Cheating on Pearl with Mary: Lunch at Mary’s Fish Camp

From Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte” (pg. 60):

“I listened as the regulars [at Pearl Oyster Bar] who stole my seat begged the chef to let them eat at Mary’s Fish Camp, which is owned by her former girlfriend. When they split, one kept Pearl, and the other, in one of the great defiant acts of New York restaurant life, opened a restaurant with nearly the same menu just blocks away.

The chef was not pleased with this idea. ‘Come on,’ said the regular. ‘We just want to check it out and report back.’ ‘For what?’ cried the owner. They do the same thing as we do, only here it’s done better.”

I love Pearl Oyster Bar and yet, like a nervous weekend lover, it refuses to meet my family. The first time it closed its doors to us, Michael was in town and I told him, “We’re going to have the best lobster roll in New York.” Our plane had just landed (we flew back together after I surprised mom on Mother’s Day) and after dropping our bags off at my apt, we showed up at Pearl close to 3 pm. It was closed. Chairs on tables, a discouraging site.

This weekend’s rejection was far worse. It being mom’s 50th, this weekend was planned meticulously, like a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah or a combination of both. (“But you’re only 13!” “I don’t care, I love you!”) Every meal had been accounted for except Saturday lunch. “Where should we go?” asked my mom with a hint of warning: none of your weirdo super-gourmet wacko-food fests.

“Pearl Oyster Bar!” I responded joyously. “They have the best lobster rolls in the city.”

My family showed up at my apartment at 12:15 on Saturday. They inspected the rooms for cleanliness and signs of healthy living. “You have a coffee maker now, good,” said my mom. (Making coffee in the morning is the sanest thing a person can do, according to my family.)

“We better get going,” I said, “Pearl’s going to get crowded.”

Controversy arose when I made my mom take the subway.

“I am not taking the subway,” she said huffily.

“Mom,” I pleaded, “there’s nothing dangerous about it. We’re going two stops and it’s right there. It would be ridiculous to take a cab.”

“Brad, tell him I’m not taking a subway.”

Brad is my dad. There was some arguing but finally my persistence won out. We descended the subway stairs on 23rd street and I scanned my cash card 4 times so everyone could pass through. My train karma is such that I usually only wait a few minutes and a train comes. But, of course, this being the hottest day in New York history (it hit 100 that day, I believe) the train took forever to come. The family was none to happy.

When we finally ascended the stairs on Bleeker street we were all sweaty, angry and ready for food. And it was in this condition that Pearl greeted us with its shiny ass in the air: chairs on the tables yet again and a sign in the window with the hours. Saturday it’s only open at night.

The death glare my family gave me would have melted steel.

And yet I had an idea. I recalled that Amanda Hesser passage I opened with. “Hey!” I said, “There’s a spin-off restaurant called Mary’s Fish Camp that’s owned by the ex-lover of the woman who owns this place. They have the same food! Let me call 411 and see where it is.”

Everyone was suspicious but I pressed on. And sure enough I got through to someone at Mary’s who kindly directed me to their not-too-distant location on Charles and West 4th. My sweaty family made its way down Bleeker—really, it was awfully hot out–until we turned on Charles and saw these glass windows with its welcoming graphic:

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Once inside, you’d think my family would breath a sigh of relief, but the A/C was barely working and fans were spinning rapidly.

“Oh Adam,” said my mom, “The AC’s no good.”

“Once you come inside,” said the woman behind the counter, “You’ll feel it.”

There were no tables available so we all sat at the counter and with the AC right behind us we began to cool off. We all ordered iced teas and drank them quickly down.

The menu was examined and mom made the executive decision that we’d share two tomato cucumber salads and each get a lobster roll. “Sounds good to me,” I said.

So in the game of Mary’s vs. Pearl, I’ll tell you now that Mary’s wins round one and Pearl wins round two. Round one is the salad contest. Amanda Hesser rhapsodizes over the Pearl Caesar Salad, “The tender romaine leaves sagged a little under a salty, tangy dressing and a cloud of garlic. Every few bites I got dabs of anchovy and tough little croutons.” After having followed her recipe for it and then eaten the real thing, that salad’s not for me. It’s too deconstructed: the garlic, anchovy and olive oil are never emulsified together, they each exist separately and that to me is not a Caesar.

