July 16, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Brooklyn Diner Scratches an Itch for Pastrami


It tastes like a cordon bleu of chicken breast with pastrami instead of ham.

It tastes like a cordon bleu of chicken breast with pastrami instead of ham.


          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.  ”Oh please, don’t tell me,” he has begged. “I’m going to cry.”


Shelly Fireman in a contemplative moment at Fiorello. Photo: Steven Richter


          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 pastrami egg roll is an admitted “borrow” from RedFarm’s brilliant original.


          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.


I’m a fan and a regular at the original Brooklyn Diner, ideal when you have kids in tow.


          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? My guy and I go there often after a movie.  It’s perfect for friends or readers with kids in tow, with something from every ethnic enclave in Brooklyn and a kids’ menu if all else fails.


          It’s a diner, but don’t expect outer borough prices. The “Finer Diner,” it proclaims in neon out front, and the maître d’ greets you in a tuxedo and sneakers, even when he is a she.  My name is all over the place – on the menu and in signs overhead, with quotes from old reviews, naming the chicken soup “best of New York,” and hailing the strawberry shortcake as “worth an hour on the treadmill.” Did I say that? Yes.


You can count on a Fireman pig-in-blanket to be piggier than most other pigs.


          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.


My prototype kugel is savory, not soft and sweet like the Diner’s version.


          Cut to the quick. The corned beef I tasted was a shade too lean. The pastrami is first-rate, juicy and peppery, piled high on rye and served with pretty good cole slaw and a serious pickle ($18.95).  It’s remarkable, too, crisped, instead of bacon, on the cheeseburger with good hand-cut fries.  That’s the way a burger should be - caramelized and handled with delicacy. ($19.50 compared to $17.95 for the everyday patty with frizzled onions and sauerkraut that I once rated “Best Burger in New York.”)


Crisped pastrami may be as good as bacon on the Brooklyn cheeseburger.


          You’re not just paying for the showbiz, it’s the real estate, steps from Carnegie Hall. “Meet the Reubens” is a  category all by itself: Pastrami Reuben, Corned Beef Reuben, Turkey Reuben on rye or the pastrami-turkey combo. There’s corned beef and cabbage too, and corned beef hash. But we’re trying to survive here.


Salty baked noodles with ham is not macaroni by any stretch, but I find myself eating it.


          We’re just nibbling the pigs in a blanket - made from a big fat special beef dog – a starter to share. Alas, the homage to RedFarm’s brilliant Katz’s pastrami egg roll introduced at the now sadly defunct Food Parc is a soggy bust. “Our Famous Noodle Kugel” is wildly sweet, not our posse’s style.  Calling salty baked tagliolini noodles with ham “Shelly’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese” ($20.95) has always annoyed me, a classic macaroni lover. The first time I tasted it, I was so outraged at the impersonation, I sent it back. The menu claims it’s another “Best of New York.”  Obviously not crowned by me.  But when I think of it as a baked pasta I find myself packing it away. With a pound of lobster, the mac is $36.


          When Fireman boasted of pastrami stuffed inside Brooklyn Diner fried chicken, I envisioned crusty thighs and legs larded with cured meat.  What arrived was a pastrami battered chicken Cordon Bleu on waffles.  White meat. I hate white meat.  But it was delicious.


I come craving Chinese chicken salad and take half home for breakfast.


          I don’t adjust easily to change, but even with some effete additions - lotus chips and even more chicken - my favorite chopped Chinese chicken salad with wonton crisps and canned mandarin orange was still marvelous. I always order it. If no one wants to share, I take half home for breakfast.  Recently my guy has been craving the 15 bite all-beef hot dog – a fat monster - with frizzled onion rings and a badge to wear that says you ate it. Can’t finish that either.


No one I know has ever been able to polish off the 15" hot dog, so I always get a taste.


          When we’re with friends, we insist they must taste the strawberry blonde cheesecake so we can taste it too. We never let the waiter pour the pitcher of Valrhona chocolate on top – I pour that on a finger and lick it.  Since the tiered dream cake display is the first sight as you walk in, there is already a subliminal message, “You must have dessert.” Perhaps you’ll chose the chocolate blackout cake or a new addition, “Big Mama’s Original Red Velvet.”


All the cakes of Brooklyn are gathered here in marvelous fantasy exaggeration. 


          Alas, on pastrami night, the mythic cheesecake had somehow become outrageously sweet and we couldn’t taste the tang of cheese or a hint of lemon. I confess I sent Shelly a note suggesting he taste it himself pronto. He did not respond. Still by now, I can only hope it’s back to its youthful exuberance.


212 West 57th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. 212 977 1957. Sunday and Monday 8 am to 11 pm. Tuesday through Saturday 8 am to midnight.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 23012, All rights reserved.


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