It’s only a hunch, but I bet if you scored a ten spot for every out-of-town pal offering free dinner, provided “we don’t go someplace full of tourists; I want to be with New Yorkers … like where you go,” your pockets would be bulging with enough bucks for you to join the millionaires’ club fighting Trump’s too-tall-for-comfort East Side tower – or at least afford a one-bedroom with river view.
Problem is, as enviably urbane as Nobu’s or Bond Street’s saketini-sipping cuties appear, they are a species no more indigenous to this city than the cast of Friends. By rights, you should be taking your buds to Brooklyn, where there are fewer men and women in Helmut behaving badly or menus with fish only Florence Fabricant has heard of. But if you’re the kind who hesitates to cross the river unless heading to a summer house, or can’t remember whether the 6 or the D goes to Court Street, then you owe Shelly Fireman big-time for moving mountains for your benefit (and they’re definitely not Muhammad’s).
Despite its transplant status, Fireman’s of Brooklyn blatantly celebrates it’s trans-riverine roots. Shipshape utilitarian décor evokes Sheepshead Bay, while sincere greetings, constant eye contact, and ever-ready, succinct information characterize a staff more concerned with your appetite and welfare than with whether their indie is picked up for Sundance.
But it’s the lacquery haze of Aquanet hovering over numerous tables of multiple generations that’s the unexpected dividend of Fireman’s deliberate dislocation. For the mishpokhe in the mist are our real “native” New Yorkers: the ones who go to Shea though they’ve no corporate box, stretch without Radu, and know that the R and the N take you to Court Street. They may refer to your J.P. Tod’s as loafers, but they sure know about food. Well, they know what they like, anyway.
And your true neighbors crave reassuring dishes – food designed less to impress than simply to enjoy. That’s why they dine so fervently at Fireman’s. Love-it-in-an-instant gratification awaits those who covet chorus lines of luscious, curvy shrimp hardly needing cocktail sauce, buckets of nasty-looking but slimily seductive steamers, or the “pop” rock shrimp, which actually crackle and crunch, though not nearly as loudly as the Caesar with aromatic shards of Parmesan.
Lovers of bonito in a cèpe crust, take note. Fireman’s way with seafood dates back to B.B. (before Le Bernardin). But come on, don’t you occasionally daydream about clam chowder so heartily soothing you take it home in quarts? Fireman’s will have it packed and ready when you leave. Shellfish platters sparkle with sweet, icy freshness. Even misguided contemporary nods like tuna spring roll and shrimp-and-chorizo quesadillas don’t betray Fireman’s immediate, unsubtle, bite-me-hard approach. Therefore, take a pass on the proposed vinaigrette substitute and indulge in the giddy, mayonnaise-glazed sloppiness of a lobster roll.
Fireman’s grills any fresh market fish checked on the menu that day, and nobody makes a face if you request the sauce on the side, or anywhere on the table for that matter. Of the cooked seafood, it beats me what incites the name “shanty” lobster unless it’s too much butter, and linguine pescatore seems more under control than bouillabaisse, but damned if crab cakes aren’t plenty jumbo and plenty lumpy – all that keeps dinner partners from tearing them apart is a more desperate need to grab handfuls of your shoestring fries.
No Kings County menu would restrict itself to fish any more than the mayor would visit its museum for a lecture on African art. And Fireman’s doesn’t settle for pacifying carnivores with a flinty pyramid of chopped liver. Pungent, oniony Romanian tenderloin raises the crucial question: Why favor filet or rib-eye ever again? A gentle, embracing sweetness is baked into Bubba’s chicken with chicken-liver pâté and mashed potatoes. But the knockout chicken potpie is what makes visitors sorry they don’t live here. So what if no one I know ever walked these mean streets fueled by this dense, flagrantly overloaded stew? The next time they break into a crust, they’re gonna be mighty sorry if they see apples.
Fittingly, desserts ought to be pulled by trailer hitch. (The Flatbush Avenue chocolate-mousse pie could fill any post-winter pothole.) Unnaturally, their flavors seem to thrive in bulk. However, if your visitors learn one urban gesture that distinguishes the citizenry around them, it’s that true New Yorkers never feast on one dessert with four forks. It’s four desserts. Three bites. Then pass to the left, and repeat. Believe me, this they don’t teach you at Nobu.
Fireman’s of Brooklyn (1081 Third Avenue, at 63rd Street; 212-838-7570). Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday till 11:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday till 10 p.m. Appetizers, $5.95 to $11.95; entrées, $11.95 to $31.95. All major credit cards.