“It’s hard for me to imagine that other people in the world have worked this hard for a sandwich,” says Will Horowitz, the co-owner of Harry & Ida’s in the East Village. He’s certainly one of the only chefs in New York to go as far as to install a live eel tank inside his restaurant — and spend a total of three days to prep his smoked-eel hero — but Horowitz is actually one of several local cooks working hard to embrace the rich, fatty, super-flavorful fish. It’s an ingredient that represents how much time and effort restaurants, even casual ones, increasingly spend on seemingly simple dishes in order to stand out in the hypercompetitive New York restaurant landscape.
Eel has long been ubiquitous at New York’s Japanese restaurants, of course, and it’s a popular ingredient in Spanish and Scandinavian cooking. But it’s increasingly appearing on New York menus that celebrate other cuisines: Beyond the smoked-eel sandwich at Harry & Ida’s, there’s blood-sausage-stuffed eel at Mimi’s, eel toast at High Street on Hudson, smoked eel in yuba (with red celery, hoisin, cognac, soy, and cornflakes) for brunch at Mission Chinese Food, and an eel salad at Té Company, to name a few. As more accomplished New York chefs turn their attention to burgers, pizza, and simple pastas, these dishes are in sharp contrast.
The ingredient, though, is fraught with challenges: Eel is a slippery animal that makes many people squeamish (blame movies like The Tin Drum and Eel Girl), so it can be a hard sell. It’s also incredibly labor-intensive to prepare from scratch. Growing up, Horowitz watched his grandfather, a fisherman in Long Island, trap eels outside the front of his house and then “run around the front porch with a club, trying to knock them out.” He knew that if he was going to serve eel at Harry & Ida’s, he wanted to do it the right way — and control the butchering procedure from start to finish.
He starts by buying eel from a farmer out in Connecticut, who raises the fish himself (sustainability is a big concern) and delivers them live. “They’re really, really strong,” Horowitz says. “Every so often, we get a bunch of live eel and someone doesn’t put a weight on top of the box. They can open a lid of a heavy cooler. You go into the walk-in refrigerator, and there are eel flapping around.” He likens breaking down eel to “trying to fillet a tire” because their skin is so tough and rubbery. On average, for one of his cooks to break down 100 eels, it takes three hours, and that yields enough meat for roughly 150 sandwiches. Chefs from other restaurants, such as Atera, often make pilgrimages into Harry & Ida’s just to learn the skill. “We get a couple hundred eels every of couple weeks, and we break them down all at once,” Horowitz says. “It’s kind of like an eel party, but it starts with a giant massacre.”
You’d expect that kind of attention and care — for one dish, and one dish only — to come from a fine-dining restaurant. But even a place like High Street on Hudson, which has a robust dinner service but is better known for being a laid-back lunch spot, butchers eel in house. Culinary director Jon Nodler’s method is intense: “What you have to do first is bleed them out, to slow them down,” he says. “Putting them in ice water helps. And then there’s something called an ‘eel tack’ — like an ice pick — and you tack down the eel to your cutting board to keep them from moving.” Nodler brines the eel in aromatics and salt for two days, hot-smokes it until the skin crisps, and packs it in olive oil — a four-day process, in total. Horowitz, meanwhile, prefers to brine the fish overnight in dark maple syrup, air-dry it for 12 to 24 hours, and then hot-smoke it over wood and maple logs for six to eight hours. For both kitchens, it’s a point of pride.
There is a way to serve eel without going to so much trouble, though: At Té Company, chef Frederico Ribeiro buys smoked eel directly from Petrossian. “When I worked in Spain, chef Martin Berasategui had a dish with smoked eel, foie gras, and green apples that was super delicious,” Ribeiro says. “And when I came to New York, the caviar lady said she had smoked eel, so I put it in a dish. People seem adventurous enough to try it.”
Fans of eel know how good it tastes — it’s an oily fish that’s decadent and tender — but that doesn’t necessarily mean customers will order it. Is it worth the cost for these restaurants to bear? Nodler says that eel ranges from $8 to $14 a pound, and with the loss of the head and bones, it has a 50 percent yield: “It can get pretty expensive, and because of the process, there’s a lot of room for error.” That’s not even taking into account all of the additional prep — beyond the smoking process, Nodler takes the scraps of Alex Bois’s Vollkornbrot bread, purées them with a local porter and pickled habanero, and makes a Japanese-style eel glaze that’s spicy, sweet, and sour. While High Street only receives “a handful” of à la carte orders for the toast each night, Nodler is at least able to incorporate it into the “Leave It to Us” tasting menu. (This is also how Dan Barber gets diners to try overlooked species of fish.)
At $17, the eel sandwich is the most expensive one on the Harry & Ida’s menu. “We’re actually trying to limit the amount that we make,” Horowitz says. “There will be a couple of weeks in a row where people buy eel constantly, and then there will be a couple of weeks where not enough do.” It helps that his smoked eel has a weeklong shelf life, and that Horowitz can save the eel heads and tails to make broth. “It’s probably the best stock I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.
For these chefs, cooking eel is more of a labor of love — and a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors — than a means to tap into yet another fleeting food trend. Even still, the fish’s popularity appears to be on the rise. “Eel is having a moment,” Nodler says, confidently. “It’s great that the dining population is susceptible, because it makes it a lot easier for a restaurant to take chances.” But no matter how mainstream eel gets, it’ll be hard to break completely from those horror-movie associations. Horowitz laughs and says not everyone is onboard with the ingredient just yet: “We definitely get people that freak out when they see the tank.”