Like lots of married couples, my wife and I live our lives within a pattern of subtle compromise and disagreement. She is slim and well-put-together; I’m large and unkempt. She considers my outlook on the world to be amusingly relaxed; I consider hers to be amusingly fastidious. Our conceptions of the perfect sandwich are, therefore, revealing. Her ideal sandwich is a tidy Parisian structure, a streamlined baguette filled with bits of tomato and cheese. My perfect sandwich is as big as an aircraft carrier and meant to be eaten with a fork. Sometimes I’ll make furtive pilgrimages to the Carnegie Deli to dine on that whopper classic, the hot pastrami on rye. I like to take the rye off the top and eat the pastrami first. When it’s reduced to a manageable size, I’ll put the rye back on (with coleslaw and a dab of Russian dressing), then finish the remains with a flourish. But when I describe this fatso methodology to my wife, she just rolls her eyes. “That’s a structurally unsound sandwich,” she says.
So imagine her reaction to my promise of a light lunch of lobster rolls and beer at Mary’s Fish Camp, a new seafood restaurant in Greenwich Village. “Mary” is Mary Redding, the co-founder of the famous Pearl Oyster Bar on Cornelia Street. The Pearl is a slip of a place where, for $17, you can buy a lobster roll the size of a small toaster. Mary and her former partner squabbled over the rights to this gratifying dish, among others, and in the aftermath, Mary decided to start her own establishment. Mary’s Fish Camp is poky in the way the Pearl is, with plain navy-and-gray walls, plywood banquettes, and a curved eating bar covered in tin. Mary has a fondness for Malpeque oysters; lards her chowder with double-smoked bacon, the way they fix it at Pearl; and accompanies her rolls (clam, lobster) with tall thatches of fried string potatoes. Her lobster roll is so structurally unsound that when my wife caught a glimpse of it, she gave a little yelp of dismay.
But Mary’s lobster roll doesn’t actually look like a lobster roll at all. It’s a Goliath portion of meat, mixed in a mass of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, tottering atop a tiny hot-dog bun. The tower of fries gives it the air of something that needs to be defused instead of eaten. The same was true of my clam roll, which consisted of seven clams exactly (for the relative bargain price of $11), golden-fried, on a bed of tartar sauce thick with pickles. The cod sandwich, which I sampled later on, was served in a puffy, muffaletta-style bread, slathered with another type of tartar made with capers and chopped red onion. This wasn’t meant to be consumed like a normal sandwich, either, but if you tried, flakes of creamy fish came seeping out the sides. My wife didn’t dare attempt this with her lobster roll and waited patiently as I excavated its top layers with my fork. The roll, when we located it, was butter-toasted like you find at the more reputable road stands in Maine. I cut it in half, and she took a few tea-sandwich bites. “That’s not half bad,” she said.
Mary’s more sophisticated recipes aren’t bad, either. The fact that some of them are more or less doppelgänger versions of dishes being served over at the Pearl doesn’t detract from their flavor. Mary’s New England clam chowder packs a rich punch, since the onions and potatoes are rendered in bacon fat. So does the lobster pot pie, which contains an assortment of vegetables, a dose of heavy cream, plus a crumbly pastry crust. Fried oysters and clams come mingled as a tasty appetizer, which I watched porno king Al Goldstein devour at the bar one evening. Two generous salads (baby greens with Gorgonzola; watercress and endive with oven-dried tomatoes) are available for more delicate eaters, plus steamed clams, two varieties of shrimp (boiled and salted), and a labor-intensive delicacy called lobster knuckles.
Mary’s threadbare, bait-shack interior can look a bit bereft during the day, but the atmosphere heats up considerably at night. Seafood addicts crowd around the bar, and if enough people order chowder or the grilled lobster (split in half, over lava coals), the big storefront windows steam up a little. Among the three varieties of grilled fish, my favorite was the daurade, otherwise known as French sea bass. The pan-seared salmon sat on a white-wine ragout of navy beans and shiitake mushrooms and was perfectly cooked to order both times I sampled it. My favorite of the specials was a helping of four-day boat scallops – seared flat, and sweet as plums – on a mound of tomato risotto, with frizzled leeks on top. If you want a combination of these delicacies, order the bouillabaisse, which comes in a slim glass bowl, with a King Kong lobster claw sticking out the top. All sorts of ocean goodies are buried inside, and when you’ve finished deconstructing all the shells and claws, you can sop up the extravagant remains with two huge croutons rubbed with garlic.
My wife assisted in the tasting of one or two of these dishes, but in the end, I did most of the damage at Mary’s Fish Camp alone. There’s something about fine seafood that lends itself to solitary dining. Maybe it’s that you often eat at the bar at fish joints, or that certain elemental seafood meals have dreamy, personalized associations. Fresh lobster always reminds me of Maine, for instance, and fried oysters always remind me of summer. The three desserts at Mary’s are all designed to enhance these little Proustian moments. A fluffy tapioca pudding is made fluffier by a dollop of whipped cream, and while I spooned it down, a portly man on the next bar stool murmured, “It’s just like Grandma’s.” There’s also a chewy blueberry-almond tart, which my grandma couldn’t have concocted in a million years, and a monster vanilla sundae spiked with a dense chocolate sauce. The sundae comes in a prim, wife-size version, too, with a little piece of peanut brittle on top. That’s the one I ordered, after a few moments of guilty deliberation. Sometimes, enough is just enough.
Mary’s Fish Camp
246 West 4th Street (646-486-2185). Lunch, Monday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $10; entrées, $18 to $25. A.E., M.C., V.