For years now, the Jewish appetizing tradition has provided ample material for modern-minded chefs and restaurants, starting with Shelsky’s of Brooklyn and continuing to gather steam with the Torrisi team’s Sadelle’s. The comfort canon, too, has been a frequent subject of tongue-in-cheek interpretations at places like Shalom Japan, Joe & Misses Doe and beyond. And now, if the critically-lauded Harry & Ida’s is any indication, classic Jewish deli fare is ripe for reinvention as well, with pastrami topped with rounds of buttermilk-fermented cucumber, dried into jerky, or transformed into juicy, shitake mayo-slicked hot dogs.
Just opened in the East Village (of course), the general store and butcher counter is the zany brainchild of Will Horowitz, of the always-inventive Ducks Eatery, and the haute cocktail den, Seamstress. Inspired by his Hungarian great grandparents, who used to run their own NYC Jewish deli in the 1900’s, the brick and blond wood space has shelves lined with rock candy, pickled frogs legs, and pigs ears for pups, as well as refrigerators stocked with flavored butters and unique shellfish conservas. It’s also outfitted with a wood smoker, a cold smoker, and a tank of live eels, which eventually wriggle their way into salads and sandwiches.
Of those sandwiches, the “Pops Pastrami” has been the immediate, runaway hit; a burnished, Pain D’Avignon hero roll wadded with thick, scarlet-colored clods of hand-sliced deckle meat, the intense smoky-fattiness cut by a jungle of fresh dill fronds, and a creamy kraut fashioned from julienned cucumber. It’s a gentle diversion from the classic mustard and rye; much more challenging is that Smoked Eel sandwich moistened with smoked butter, and featuring silvery, Connecticut-sourced fish shellacked in maple syrup, like an Eastern European teriyaki. The “Judasian” influence is further emphasized by kale-based kimchee, partnered with a parsnip, onion and horseradish relish — Shalom Japan take note.
The Bluefish doesn’t stray too far from conventional appetizing territory, an oily clod of salad, accented only with crescents of pickled celery and bitter curls of watercress. And since the most valuable player at Harry & Ida’s is, undoubtedly, that killer pastrami, it’s unsurprising to find it coaxed into a hot dog as well, piled with an earthy shitake mushroom kraut. Although, the rest of the menu takes a sharp turn from Jewish gastronomy. There’s a “Cured Meats” hero, largely indistinguishable from a basic Italian hoagie, save for the fact that the ham and beef is smoked and cured in house, as well as a sole veggie option, dense with a forest of smoked mushrooms, a smattering of salty capers, and an umami-bomb pesto made with fragrant mint leaves and kelp.
That said (being a member of the tribe ourselves), it’s been endlessly exciting to see a younger generation of talented, Jewish chefs become increasingly inspired by their cuisine. And since they’ve successfully upped the cool factor of staples like matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish, we can only imagine what Horowitz will do for the state of the deli in NYC.