February 3, 2020 | BITE: My Journal

Sensuous Moments, Thank You Shelly  


The cake display welcomes you at the entrance to Brooklyn Diner. 

          I hadn’t been to The Brooklyn Diner for a while but when it reopened last month after a recent rehab – the bar is new -- I found myself in a booth with pals for dinner. My friend Lee ordered chicken soup without the noodles which is yet another proof that she can’t possibly be Jewish.  My niece Dana and Diane shared a pastrami sandwich with very good fries. The meat was moist but lean – the server didn’t even ask how we wanted it. That’s proof of something too.


I miss the canned mandarins that uses to be on the Chinese chicken salad.


The host at the 57th Street diner is in velvet with shiny gold sneakers. 

          I had my usual Diner favorite – the Chinese chicken salad. It wasn’t bad. It was fine. It just wasn’t as great as I remembered.  My name was everywhere on the ceiling with quotes from my Diner reviews. That reminded me of great moments of my youth at the Diner and that’s what this column is all about. 

212 West 57th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. 212 977 2280



Surviving the Mythic Cheesecake


During the remodeling at Brooklyn Diner, the Redeye Grill offered its favorite dishes.

          At least once every week or two, my soul mate Donna and I follow a play or a screening with a heaping hill to share of Brooklyn Diner’s Chinese chicken salad with canned mandarin oranges, a junk food obsession that seizes me the minute I look at this wildly eclectic menu. When I am about to succumb to the lure of the mythic cheesecake, she saves me from myself. 

          Happily, when my guy and I drop in to devour a very rare burger -- with bacon and a tousle of fried onions, he is as vulnerable as I…and a cheesecake ritual is almost always observed.



Friends with Vegan Intentions



We discovered the lobster with fresh raw vegetables in Tuscany. Shelly brought it home to 57th Street.

          About Brooklyn Diner and the near-Jewish Mother behind its sweet eccentricity, Shelly Fireman:  I have often said…and written in my memoir, Insatiable, that a critic should be a hermit and have no friends. Like so many wise rules, impossible to live up to. I met Shelly and his wife, Marilyn, at the Michelangelo Bar in the main square of Pietrasanta, near the Tuscan seashore years ago. Alas, they were fun and funny and we discovered they lived in our hometown ZIP code.  



A pensive Shelly Fireman in a booth at Fiorello’s a few years ago.

          Recently, the two of them announced they’d become vegans.  Not so funny, but to each his own. I was really embarrassed when Shelly brought his own low carbohydrate pasta and asked the chef to cook it, to a restaurant where I was known. After picking myself up from under the table (well, not literally), I tasted. 

          It’s 100% Kamut whole wheat spaghetti and he’s serving it now in his own restaurants: Fiorello, Shelly’s Traditzionale, Trattoria del’Arte, and both Brooklyn Diners.  Coming soon: Recipes using Kamut and buckwheat rigatoni and Kamut and quinoa gemelli.  As I said, to each his own.



Deep Knish



I reviewed the newly updated Redeye Grill and its “dancing shrimp” in September.

          Chopped-liver king Shelly Fireman decides to add a touch of sensuous finesse to his earthy repertoire. Shelly Fireman hears voices, most of which are his own. He's not too interested in back talk from architects or interior designers or famous chefs. The cash registers at Trattoria Dell'Arte, Redeye Grill, Brooklyn Diner USA, Fiorello's, and Fireman's of Brooklyn tell him New Yorkers like lobster rolls, dancing shrimp, sixteen-inch hot dogs, and matzo balls in their chicken soup.



Here’s the Diner’s juicy burger with fries and a dill pickle.

          Now his voices have convinced him Shelly's New York should be about sensuous eating. That dictates restoring Art Deco details to what once was a Horn & Hardart Automat, hanging a painting of plump -- or may I say voluptuous? -- women dancing, and commissioning a joyful frieze of naked frolicking grown-ups in what he calls the Temptation Room. And his seared foie gras hugging a hamburger on toasted brioche with caramelized onions and apple slices cooked in the oozings is suitably lewd, possibly even illegal, but delicious. 



A Memory of Shelly’s New York



For a while Shelly drew friends and fans to the north side of 57th Street with Shelly’s Tradizionale.

          "It's classic to do fish 'n' chips in three or four battered pieces," someone dares to inform Fireman at the short-lived Shelly’s New York . "I gotta do it big," he insists. "Otherwise the Jewish people will complain I'm giving them little leftover pieces."




The old fashioned mac-and-cheese was once just $5.95 and my favorite dish on the menu.

          The unabashedly retro macaroni and cheese, homage to the old Automat favorite, is just $5.95 and possibly the best dish in the house. Of course, we elect to have ours on the $18.95 combo of sides, a platter of sheer carbohydrate and fat, including "Milty's spoon bread," a tall tangle of fried onion rings, and a potato patty called "it's not a knish." 

          The waiter is sure we are candidates for dessert and sets the tray of mockups under our noses. I order the triple chocolate pie and four forks. "What? No strawberry cheesecake?" cries one of my guests. "If you have the cheesecake, I have to get the pineapple double somersault," his wife threatens.

