Cititour: The New York Guide to Events, Restaurants, Music, and Nightlife



Cuisine: American

Chef: Sam DeMarco


Cititour Review: In 1994, a restaurant opened that would change the world of food as it was once known. It would make it tastier, racier, livelier, and more often than not, smaller. This restaurant was not located in a glitzy palace in Midtown, nor was it in the hands of Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges, Eric Ripert, or some other critically acclaimed culinarian. It was a modest neighborhood spot, often found with doors thrown open to the street, located on a sleepy stretch of First Avenue. In the kitchen was a small, stocky firecracker of a guy with a huge personality. That man was Sam DeMarco and that restaurant was First. To be sure, First was not a laboratory of new fangled culinary technique, but it was an incubator for fun. Indeed, no one went to First without having a blast, the vibe being a product of a precise combination of Tiny ‘Tinis (miniature Martinis served in bulk) and Sammy's jolly good eats. DeMarco became known far and wide for his Lollipop Buffalo wings-plump, meaty pops slicked with buttery heat worthy of tears of joy and pain. And then there were his juicy mini burgers, his over-stuffed mini tacos, and I seem to remember some great swordfish creation. Sammy was a master of fun, and First was his own personal amusement park of food and drink. The ride lasted a solid ten years until First lost its lease and shuttered in 2004. I feel a Lollipop Buffalo Wing-shaped plaque should be mounted somewhere on that façade in his honor. Since then, Sammy has worked on some other solid projects-Merge, District-and has done some growing up. He has since married and had a baby. With his new-found adulthood, he's opened Fireside, a $3 million restaurant in the Omni Berkshire Place, a rather glitzy, rather mature hotel in Midtown. While the digs are quite civilized-20-foot ceilings, soothing lighting, polished floors, winged arm chairs, tufted leather sofas, crown moldings, and grand crystal chandeliers-the food has not changed all that much. Sammy's message in his cooking is still the same-eating should be good fun. It should be something that makes you smile, have a laugh, and relax. Kathy and I checked out Fireside last week after a screening of Fox Searchlight's "Waitress"-written, directed and starring Adrienne Shelly, who was tragically murdered after the movie's completion in her West Village apartment. The movie, which also stars Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines and Jeremy Sisto, was sweet, sassy, hilarious, smart and heartwarming-one of the best romantic comedies I've seen in a while. It's truly a special movie. Make sure you put it on your list when it's released in May. Unfortunately, I was pretty much a blubbering mess (I cry at commercials) after the movie, and when we arrived at Fireside I looked like I had been punched in the face. I was in need of a drink. Kathy and I sat down at a nice booth for two in front of a glass fireplace hosting a set of tall pillar candles. The fire department hasn't quite approved of the fireplaces so the candles are sort of a substitute. They work fine enough. We had a couple of cocktails-Kathy went for a tart Pisco Sour and I decided on Sammy's Cucumber Gimlet-a refreshing minty gin ride over ice-and looked over the menu, which is divided it between conversation pieces (small plates), pizzas and pastas, salads, and center plates (entrees). I like the set up because it allows for any sort of meal and all degrees of appetite, whether a three course dinner, a couple of snacks after work with happy hour, or a light pre-theater bite. Any way you go, you're gonna want to start with Sammy's classics. His Buffalo lollipops ($13) are as hot and fiery good as ever with a birdbath of Gorgonzola fondue and full-sour housemade pickles. The short rib tacos ($14) show up as well, featuring melting braised beef tucked into miniature crispy tortilla shells garnished with corn, crumbled queso fresco, and diced tomato salsa. The mini-burgers are also in attendance, four all-beef patties, topped with Sammy's secret sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and tomatoes sandwiched in between petite buns ($18). A few new dishes show up alongside Sammy's classics. Some are quite successful, some not so much. Escargots profiteroles ($12) were very pretty all wrapped up in golden robes of puff pastry, but they were shriveled and tasteless on the inside-those snails were scorched by the heat of the cast iron pan and accompanying dose of tableside hot garlic butter. Of the generously portioned pastas, the rigatoni carbonara ($14) was my favorite-wide-ribbed tubes coated in cream and peppered with salty nuggets of pancetta. While the pasta in the wild boar strozzapreti ($13) was perfectly cooked, that ragu begged for a bit more seasoning, as did the oily sautéed forest mushrooms on the lovely ribbons of pappardelle ($16). The flavors were flat and need some waking up. Sammy also turns out a few easy to share flatbread pizzas that are served on sliced in four on rustic wooden planks. The pepperoni ($15) was cheesy and saucy and topped with huge thin slices of pepperoni the size of Twister circles. From the "Center Plates," we tried the "duck L'Orange" ($24), which was a ton of fun, and a ton of food. (Craig had the leftovers for lunch the next day.) Sammy glazes a duck leg and breast in orange, and serves it in thin amazingly juicy slices meant for filling up steamed buns slathered with sriracha duck mayo, and stuffed with pungent (but could be spicier) white kimchee. I've got no complaints about the Fireside lobster rolls ($21) which are fantastic-a duo of Parker house-shaped brioche rolls, slit open at the top like a hot cross bun and filled up like purses with lumps of sweet lobster salad, served with matching espresso cups of hot and creamy lobster chowder, heady with the sea. One of the most impressive plates on the menu was the cornmeal-dusted fried calamari ($13). It gets turned from ordinary to brilliant with the addition of thin slices of fried lemon, circles of spicy, smoky chorizo and a dusting of Spanish paprika. Fried calamari can be so run of the mill and this is one of the most inspired versions I've had. With all this eating, Kathy and I were now feeling a bit like Weebles that wobble and do fall down, so dessert was a course we just couldn't manage. But we did allow ourselves one little treat-housemade mint ice cream served inside little dark chocolate cups. They were like Junior Mints in ice cream form-very refreshing, as was the entire experience of being at Fireside. It's great fun to be there, and in Midtown, it's an antidote to adulthood. That's Sammy's magic. You feel like you're a kid again, and that's not such a bad thing. And at Fireside, it's just a plate of Lollipop Buffalo Wings away.
Review By: Andrea Strong

Neighborhood: East 50s

21 East 52nd Street
New York, NY
(212) 754-5017

Hours: Lunch Mon-Sun 11:30am-2:30pm Dinner Mon-Sun 5pm-10pm Bar Mon-Sun 12noon - 12:30am
Entree Price: $25-30
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard Discover