June 2, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Lobster Shack Afloat

The shellfish shucker gathers Jonah crab together as a gift to entice the five of us back to buy.

          I like the idea of boarding a ship and going nowhere. I don’t mind bobbing, swaying, lurching sideways for an hour or so. I thought it would be romantic to sip sangria and munch fish and chips on the Hudson River. And it was, even on one of the meanest grey nights of May.

Clouds, a chill and threatened rain keep the deck clear and give us a room almost to ourselves.

          My ethnic adventurer pals and I often fan out to faraway zip codes in search of exotica. A floating lobster shack closer to home sounded like a pleasant change of pace from Georgian cheese-stuffed bread in Alphabet City and hand-pulled noodles in a Flushing food mall. That’s how the five of us came to meet last Thursday on the Destiny, the North River Lobster Company cruiser anchored at Pier 81. It was tied up after its 45 minute 6 pm cruise on the Hudson and would head out again at 9.

“Batten Down the Hatches” is a $12 rum cocktail. Most of us are drinking sangria.

          We could not have chosen a grimmer evening: it was chilly and steel grey, threatening to rain. That didn’t discourage us. But it had kept all but two or three determined couples away. Rows of tables lined up on deck and even a counter to claim the overflow on the dock went empty. The servers seemed restless.

          “At least we can’t get sunburned,” I said as my friends boarded and studied the list of $12 cocktails served in a mason jar. I’m not going to get ironic here. We’ve sipped Thai-flavored margaritas from a sherbet dish and cheap wine in water tumblers, so no need to snigger.

The makings of giant seafood platters and shrimp cocktail nuzzle in this ice-filled rowboat.

          I considered “Batten Down the Hatches,” a mix of three rums and fruit juices. Rich (EthnicJunkie.com) had ordered that. I tasted. It was too sweet for me. I decided on a pitcher of red sangria for the table, dosed with Skyy infused Vodka, triple sec and seasoned fruit. Not a lot of fruit but a lot of ice and not outrageously sweet.

Bored by lack of action on a grim grey evening, the raw bar shucker does a freebie for our table.

          Although cameras and purses certainly weren’t threatened with invasion in the deserted space, I held down the table out of habit so my friends could troop to the counter up front and order dinner. (You pay and a server delivers from the kitchen.) I wandered off to see what was on ice in the raw bar, laid out in a rowboat. The shucker had been pacing. Now he stood expectantly, waiting for a command, eager, I supposed, to build a “Cadillac Mountain,” a $149 shellfish spectacular to feed 12, or even the $59 Acadia for six.

Sure enough, two of us step up to buy a portion of peel and eat shrimp with Cajun sauce.

          “What enormous shrimp,” I observed. “Do they have any flavor?” I asked, answering myself: “Well, I won’t know until I taste one.” He smiled, reached for a small red wooden pick and speared a voluptuous beauty. He dropped it into an oval cardboard dish. “Is it frozen?” I went on in my soliloquy. “Of course, it’s frozen. Most shrimp come into New York frozen.” He smiled again, picked up two more shrimp with his pinchers, five in all, and five cracked Jonah crabs, arranging them in the dish. Then he settled two plastic cups alongside, cocktail sauce and mustardy-mayo, and handed it to me. A $30 gift for our table.

Order and pay at the nearest counter and a server delivers your food from the kitchen below.

          But why not? Once seafood is thawed and cooked, you can’t keep it very long. I imagined the crew feasting later on this raw, deserted evening. At least we were definitely live customers -- attacking the menu, accepting deliveries from the kitchen, eating and sharing. Maybe the cameras suggested we might be yelpers or even veteran critics.

The lobster, tasting fresh and cooked to order, came with a pile of very good fries.

