Mark Drabich Answers to ‘Fishmonger,’ Proudly

Mark Drabich, a human boom box, celebrates the 30th anniversary of Metropolitan, his primo seafood market in Lebanon, by talking it up big time.

Mark Drabich, holding a sea bass and a red snapper. Photo by Matt Rainey

Mark Drabich’s braggadocio is part of his charm. Burly, with a voice as rough as sandpaper, he wears a stingy-brim fedora to keep his bald dome warm at the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point in the Bronx, which he combs through in the wee hours, and in the walk-in coolers of his business, Metropolitan Seafood & Gourmet in Lebanon, which he founded 30 years ago.

At Hunts Point, Drabich picks his fish the way a jeweler selects diamonds. “I get it, I’m a pain in the ass,” he admits. “But it doesn’t matter to me.” He has a story about that, concerning one of his regular dealers.

“I looked through one box of his sea bass, didn’t like it,” he relates. “I went through another box, then three boxes and four. On the sixth, I said, ‘Okay, this is good. I’ll take this box.’

“The guy said, ‘Do me a favor. Next time I get married, you pick my wife for me. I wasn’t as careful picking my wife as you were picking this one damn box of sea bass.’”

When he was younger, Drabich used to go to the wholesale fish market in New York almost every night. Now, at 54, he goes about three nights a week and sends a trusted staffer the other nights. It’s a 140-mile round trip.

“Last night,” he told a recent visitor at Metropolitan, “I left here at 11 pm, went to the market, came back, took a shower and a nap, and was back at work here at 6:30 this morning.” He says he’s never needed more than five hours of sleep a night. “Once a month, on my day off,” he says, “I ferociously nap to recharge.”

Drabich grew up blue-collar in Hillsborough. “My father worked at Johns-Manville, my mother was a school-bus driver for special-education children. I’m half Lebanese, half Slovak. I’m dangerous,” he adds with a smile, “because I can actually handle my alcohol. That’s the Slovak side.”

He first strapped on a fishmonger’s apron at 15, working at the Lobster Dock market in Hillsborough. “I was so proud,” he recalls, “I would wear my dirty apron everywhere, even when I ran errands for my boss.”

After graduating from Stockton State College in 1986 (“the first in my family to go to college”), he landed a sales job at Johnson & Johnson. “I exceeded my monthly numbers and received bonuses,” he says, “but I was unhappy. I needed to be an entrepreneur.”

One of the pleasures of shopping at Metropolitan is tasting before you buy. Photo by Matt Rainey

In 1988, he opened Metropolitan in a 500-square-foot space in Clinton and started working seven days a week. He did not take a vacation for 10 years, finally treating his wife and kids to a trip to Disney World in 1998. In 2011, he moved to the present 4,800-square-foot store in Lebanon.

“When there’s a form that says, ‘Occupation,’ I write down ‘Fishmonger’ with a lot of pride,” he says. He sometimes verges on overstatement: “One of my greatest accomplishments in 30 years,” he says, “is to bring back the profession of fishmonger.” This primarily refers to his staff of 15. Asked to name other markets he considers on a par with Metropolitan in variety and quality as well as house-prepared foods and imported specialties, he responds, “I have yet to see one.”

Not that he doesn’t look. “Believe me, I go into every fish market I pass. I’m driving along and I see a fish market? I pull a hard right turn and my wife says, ‘Where the hell we going?’ I say, ‘I have to check this out.’ If the place is closed, I’m looking in the window.”

He buys only whole fish, largely wild; everything is butchered in-house. “This woman told me she wants every head and bone. I said, ‘You better bring a truck.’”

Metropolitan carries more than 18 varieties of oysters and clams. Kippered salmon is made from scratch. (It’s luscious.) He buys only wild shrimp, but does not disdain all farmed seafood. He sells, for example, certified organic king salmon farmed in British Columbia ($30/pound). He posts photos to Instagram as funky_fishmonger, sends a twice-weekly e-newsletter to 8,000 subscribers, complete with recipes he writes, and hosts pop-up dinners about once a month, sometimes belting out a tune a cappella.

With Dover sole fillet at $55 a pound, Drabich admits, “you don’t come here for bargains; you come for great fish.” Still, he vigorously advocates for species he thinks get no respect, like porgy (“a cousin to red snapper, just as delicious and half the price”), hake (“eats exactly like cod, but is two to three dollars a pound cheaper”) and especially skate. “Skate used to be considered trash fish,” he says. “It’s mild; texturally, it picks up scallop overtones. Make a classic veal Milanese with a piece of skate. I promise you, you will punch a cow in the mouth. You will never eat veal again.”

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  1. Victor E. Sasson

    New Jersey is a big state and I have no desire to travel to Lebanon (wherever that is) for great fish, which I can find at a Whole Foods Market a couple of miles from my Hackensack home. How about a more representative portrait of fishmongers than focusing on one man, no matter how colorful he is? I eat only fish, but I’m not swallowing this profile hook, line and sinker.