I much prefer this tomato cucumber feta salad at Mary’s:

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Essentially this is a Greek salad in the exact same spirit as the ones we ate in Greece and the one I made at home upon my return. This was even better in many ways. The dressing was richer in vinegar and had nice bright herbs in there too. I loved the kalamata olives and the freshness of the tomatoes and cucumbers. On a hot summer day, you couldn’t ask for a better salad.

As for the lobster roll…

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This was indeed very good, but the trophy goes to Pearl still because Mary’s was too mayonaissey for my taste. Though, in its defense, when I look at the picture of my Pearl lobster roll:

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It looks like it has a similar ratio of mayonnaise to lobster. The fries were equally good at both places. Mom subbed her fries for grilled corn and she LOVED her corn on the cob.

“This is too good,” she said, gobbling her corn. I tried a bite and it was indeed delicious. We asked the woman behind the bar what they put on it and she was evasive but eventually revealed a combination of cayenne pepper and celery salt.

I don’t think my family loved their Mary’s Fish Camp experience—they much prefer the ritzier uptown spots with solid air conditioning and plenty of tables for the having. “I liked the food,” said mom, “I just didn’t like the ambience.”

This is a matter of taste because I much prefer the ambience of Mary’s Fish Camp to anywhere uptown. Same goes for Pearl which is equally cozy and equally charming. In the battle of Mary’s vs. Pearl, it’s not really a battle but two expressions of the same idea. If one’s closed when you arrive, by all means try the other. Or–and this is a revolutionary idea–you might call ahead and avoid the painful site of chairs on tables when you arrive. But it’s more fun to take the chance, isn’t it?

5 comments

  1. Being from the west coast and never tasting lobster rolls, I was told on my maiden trip to NYC that I MUST go to the Pearl for the best lobster rolls in town, which I did. I was greatly disappointed to learn that lobster rolls were nothing more than lobster in mayo with some celery and onion – just tuna salad only fancier, i.e. lobster instead of tuna (and much more expensive!) The roll was very ordinary. And the whole thing was grossly expensive. Great disappointment.

  2. I like Mary’s better — they use more lemon, and I love lemon to cut through the oiliness of all that mayo. I actually thought Pearl’s was mayonaissier. But I’ve been to Pearl’s only once. And you’ve been to Mary’s only once. So maybe we just got super-mayonnaisey batches of the lobster that day.

  3. The Mermaid Inn has a lobster roll to beat both Pearl and Mary’s. Better flavor, less mayo, a tastier bun, and better fries. I also tried the Black Pearl, which tastes about like Pearl, but is set in a shitty dive bar in the East Village. Mermaid Inn wins my lobster roll contest by a landslide.

  4. Ok so, having grown up in Akron Ohio, on the north coast of our great country, I moved to NY State and spent 20 years there, 3 in Woodstock, 14 in NYC, the last 3 in Westchester. Not knowing the dates of establishment, and having lived far too much of my Manhattan experience on the Upper East Side, moving back to Akron to be with the love of my life in February of 2000, I know not how remiss I may have been in not having been to Pearl’s or Mary’s.

    So not ever having had a lobster roll, on a recent trip to Boothbay Maine, I had the occassion to try them twice. Both times they were on some variant of an ever so lightly toasted split hot dog roll. Excellent choice. The first one seemed to have nothing but big chunks and lovely fresh flakes of lobster just piled onto it. Perhaps there was a little something like the above mentioned lemon juice in it, but nothing really evident to the neophyte. I also went crazy that first time and ordered a Crab roll as well.

    The lobster roll was OK. I mean the lobster meat was fresh and cool and good, but it seems the experience catered to either the blue collar elation of having a bunch of lobster, or this is simply the purist approach. I knew not. The crab roll rocked my world. It was sweet and wonderful, period. A local Sushi bar makes a hand roll with very similar tasting and textured crab and cucumber. I found myself in Boothbay making sure NOT to say how good it would be with a little wasabi and soy.. or mentioning out loud that I’m a Yankee fan.

    The second lobster roll I had was only different in that there was the tiniest bit of celery involved. The menu actually claimed there ws mayo in it, but certainly nothing detectable in this batch. I actually chose to order a side of mayo for the bun. It was quite nice, but makes me think that the TRUE lobster roll is really, for the most part a pile o’ lobster on a roll, period. And as the mayo, surprisingly, (I am a huge mayo guy) didn’t really enhance the experience a whole lot for me, I’m thinking what I had is what you’re supposed to have and that’s the tatse to embrace or acquire.

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