You know the conversation, the one that starts with “I never go above 14th Street”? Seems that for all its pretentiousness it can serve as decent advice when hunting for quality eats. Sure, many inhabitants of the upper stratosphere of the NYC restaurant world call “uptown” home, but it sure seems easier to find a casual yet professional, enjoyable yet tasty, food experience downtown. Of course places that fit this bill inhabit “uptown” also, just at a lower ratio – feel free so share some of your favorites in the comments below.
While we do not subscribe to the theory plenty of others do, and unfortunately for them decisions about where to meet up don’t always go their way. One eventually gets dragged to some place in midtown for drinks at an old work colleague’s going away party, meals with out-of-towners, or even the early dinner with a Metro North-er.
If you are not going to play it safe with a steakhouse or another place you are 100% confident about there is another new option up in the lower 50’s called Fireside, and we were invited to come by and have a taste for ourselves. Apropos for some of our recent tablemates who vigilantly espouse the 14th and under stance, Fireside’s chef has a long and illustrious history serving hungry East and West Villagers food that is enjoyable to eat, easy to share and very often spot on delicious. Sam DeMarco initially burst on the scene with First, an early entrant into the industrial chic as a restaurant design concept game. He took the esthetic to the table as well, using bolts and other fabricated metal gear as serving pieces and conceiving a set of dishes and cocktails that were both playful and delicious. His tiny tini’s at First were an interesting and new-to-us approach, with a tiny glass carafe of mixed martini life tableside on ice in a metal bowl for maximum chilliness to your last sip - a topic that Bruni covers on the blog.
His playful food eventually caught the attention of the nations’ most playful city, Las Vegas and Sam closed First and headed out to open restaurants at the Bellagio. Back in NYC Sam started up a host of new places - Merge, DeMarco’s Room, hotel restaurant District and even the seafood menu at recently closed mini-danceclub Movida – once again serving his mix of cocktail friendly delectable treats.
Fireside, his newest effort is housed in the lobby of the Omni Berkshire Hotel on 52nd and Madison. He draws on many of the pieces of his various projects to put this puzzle together under the banner of "Cocktail Cuisine", for him this includes well concocted cocktails, a large list of sharable plates under the heading “conversation PIECES”, and healthy selection of proteins across nine full sized mains.
More about Fireside after the jump.
Drinks are divided up into two sections - signature and classic – but truth be told both categories take some liberties. From the classic side we were intrigued and wowed by the BBQ Bloody Mary with a bit of Stubb’s BBQ sauce in it and tablemates enjoyed the 38 Degree Manhattan. On the signature side the winner was not easy to anoint, but we will say that the Chef Sammy’s Cucumber Gimlet is so good it can make a wine drinker go running to gin and the Kumquat Daisy with Knob Creek bourbon pulls off a lovely transformation of the classic American spirit.
The “conversation PIECES” are composed of a few items of this or a pile of that, all so that you and yours can get a bit of everything. The staff is quite accommodating and for a price will be glad to add an extra piece or two of items onto the dish to round out the plate for your table, a welcome reprieve from less flexible establishments. The mood of our table would certainly have suffered if two people had been forced to share one of the tasty Short Rib Tacos topped with corn, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa. A single bite of the well balanced take on a crispy taco from our childhood would just not have cut it. Other winning starters tasted during our visits included Mojito Lamb Chops flamed tableside with some 151 rum, little lobster rolls served on tiny brioche buns, smoked paprika Fireside Fries, and The Original Mini Burger which is a holdover from the ole First but likely was not the first of its kind. The only item we tried that did not work was the Foie Gras Candy Apples, which came up short on multiple fronts.
Sampling on the larger plates was not deep, but a Smoked Prime Rib did the job, while a Diver Sea Scallop “Wellington” loaded with black truffle, foie gras and chanterelles was decadent but felt confused. Since the menu is tied to the fire theme, shaped like a matchbook and professionally printed, it is not scheduled to be reprinted soon which allows the kitchen some flexibility with specials. A side of homemade potato chips treated like nachos with melted cheese and black truffles studded throughout was simply wonderful, and a perfectly grilled tuna steak with a plethora of sautéed wild mushrooms hit just the right note. Salads, pizzas, sides like Creamy Cheese Grits, and an interesting looking and quite modern take on Pot Au Feu round out the menu. While you may not need them after all the food and beverages you might consume, desserts including tableside s'mores with homemade marshmallows, a tasting plate of cheesecakes and chocolate bread pudding with malted chocolate ice cream are on offer.
The room is still a bit of a work in progress, with approval from the Fire Department still pending for some fire themed decor. Once the green light is given look for the giant fireplace and glass fire boxes hanging from the ceiling to really bring the room toward the original vision. Elsewhere in the design realm we thought that the use of multiple varieties of molding to hug corners, run along walls and frame the 20 foot tall fireplace were a novel and quirky touch.
If you make it by, let us know what you think of the place.
Omni Berkshire Hotel
19 E. 52nd St. at Madison Ave.