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Surf (Sans Turf)
Lobster for less and other fish stories

On the news: Famous Fish Market's fish and chips.
Which lobster roll is better -- the one at Mary's Fish Camp or Pearl Oyster Bar -- was the topic around the water cooler the other day when a curmudgeonly colleague, a thrifty native New Englander with a Thoreauish patch of shrubbery on his chin, joined the debate:

"You can't get a real lobster roll in this godforsaken town," declared the young salt. "You've got to go to Maine for it."

"Well, what's wrong with Mary's and Pearl's?" we asked.

"Too small," he said.

"But they're positively bursting at the seams with lobster meat," we argued.

"Wrong type of bun," he retorted.

"But it's a grill-toasted Pepperidge Farm top-loading hot-dog bun," we said.

"Forget the bun," he said coldly. "There ain't no such thing as a $19 lobster roll."

Before we could say that Mary's actually costs $18 while Pearl's is only $17 (including, at both places, a pile of shoestring fries), Young Salt, having made his point, had gone back to scraping barnacles off his cubicle. The next time he emerges, we'll send him to Chelsea Market's The Lobster Place for a plump, juicy roll at half the price of Mary's. Or to Nick's Lobster, a Marine Park, Brooklyn, fish market and seafood shack overlooking Mill Basin. Although Nick's doesn't make rolls, its lobster sandwich -- a mass of buttery, sweet steamed lobster meat, oddly but deliciously topped with a layer of seafood stuffing, the whole thing served on a big bun and baked in the oven -- is a formidable rival, and only $8.95.

At the raucous fried-fish feeding frenzy known as Johnny's Famous Reef in City Island, you can get four to five good-size lobster tails deep-fried or steamed with fries and coleslaw for $18 -- along with a sweeping view of Long Island Sound from the outdoor picnic-table patio.

Waiting for takeout in the pokey line outside Famous Fish Market, a defiantly unrenovated Harlem hole-in-the-wall, might rankle even a stoic New Englander. But the fabulous $4.50 mess of peppery battered fried whiting and fries (with a splash of hot sauce from a Snapple bottle with a hole punched in the lid) is worth the wait.

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· THE LOBSTER PLACE, 75 Ninth Ave., near 15th St., 212-255-5872
· NICK'S LOBSTER, 2777 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, 718-253-7117
· JOHNNY'S FAMOUS REEF, 2 City Island Ave., Bronx, 718-885-2086
· FAMOUS FISH MARKET, 684 St. Nicholas Ave., near 145th St., 212-491-8323