          Maybe you'll love Peter Max's blowups of what look like finger painting and Red Grooms's Last Supper at Shelly's. Maybe not. Personally, I think I speak for voluptuous women everywhere when I say I find Shelly's canvas of dancing pudgies offensive. Especially when his wife, Marilyn, is a paradigm of thin.

          "They're not fat, they're beautiful," says Fireman. "They're not fat, they're blue," says Marilyn. 



Brooklyn Diner Nightcap

           Still feeling the emotional disorientation of Athol Fugard’s powerful Exits and Entrances, we exit the theater, hungry, too. My idea of the perfect nightcap is Brooklyn Diner’s superlative burger, a “plump and exultant napkin ripper,” as I wrote in “Best of New York,” a few months ago. 




The Caesar tosses chopped romaine with croutons and a cheddar crisp on top.

          Every since writing it, I’d been craving it: juicy, just patted lightly into form, layered with cheddar and crisp bacon, under a toque of fried onion rings. Tonight, the fries are especially good.  My guy and I share a burger and a better-than-most Caesar, with its crusty parmesan crouton almost as big as the salad plate.  Not classic, I agree, but I’m not classic myself. 

          With three burgers, the salad, and a hunky wedge of strawberry-topped cheesecake for the four of us, our immensely satisfying supper cost $35 a couple. This ghost of the old Lindy’s signature dessert comes with a pitcher of warm chocolate sauce…supposedly to drown the cake in chocolate.  The thought of that makes me shudder. It’s a sacrilege and an insult to great cheesecake. I say pour the chocolate into a soup spoon and eat it. A little chocolate is nice before bedtime. April 7, 2007.



Brooklyn Diner Scratches an Itch for Pastrami


The year Fireman got fired up curing his own pastrami, the kitchen served pastrami Cordon Bleu.

          Restaurateurs and critics should never mix. I know it. I remind myself to be wary.  Defiance is fraught. Some restaurateurs die a thousand deaths if you fault their meatballs. Some say they don’t give a damn. Either response creates anxiety all around. Shelly Fireman – the Jewish mother behind the Fireman Hospitality Group - seems particularly fragile. 

          We have a long history.  I felt an odd, pleasing chemistry when friends introduced us in Tuscany 10 years ago. We were soon cruising nearby towns in search of cuisinary adventure. He is an advertiser as well.  Even so, I was surprised when he called in May to tell me about the new menu at Brooklyn Diner. Normally he skulks in secret leaving me to my own sleuthing. But clearly, he could not control himself. He’d been seized by his new affection, an obsession with pastrami.



The boss didn't mind admitting he stole the pastrami egg roll concept from Red Farm.

          He was not happy with the state of the Diner’s corned beef or pastrami, he told me, so he’d summoned pastrami mavens for tutorials, bought a $20,000 machine to cure his own meat and revamped the menu.  He seemed amused confessing that he’d stolen the idea for his pastrami egg roll from Eddie Schoenfeld and Joe Ng’s brilliant creation at RedFarm.

          The Brooklyn Diner (on 57th Street) was on my dining hit parade long before I met Fireman. I remember when there was a jukebox in every booth and later, when the fearlessly creative entrepreneur replaced them with toasters to glorify the Diner’s new brunch. He was thrilled with the concept: “Customers can toast their own bread.” The toasters soon disappeared.  Was it the insurance company warning of possible burns or electrocution?



On my most recent visit to the Diner, I couldn’t resist the kugel – sweet noodle pudding.

          Now, new menu. New typography. “A Bowl of Real Chicken Soup” and “Diner Stalwarts” in red, the corned beef and pastrami collection boxed in blue.  “Our pastrami is cured 7 days, smoked 4 hours with white hickory, steamed 4 hours & hand-sliced just for you,” the italics promise. The kugel is sweet. “Add a cup of chicken soup or split pea soup to any dish, $4.95.




Brooklyn Diner Opens in Dubai


          The pastrami, corned beef and Shelly Fireman’s 15 bite hot dog will all be Halal when the Brooklyn Diner opens in a Dubai hotel enclave on February 15 with its “finer diner” menu almost intact, including kugel with the oven roasted Dodger pot roast. Officially connected to the Intercontinental Hotel – permitting alcohol service in a mostly dry country – the Dubai outpost will look like the faux diner on West 57th, with neon, a maître d’ in a tux and sneakers and Brooklyn photographs by WeeGee. A supply of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup has been ordered for authentic egg creams. Alas, there will be no seltzer.

          Brooklyn Diner Dubai will have the same Ebbets Field mural, outsize dessert display and brass plaques with names of American celebrities and sport figures plus locals expected to become regulars, said Don Fitzgerald, producer of the out-of-town show. Like maybe, the Sultan of Brunei.

          In deference to Muslim custom, there will be no organ meats (86 the chicken liver with hot schmaltz). That will be hickory-smoked beef-bacon on the burger, beef sausage on the pizza, and diced smoked turkey in the pea soup. They will call it egg bread, not challah, and it will be Sicilian sea salt not kosher. You don’t want to be too Jewish in Dubai. February 1, 2011.





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