Hooray for unconventional dining establishments! I’ve always liked Ducks Eatery, where many of the dishes are wildly unusual and some don’t even work, such as the roast bone marrow with smoked oysters and blood orange engulfed in a damp waterfall of melted ricotta. Ducks has a tendency to over-experiment with smoke, which is a good thing when it comes to Tuesday night’s brisket, maybe not a good thing when it comes to the bony smoked goat’s neck. How much do you like to gnaw at stringy flesh? Still, Ducks Eatery is always a fun and entertaining time, even when the air conditioner isn’t working very well.
Now Ducks has a brilliant spinoff. Called Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co., it commemorates a pair of affable great-grandparents who ran a deli. The owners are bro and sis Will and Julie Horowitz, and other characters are involved, too, including Jonathan Botta of Ducks Eatery and Chaz Lindsay of Craft. There’s a smoker in the kitchen — which the crew is pleased to call a laboratory — and other such menu-generating arcana as eel tanks and vats for curing and pickling. The sum total of this is some wacky food that, if their great-grandparents had served it way back when, they would either have no customers or be locked away in the asylum for crazy restaurateurs.
Back to the future. Harry & Ida’s occupies a storefront on Avenue A which is made up to look like a country store in a tourist town in the Catskills. The walls are green tongue-and-groove board, the ceiling stamped tin. The walls are covered with shelves and cabinets flogging such a diverse group of saleable items that your head will spin. Do the sensible thing and treat it like a Museum of Modern Food Attitudes as you wait for your sandwich.
Here is a partial list of the things I saw as I waited: a forager’s snake-bite kit, extra-long dried spaghetti, copies of Walden, fresh oyster mushrooms, salted caramels made in Portland, homemade ramp kraut, probiotic hot sauce, Blacktail Mountain heirloom watermelon seeds, Opinel grape harvester's knives, smoked "pig ears for pups," pomegranate drinking vinegar, rock candy on a stick, Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup in a can, Squirrel Nut Zippers candy, and Squid brand fish sauce. Just as I thought I couldn’t be more astonished, the Pat LaFrieda truck drove up outside and parked.
In a six-day marathon, I ate all of the six sandwiches that are the sole prepared-food offerings at Harry & Ida’s (not including smoked chickens for sale). I rank them here in order of excellence.
Pop’s Pastrami ($17.50) — First off, the hot pastrami is amazing! In traditional fashion, the deli man carves off a slice and hands it over to you on waxed butcher paper. The meat is deeply red, and so extensively veined with fat that you suspect prime meat has been used, a la Aaron Franklin. As the slice sails across the counter, you get a whiff of smoke. While most pastrami these days is lightly smoked, if at all, this rendition is smoke-intensive, and the smoke mixes magnificently with the cure that’s been rubbed on the surface of the brisket, which is heavy on the black peppercorns.
This pastrami sandwich is distinctive in other ways, too. It’s tendered on a hero roll tapered to a point at both ends made at the LES’s Pain D’Avignon. In addition to the usual grainy mustard, the sandwich is also plied with a sauerkraut-like julienne of cured cukes and finished with a few fronds of fresh dill. These extras don’t so much alter as showcase the salty and smoky savor of the meat. Instantly, this is one of the best pastrami sandwiches in town. Like its only local competitor, Katz’s, the meat is hand sliced and thick, and the grease drips off it as the deli man packs the sandwich with perhaps a slice or two more than you actually need. The sandwich is like a hybrid between Jewish deli and Texas ‘cue.
Smoked Eel ($16) — "I get these eels from a fisherman in Connecticut," the deli man told me, "and we keep them live in a tank until we smoke ‘em." The eel is a single broad flaky plank, lacquered with what appears to be a maple syrup cure. The roll, which has been squished in a panini press before being used, is first spread with lots of butter, then the eel goes on, then the kale kimchi, then a grating of fresh horseradish, and finally a yellow dressing that tastes a little like mayo, a little like mustard, and a little sweet. This head-scratching list of components is no clue to how the finished sandwich tastes. A better indication is how fast you’ll wolf it down.
Blue Fish Salad ($13) — If you like tuna salad, you’ll love blue fish salad. This oily and oft-denigrated local fish is smoked, of course, at Harry & Ida’s, placing it in Russ & Daughter’s territory, then mixed with a modest amount of dressing and formed into a huge quenelle, which is then squished into the bun along with pickled celery and watercress. The smoky edge makes all the difference, and all things considered, this is the most filling sandwich of the bunch — though all are substantial enough to be shared.
Smoked Mushroom ($11) — The cheapest of the sandwiches is also the vegan’s choice and darn good. Two kinds of mushrooms are (wait for it!) smoked and then mixed with something called kelp mint pesto, which, one hopes, confers omega fatty acids on the sandwich. Capers add to the flavor in a hidden sort of way (what normal person can detect a caper among those big floppy mushroom caps? It’s like the Princess and the Pea), and watercress is added to balance the color of the finished product, serving no other useful purpose. This sandwich is good enough that I would get it again and again.
Cured Meats ($15) — For the lover of more prosaic sandwiches, this one includes two types of ham, one cured, one smoked... or maybe both smoked, who can tell? And some smoked beef as well, plus a thinnish slice of good fresh mozzarella, like a hero from Fiore House of Quality in Hoboken. This sandwich is for salt and ham lovers, and is the only one on the menu that can be described as a bit dry. Still, you’ll love it more with every bite.
Pastrami Dog ($10) — After eating the brilliant pastrami, I was anxious to also try the dog. Alas, it’s the least interesting thing on the menu. Somehow the smoky pastrami flavor doesn’t make it through the sausage skin, and when you bite into the thing, there’s no headlong rush of flavor. On the positive side, you get two links, garnished with a shiitake kraut and fresh dill. It would be better with conventional sauerkraut and grainy mustard, emphasizing its commonality with other hot dogs around town.