          Not everything was as good as the “butter-poached” lobster -- a 1¼ pounder served with very good “hand cut” fries and surprisingly terrific coleslaw.  My hopes are always high but, I admit, expectations can be low. Unlike the inedible, pre-cooked lobster I’ve sent back at The Palm in East Hampton, these beasts tasted cooked to order, fresh and reasonably tender. The “salt fries” were not over-salted, though in a perfect world, they could have been crisper and darker.

It’s hot and thick but the New England chowder is scarce on clams and the promised corn.

          I didn’t taste much peppery heat in the otherwise fine jalapeño cornbread, nor corn in the New England clam chowder. The creamy porridge was thick and loaded with potatoes in a 10-to-1 ratio with actual clam sightings. The $10 bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp looked very generous to me -- they were okay, like the steamers, good but not excellent, and tasted ready to toss at midnight. Not old, just…what shall I say? As if they had already lived life to the fullest.

The mussels look good but we were focused on lobster and didn’t taste them.

          We weren’t tempted by the Caesar, or a baby arugula salad with pears and gorgonzola, or the burger with Applewood bacon, gruyère, caramelized onions and garlic aioli -- we could get those favorites anywhere on land.

Blackened mahi mahi with cabbage and red onion slaw and avocado made fine tacos.

          Blackened mahi mahi tucked into three soft tacos with cabbage, red onion slaw, and avocado cream was a tasty surprise. And crisp, freshly fried fish and chips -- beer-battered flounder with more of those fries -- was a triumph at just $14. 

A generous heap of properly-cooked lobster chunks fill my lobster roll. Alas, an untoasted bun.

          With the lobster harvest coming into the city at reasonable prices right now, there’s no need to be stingy. My $18 lobster roll was indeed generously stuffed with properly cooked lobster chunks and smartly dosed with yuzu aioli in an open hot dog bun that would have been better buttered and actually warm. It came with a bag of good commercial chips and a small cup of that excellent coleslaw.

Fish and chips -- beer-battered flounder and excellent fries -- comes in paper in a basket.

          We sat there sipping sangria, agreeing that we’d loved our evening on Destiny. Most of the food was better than expected. “Look,” said Belle, a designer, brandishing a bright coral eco-friendly spoon. “Even the flatware has a smart-looking handle.” It was getting close to the scheduled 9 o’clock sailing. We had all decided to leave. A polite server thoughtfully warned us that the boat would move out promptly and the gangplank would disappear. We collected coats and scarves and hustled out. 

I can’t predict what dinner will be like on a summer weekend if the crowds descend.

          Sure, it’s annoying that cabs are not permitted to drop lobster fans closer to the entrance, but at least it wasn’t raining when I arrived. And there is no crosswalk on the highway at the end of the Pier 81 dock where we exited. We waited for red lights to stop traffic and crossed anyway. It was colder now. If our friend Rina had not parked her car two blocks away, we would have had to walk to 10th Avenue for cabs. It’s rare to spot an empty taxi on the West Side Highway. Smarties with smart phones might summon a car on Uber.

          It you take time to study North River’s “history” on the website, http://www.northriverlobsterco.com, you’ll discover that CEO Sam Cooperman of New York Cruise Lines, Inc. dreamed up this floating lobster shack partly as an ode to lobster palaces past, he says, and partly to tempt residents from the new buildings on the far west of 42nd Street. An increased harvest of the normally pricey crustaceans make entreprenurial sense too.

          Our fivesome agreed we might return on a summery evening. “It’s definitely a great date night,” said a Match.com player.  “I’ll come with a friend who loves tacos and take the free cruise,” one of the guys offered. What the Destiny might be like with a full house crowding the decks, I cannot imagine. A Match.com shortcut, maybe. A bridge-and-Tunnel drunken orgy? Pre-cooked lobsters? Why do I think of these traumas? No promises.

Pier 81, on the West Side Highway at the foot of West 41st Street. 212 630 8831. Monday through Sunday 11:30 am to 11 pm. Sailing times noon to 12:45, 3 to 3:45 pm. 6 to 6:45 pm, 9 to 9:45 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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