of this transient city have a knack for idealizing things they once enjoyed in their innocent, long-ago, pre–New York days but can now never enjoy again, at least not in the same dimly recalled, exactly perfect way. This sense of longing is particularly acute when it comes to the evocative cheap eats of your youth, which is one reason why the town is endlessly awash in new barbecue joints and new Philly-cheesesteak joints, not to mention new places peddling soup dumplings just like the kind Mom used to make back in old Shanghai. In the summer, however, the Proustian comfort meal of choice is the lobster roll, preferably one served from a fake fish shack on some shambling un-seaside block, with weathered old buoys and photos of aged fishing vessels stuck to the walls. Recently a whole new batch of these faux fish shacks has emerged around town. We spent a few pleasurable evenings investigating.
Bongo Fry Shack, two stars
240 Ninth Ave., nr. 24th St.; 212-675-2692; $20.95
Opened this winter, Bongo is an offshoot of a popular eponymous bar, where the house lobster roll has gained a measure of local renown. At the Fry Shack, however, you can enjoy this pricey delicacy in a kind of bunkerlike Jimmy Buffett setting, replete with hanging fishing nets and windowless pastel-colored walls. The Bongo lobster roll also has an odd pinkish pastel tinge to it, as if the chef had heaped spoonfuls of Russian dressing into the mix. Unfortunately, this secret sauce overwhelms the lobster meat, which is chopped into meager bits and served very cold, a possible sign it’s been sitting in the refrigerator a day or two too long. Or so we observed as we devoured it whole (after all, there’s no such thing as a bad lobster roll), with a scattering of the excellent house potato chips.
BLT Fish, two stars
21 W. 17th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-691-8888; $24
The lobster sandwich at the downstairs “fish shack” portion of Laurent Tourondel’s extravagant new restaurant, BLT Fish, is perhaps the most expensive new roll in town and therefore probably the world. It’s pricier, even, than the roll at the sainted Pearl Oyster Bar, although you get about half the lobster, most of which is muffled in a large brioche bun. That said, the meat is good and fresh, with a bit of tarragon to cut the richness.
Black Pearl, one star
14 Ave. A, nr. Houston St.; 212-358-7583; $20
This is not a fry shack at all, but a fry stand that operates out of the back of a raucous bar called Julep. The lobster roll is clearly modeled on the more swanky uptown version, although compared with the others, it’s bland (undistinguished lobster, simple mayo dressing), and we had to wait 40 minutes for our taste, amid the clamor of old Allman Brothers tunes and the stink of stale beer.
Bar Minnow, three stars
444 9th St., nr. Seventh Ave., Park Slope; 718-832-5500; $19
This new bar is an offshoot of Minnow, run by Park Slope’s resident seafood wizard, Aaron Bashy. Bashy, who once worked at Le Bernardin, poaches his lobster in lemongrass and white wine, and binds it with a touch of mayonnaise. What this inventive roll lacks in heft relative to the others, it makes up for in lightness and subtlety. The sweetness of the lemongrass compliments the sweetness of the meat, making the whole thing taste like an appealing mingling between Phuket, Thailand, say, and Belfast, Maine.
Brooklyn Fish Camp, four stars
162 Fifth Ave., nr. Degraw St., Park Slope; 718-783-3264; $23
The roll at this new outpost of Mary’s Fish Camp in Greenwich Village is a reprise of the excellent one at the original restaurant (which in turn is a reprise of the excellent one at Pearl). This lavish combination of lobster chunks, mayo, chives, and lemon juice is about three times larger than any roll you’ll encounter in Belfast, Maine. It’s twice the cost, of course, but dare we say it’s twice as delicious? We’d argue, in fact, that it’s proof of a profound culinary occurrence. Like the hot dog before it and the pizza slice, New Yorkers, at long last, have made the lobster roll their own.