July 24, 2000 | Insatiable Critic

Deep Knish

Chopped-liver king Shelly Fireman decides to add a touch of sensuous finesse to his earthy repertoire; Larry Forgione brings a touch of class to Times Square.

        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. Now his voices have convinced him Shelly's New York should be about sensuous eating. That dictates restoring Art Deco detail 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. 

        If it's about the senses, oysters are a must. A duet of shuckers in straw boaters unlock them to order, $2 to $2.50 each or $122 on the Royale Grand Platter with two lobsters, Alaskan king crab legs, and an aquarium of other sea critters. That could be a sensible after-Carnegie Hall supper. But we feel rash and have persuaded friends to join us in a death-defying binge, starting with an old-world New England chowder, devilishly creamy but not so dense you can't taste the clams. We like them in the shell, too, clams Casino, whole with bacon crisps. A garlicky Caesar with just the right twang of invisible anchovy and a Parmesan-crusted "twizzle" is the perfect palate-cleanser. Sensuality is not for 'fraidy cats. 

        Not that sense-tickling need be sense-numbing. Fat-phobes and acolytes of moderation will be happy eating pristine lumps of crab with bits of hot pepper and onion over shredded iceberg lettuce, seared yellowfin sashimi, steamed lobster, even something as uptight as chicken paillard with asparagus-and-red-pepper salad in a balsamic glaze. Devout gourmands like us may hit the wall sharing the four-inch-thick $64 prime "Manhattan Cut" steak for two, but then we've already pigged out on spicy lobster and shrimp fra diavolo (enough to feed two sopranos and a tenor) as well as the fish and chips -- a large rectangle of battered cod smartly seasoned, with sensational tartar sauce spooned from a big bowl and great fries. ("It's classic to do fish 'n' chips in three or four battered pieces," someone dares to inform Fireman. "I gotta do it big," he insists. "Otherwise the Jewish people will complain I'm giving them little leftover pieces.") 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. 

Shelly's New York, 104 West 57th Street (212-245-2422). Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; midday menu, 3 to 5 p.m.; dinner, Sunday and Monday 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V. 

        Incurable romantics, even those disguised as incurable cynics -- all of us who love this haughty, naughty, hungry-for-love, motley village -- are cheering and jeering the new Times Square. By official fiat, it has become an overblown parody of its classic neon image. 

        What, you ask, is chef-master Larry Forgione's name doing on the discreet chrome plaque at the entrance to the new Times Square Hilton, where little brass trolls frolic at shin level and on the big clock above? Representing what? we ask. "Time and money," says the doorman cheerfully. Ride an elevator to the Hilton lobby. Wander past nobody you want to know at the Pinnacle Bar, and you're in Forgione's sleekly dapper Restaurant Above (202 feet from the sidewalk, to be precise), with a non-daunting view of the Chock Full o' Nuts building, the Times tower, the Carter Hotel, and, if you stretch your neck, the New Jersey Divide. Forgione can be dour, but last time we met, he couldn't stop smiling. With Manhattan Prime, his steakhouse at the new Battery Park Embassy Suites, and a 12,000-square-foot catering setup in Liberty State Park, the Godfather of the free-range chicken can now imagine sending all his kids (grandchildren too) through college. 

        He's not here tonight. No sign, either, of whisk-for-hire Jonathan Waxman, the chef's longtime chum and consulting partner. Nor is this Larry Forgione American cooking. Instead, all the predictable name-brand products have gone deliciously Asian in the hands of Kazuto and Vicki Fan Matsusaka, a talented husband-and-wife act from the left coast. True, prudence requires recognizable filet mignon with garlic whipped potatoes, and a luscious veal chop for out-of-towners who suffer culinary agoraphobia or fear of frying. But my intrepid coterie and I are grooving on the bolder "small plates," mostly big enough for four or more nibbles: Fragrantly spicy lamb shreds to wrap in elegant leaves of lettuce and radicchio. Salmon carpaccio with rainbow radish salad in a drizzle of warm ponzu-sesame vinaigrette. Tempura'd soft-shell crab on poblano-cilantro-spiked soba noodles. A $3 oyster shooter with shiso, saké, quail egg, wasabi, and soy, not in a shot glass but in a soup spoon. Since most are so gently priced ($6 to $8), less-than-thrilling pot stickers at $4 each provoke sticker shock. 

        Arriving late one evening, we find one of our guests contentedly sipping a drink and studying the menu. "They were all wonderfully solicitous," she reports. "But isn't it an odd place? I feel like I'm in Cleveland." I look around for a waiter. They scurry about like windup toys, ignoring us. I raise my hand in the air. I wiggle my hand. I wave my arm violently. I shake a napkin: Three managers huddle over a computer. Waiters whip out of the kitchen delivering food, but I am invisible. "I want to drop a glass," I announce. I drop a fork. Nearby eaters look up, but no one on the payroll notices. 

        At last, a barman does a graceful jeté, kneels tableside and takes our drink order. But instantly we are invisible again. Have we been reading too much Harry Potter for our own good? Somehow we can still appreciate Chinese roast duck with stone-fruit chutney; sesame-crusted yellowfin on vermicelli; and sensational grilled salmon, its skin crispy and nutty, the flesh tremulous as satin, accompanied by edamame succotash and soft mounds of corn pudding. 

        The dining room's gracious arched ceiling and its vexing hourglass trapezoid table base that doesn't let you cross your legs is even more handsome by daylight. Now some of the feisty little starters like five-spice marinated-chicken salad and the lobster-and-foie-gras salad with mango and green papaya grow into lunchtime "big plates" ($16 to $28). But one small soft-shell crab in a too-chewy roll seems stingy. The anemic watercress soup of the day makes me wonder if any of the high-price help is in the kitchen. A decent seafood-pasta special has no discernible style. Six dollars for grapefruit juice feels brutishly unfriendly. But at least we have dancing attendance. Finally, the crew is on its toes. 

        They can't fool me. I know the Times Square Hilton isn't Cleveland. This is just another astonishment in an ever-changing city. I doubt that Swifty's white-bread clan or Rao's eclectic habitués or the Four Seasons' immutables will soon be landing here. I can imagine buses disgorging the Westchester ladies who matinee. And if the kitchen and serving crew learn to march in sync, Above will make a perfect perch for pretheater dinner: $29.95 if you check in by 6:30. Meanwhile, it's a convenient escape for Si Newhouse's darlings and other media transplants to the neighborhood, with rooms to book if tuna tartare leads to spicier canoodlings. 

Restaurant Above, the Hilton at Times Square, 234 West 42nd Street (212-642-2626). Breakfast, 6:30 to 11 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.

Patina Restaurant Group