20 November 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Fortune House?"

Dining at Fortune House in Brooklyn Heights, for my latest Eater "Who Goes There?" column, reminded me of the long gone Jade Mountain in the East Village. How I miss that place.

Who Goes There? Fortune House

Chinese restaurants that hold their ground while garnering little notice outside the immediate area are hardly unusual. You'll find plenty in Chinatown, and every neighborhood has its stubbornly tenacious take-out joint. What makes Fortune House a noteworthy case is, while is does a steady take-away business, it also fills a great many of its tables every night. Plus, for 26 years it has held on to a prime piece of Henry Street real estate in Brooklyn Heights that assumedly should have been converted into a Duane Reade or Starbucks long ago. What can it be about the pink tablecloths, green walls and Cantonese-American-style duck-sauce-to-pineapple-and-fortune-cookie cooking that keeps them coming back?

Well, maybe it's the $4.25 tiki drinks! Fortune House serves Mai Tais, Zombies and Navy Grogs. These aren't retro Polynesian cocktails. Fortune House knows not irony. They're the genuine, time-warp items, the drinks your Mom and Dad used to throw back, complete with tiny umbrella and little plastic sword skewering a cherry and orange slice. "The cocktails are great," encouraged a regular. "And they're so cheap!" I didn't need much pushing. Worrying about being passed some rotgut, I watched the "bartender" (really, a young Asian women of about 17) make my Mai Tai. I saw five ingredients go in, two of which were rum, one recognizable as Myers. I started to feel pretty good about my drink. The girl then mixed the concoction with a shake that wouldn't wake a baby. The result wasn't good, and it wasn't bad. It was $4.25. And totally worth it.

The ever-whirling help must have read some of the reviews on the Internet that characterize the service at Fortune House as "indifferent." Though distracted by sheer business, the waitresses rarely left a table unattended and even occasionally smiled. Overseeing all was a fierce female manager in glasses and black pant suit. She was always dropping off some dish or picking up a check, cleaning, clearing, inquiring and sometimes chatting with the more regular of the regulars.

Though all the patrons seem to be from the extreme immediate area, there are two customer worlds at Fortune House. The old people tend to take a table. Elderly couples who linger over a glass of red wine at the end of their meal like they're at Le Bernardin. Mothers being taken out to dinner by their middle-aged sons and daughters. Old friends hashing over their ailments. Solitary, white-haired gentlemen who nurse multiple Martinis. Meanwhile, the young worker bees—running-panted, ear-budded, iPhoned—come in for take-out, waiting for their order on the long cushioned bench by the cloudy fish tank. An exception to this rule was a single hipster couple—thin, bearded, confidently cool guy, and his less certain girlfriend, in black bangs, babydoll dress and many bracelets—who dined in. They alone weren't having dinner in a Chinese restaurant. They were "having dinner in a Chinese restaurant."

But everyone—old sitters and young takers—seemed weirdly serene. That is perhaps the main attraction of a place like Fortune House, aside from the very cheap prices. It's comforting, never unsettling. The menu-decor-fish tank today will be the menu-decor-fish tank of tomorrow. Imagining the weary, perhaps mildly depressed, 20-something New Yorkers taking their hot cartons home to eat while watching their favorite program on a cold, November night, I felt comforted for them.

Or maybe that was the Zombie.
— Brooks of Sheffield


Someone Said said...

I Chinese places like this. I think every major city has, or should have at least one. We have one in Columbus, the drinks are strong, and served in appropriate ceramicware.

Mr. Lee said...

Love Fortune House and have been eating there since they opened... Especially good are the steamed shrimp dumplings.

Another great entry on an always great blog!

sue said...

Fortune House is no "Chow Mein Palace" from the 50's as seen in other parts of Brooklyn -- it is relatively "new" compared to the places reviewed for this series before (late 70's?) and really is no different than any typical chinese restaurant in any neighborhood. You are right about the clientele -- but as someone who ordered take out from there 25 years ago, I can assure you I will not become a table resident in my dodderage. And, 25 years ago, the tables were FILLED on a Saturday night with families, couples, groups of young women, etc.

Anonymous said...

Well, Fortune House has been my neighbor for years, but it does tend to serve as a senior meet-and-greet-and-greet center a bit too much. And yes, I'm a "senior" -- though aware that when people are lined up outside, waiting for tables, it's time for me to pay my bill and head home.