October 15, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
No Quack at Ducks Eatery
Chef Will Horowitz pours buttermilk dashi on smoked blue fish platter.
No insult meant to Ducks Eatery, but there were a dozen places downtown or across the bridge everyone was talking about that I wanted to go to. But drat, they don’t take reservations. I’ve decided the night’s too short to hang out on a sidewalk for an hour or two.
Here’s an authentic East Village vibe with a barrel ceiling of brick.
“I’ll book at Ducks,” said my chef friend. “I hear it’s underrated.” Underrated? Not now. Not anymore. Alas it seems the house only reserves for chefs and friends, or if you want a whole hog or a clambake. And perversely, there is no duck on tonight’s menu among the oddball mix of offerings.
See smoke, smell smoke: savor blowfish ceviche with shrimp, calamansi and corn.
But I’m dazzled and bemused by the are-you-kidding inventions of chef Will Horowitz.
Buttermilk dashi on smoked bluefish with crushed huckleberries in foam. Blowfish ceviche with shrimp, calamansi, corn and applewood smoke in a canning jar. The smoke hits your nose when you open the jar.
Smoked brisket, pickled greens and clams lurk in Yakamein soup with coconut crème.
It is not an evening for summer cocktails. I am unmoved by my improvisational Manhattan. (A new drink list better reflects the season now). The bluefish could be less cooked. And the noodles in the too-tepid “Yakamein” soup – clams, pickled greens, coconut crème and brisket -- are not quite cooked enough. The clams are tough too.
Dee’s nuts blend cashews, Benton’s bacon, Cocoa Krispies and Bing cherries.
But what I’m eating is mostly pretty good, even very good, if not rocking. Prices are amazing too, starting at $5, nothing more than $14. It begins with “Dee’s Nuts” -- a marvelous, weirdo mix of cashews, Benton’s bacon, Cocoa Krispies and dried Bing cherries in a brown paper bag. None of us can stop eating them, even after we are finishing off the blowfish concoction and tasting charred eggplant with piri piri, lemon zest and mint, wishing the eggplant were more melted.
Som Tom salad is a citric toss of raw butternut squash ribbons, wax beans and cashews.
I’m charmed by his take on a Northern Thai salad, citrus-laced ribbons of raw butternut squash, purple wax beans, and cashews. Then lush, fatty, hickory-smoked St. Louis ribs, just tender enough, take us to another planet. Big lime-jerk-rubbed chicken wings are left whole -- hot, sweet and sticky -- four for just $12.
Three lush fatty Hickory smoked St. Louis ribs are just $12 too.
But it’s the galloping umami of the short ribs that thrills. I feel it in my toes. The platter looks so unassuming sliced like Shanghai pork chop. First comes the unexpected crunch, next the brute attack of meat, then the chile after-kick. I take one bite straight, the next dipped into sweet soy vinegar, then a third bite straight. I absolutely did not say Oh My God, not wanting to be a cliché.
Crispy short ribs with a peppery bite to dip in black soy sweet vinegar.
This is not meant to be a new cuisine. It’s Horowitz’s life. He grew up near a duck farm in Mattituck where one grandmother was a French trained chef and the other ran a Jewish delicatessen in Harlem, doing her own corned beef and pastrami. He took a semester off to wander around Louisiana. “I loved Arcadian and Southern cooking. That’s what got me into it.” Add Burma to the mix, Southeast Asia and New England.
Big chicken wings get a jerk rub and a hicory smoking, served whole and sticky.
Ducks Eatery, a tribute to a woman he loved who loved duck and died young, began life as the snackery at Spin, Susan Sarandon’s table tennis shop. Horowitz was a professional Ping-Pong player too. The 55 seat revival opened in August on East 12th in this small bare brick storefront with a red brick barrel ceiling. Tables are scarred. My rickety chair almost tips on the uneven floor. The soundtrack is the chef’s choice too, his own reel of Reggae’s greatest hits. The full menu only recently took shape. So far, there’s no dessert.
Ducks Eatery fans settle into prime sidewalk seats on an early autumn night.
Maybe you crave an East Village vibe now and then. Or you’re drawn by the idea of a chef who is more focused on an eclectic “smoky, briny and spicy” rather than any one provenance. As long as the weather holds for outdoor seating, there might be free tables inside or a spot at the bar weekdays.
But watch out for Tuesday. That’s brisket night when the cognoscenti line up to feed on that smoky rich meat. Horowitz sleeps at the place overnight because it takes 18 hours in the smoker. The meat usually runs out by 7:45. He might fade not long after.
351 East 12th Street between Second and Third. 212 432-DUCK(3825) Monday through Wednesday 5:30 pm to 1 am. Thursday through Saturday Till 3:30 am. Brunch coming soon. Briskett starts at 6:30 on Tuesday.