A fried pig’s ear is a porky mille-feuille. Cartilage, meat, and skin layered together for crackle and crunch. Ducks Eatery serves the stuff as curled ribbons in cold lettuce cups, garnished with pickled cabbage, hot sauce, and sesame seeds ($11). The little bundles are a welcome addition to the East Village bar-snack scene.
Other flourishes catch the eye. There is scallop roe, cured and dried like bottarga, used to season a quinoa salad ($8). And there are fried duck tongues on beets ($7) garnished with drunken hiccups of fermented rice and a gently spiced dressing of house-made yogurt. Citrus fruits such as calamansi and finger limes arrive to the party, too, like friends who glow with fresh, tropical tans.
Will Horowitz used to run a small restaurant inside SPiN, the Flatiron Ping-Pong club, also called Ducks Eatery. Although Horowitz could easily have gotten away with a basic menu of overpriced sliders and truffled fries there, he was coming off a year cooking and traveling through Southeast Asia. So he made fresh tortillas and oyster kimchi for short rib tacos and slipped roasted pigskin confit into the banh mi. Horowitz closed Ducks 1.0 last year and returns now with his sister, general manager Julie Horowitz, bar manager Steve Laycock, and chef de cuisine David Milburn. The new Ducks draws even more loosely from Asia and from Louisiana.
The restaurant has a plucky sense of adventure that is often charming, and that occasionally leads to peril. Take that girl at the bar in a high-cut black leotard. She’s not wearing any pants. No, it’s not Lady Gaga, just one of the many thirsty East Villagers who don’t seem to mind that the cocktails here can be a bit sweet, fueled by fruit and perfume—a grainy watermelon gimlet ($11) whiffed of the lavender pillows and half-emptied bottles of gin one might find in an old lady’s knicker drawer. Beer is perhaps a more reliable match to a fine dish of deeply smoky, spicy ribs ($12) or a pile of chicken wings with the crispy tips still on ($12), brined in lime juice and cooked in the kitchen’s wood-smoker.
The butcher’s diagram of a rubber ducky, the restaurant’s much-repeated logo, is 100 percent silly. But maturity doesn’t seem to be a top concern at a place with “Dee’s Nuts” ($6) on the menu. The nuts are served in a wrinkled paper bag and are quite charming, actually: a mix of chile-dusted cashews, cubes of Benton’s bacon, Cocoa Krispies, and soft, dry cherries. But some dishes at Ducks can be heavy-handed. A raw diver scallop ($8), shucked and sliced to order, gets lost in a sticky dressing tweaked with vanilla oil, green olives, and pearls of finger lime—the same elements composed with a touch more finesse could make a stronger case for their pairing. A yaka mein soup ($14) conceals submarines of the restaurant’s delicious smoked brisket, clams in their shells, and pickled greens. It’s a nice homage to Louisiana, but the thick, fresh noodles from Chinatown can be overcooked.
As the executive chef, Horowitz is often opening a bottle for a table of women, greeting groups warmly like they’re walking in to a house party, and schmoozing in the dining room. On a recent evening, he was standing outside just a few feet away from the patio tables with a few diners who were smoking, and the sweet smell of whole barbecued shrimp ($10) slathered in lardo disappeared as my table was hit by puffs of Lucky Strike. Love it or hate it: The stink and clatter of the East Village is an inextricable part of dinner at Ducks Eatery.
The tables are too small, and you must shout to be heard. Wedged tightly among the drunken, sometime pantsless youth, women in dry-cleaned sweaters who interact mostly with their phones, and bleary-eyed bros who see only the meat in front of them, it’s easy to forget what it is you love about this cramped and unaffordable city. At 2:30 in the morning, hydrate with cold New York tap water, share fried pig ears and hot coconut rice with friends, and you’ll remember.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.