As the owners of Harry & Ida’s Luncheonette, siblings Julie and Will Horowitz take New York City deli dogma to unexpected places. That won’t surprise anyone familiar with the duo’s experimental, five-year-old East Village barbecue joint Ducks Eatery, the best place in town to eat smoked whole goat neck; or the original Harry & Ida’s, their wonky Alphabet City smokehouse and country store, opened in 2015, where live eels are plucked from tanks, butchered, and smoked on-site for outrageous — and outrageously tasty — sandwiches. This is a team that takes chances and, more often than not, succeeds.
But while this branch, which started feeding the Financial District’s weekday hordes last month, is cut from the same cloth as its forebears in its championing of smoking, pickling, and other food preservation techniques, it fosters an entirely different, utilitarian vibe in its current iteration — one that’s perfect for our modern eating habits, where an hourlong lunch break is a luxury. Instead of the dark, wood- and brick-lined interiors favored at their other locations, Luncheonette, plugged into the base of a skyscraper, is brightly lit and florally wallpapered. To keep the lunch rush moving quickly, the menu is composed almost entirely of sandwiches ($12–$17.45) and combination plate lunches ($9.50–$13.50). Customers line up along the glassed-in semi-open kitchen in front of a multicolored array of side dishes that are doled out fast-casual style. While eel and offal are nowhere to be found, you can thankfully still cop one of the city’s finest pastrami sandwiches, an overstuffed stunner that piles buttermilk-brined cucumbers, anchovy mustard, and a bouquet of dill onto slabs of smoked, spice-rubbed meat in a soft roll (if only they could figure out how to make a rye version.)
Although closely tied to local culinary lore, classic delicatessens are a dwindling breed. In a city with more than 24,000 restaurants, you’d be hard-pressed to find two dozen — fewer still if you’re looking for a place serving halfway decent corned beef. There is a glimmer of hope, however, in a new crop of nostalgists who’ve taken it upon themselves to both carry on and evolve old customs. Harry & Ida’s Luncheonette joins places like Russ & Daughters Café, Mile End, Baz Bagels, and Frankel’s Delicatessen in this pursuit. Here, innovation comes in the form of catering to dietary restrictions, just not the kind observed by the restaurant’s namesakes, the proprietors’ great-grandparents, Hungarian immigrants who long ago owned a kosher delicatessen in Harlem. The majority of Luncheonette’s menu is vegetarian or vegan, making Will, an erstwhile Ping-Pong wunderkind turned homesteading chef, something of a radical in the context of a cooking tradition not known to shy away from calories or cholesterol. In fact, it was his recent high blood pressure diagnosis that prompted the change to incorporate more produce.
The phrase “vegetarian chopped liver” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence at first blush, conjuring images of the Jolly Green Giant being force-fed like a gavage-ravaged goose in some Hudson Valley barn. But the mushroom-walnut purée hits all the right notes of earthiness. Horowitz showcases his creamy concoction in a fascinating sandwich layering hot pink beet-pickled eggs, salad greens, and zesty lemon poppy seed marmalade between soft slices of whole grain bread. For a meatless option, it’s fairly substantial. Baba-ghanoush might not be an emblematic Jewish-American food, but the Levantine connection is there, and this one, laced with coconut and studded with cubes of baked tofu, has the lush texture of a thick Southeast Asian curry crossed with Indian sag paneer, especially when spooned over an ancient grain salad of amaranth, quinoa, and sorghum. And while Luncheonette serves archetypal kasha varnishkes, the Ashkenazi staple of toasted buckwheat and egg noodles, in this case coated in precious schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, there’s also a lighter option featuring root vegetable “noodles” slicked with smoked rosemary oil. Both are excellent, with the conventional version being nicely rich and chewy. The nouveau approach worked best when the kitchen swapped out turnips for sweeter rutabagas, which also had a firmer texture.
Horowitz switches up the non-pasta version based on “whatever is most accessible,” only using the “oversize root vegetables that restaurants typically don’t want.” To that effect — as part of Bronx-based food supplier Baldor’s SparCs food waste initiative — Luncheonette also repurposes vegetable stems for an incredibly flavorful side dish accented by salty fermented black beans. Other seasonal sides show a similar originality, like the way cilantro perks up slowly stewed carrot tzimmes, or mustard-cider vinaigrette does the same to a toss of mushrooms, fennel, and golden beets. Don’t get too attached to any one item, though. This crew’s zeal for experimentation hasn’t slowed down a step. With fall now in full swing, a marvelous stew of peaches and tomatoes that had me transfixed during my first visits has been replaced by an even headier roast pumpkin mash suffused with garlic and miso.
Besides the justly renowned pastrami, which is brined with juniper berries, blanketed in coriander and black pepper, and smoked over oak and maple woods for around ten hours, you can order sandwiches and platters of bluefish salad or apricot chicken smoked over local oak embers. The latter is spectacular when cut into large hunks and stuffed into a long roll with green apple and red cabbage sauerkraut, basil, and sour cream seasoned with charred poblano peppers and the same North African spice blend, ras el hanout, that joins jammy apricots to flavor the tender chicken thighs. Take pity on poor kippered salmon, “which seems to be confusing” for some people, Horowitz admits. The fish is hot-smoked for eight hours and basted in maple syrup, which gives it the dark, weathered appearance and intense smokiness of barbecue. But, as per tradition (and so as not to dry it out), the plump, opaque fillets are served chilled. It would appear that some people don’t appreciate the disconnect. Joke’s on them: Kippered salmon is an unsung heroine compared to its silkier, glossier counterparts, and this is a nearly unrivaled preparation, one that smoked fish fans shouldn’t miss. Currently it’s only offered as a plate. A shame, since it would make a killer club sandwich.
Babka soft serve has been teasing patrons since day one, listed on the menu board but not actually available yet. It’s due the first week of November, or so the owners say. Until then, you can console yourself with slices of pie (salted caramel apple, dense and fudgy-brown butter-pumpkin) from local bakery Four & Twenty Blackbirds. This, too, will eventually change. Expect proprietary baked goods by the new year. There goes any hope of keeping our 2018 resolutions.
Harry & Ida’s Luncheonette
11 Park Place