It’s dark, it’s cramped and it’s loud. These are all traits in restaurants that tend to turn me off, but somehow, at Chef Will Horowitz’ Ducks Eatery on E. 12th Street in Manhattan, they were endearing. Perhaps, it is because Will himself is such an enthusiastic and likable fellow or perhaps it is because his food is just plain good and fun. Both of those are true, but I think the main reason it works at Ducks Eatery, is because the ambiance is not out of character with the food. Horowitz is not trying to be artistic. He is simply trying to put out food that is delicious and a good value. He does just that. This is not to say that his plates lack finesse or look ugly. They don’t. They just don’t come from the school of delicate manipulation. I love beautifully prepared dishes and believe that when much effort is taken in a dish’s presentation, it should be able to actually be seen to be able to appreciate it. The food at Ducks is hearty and not too fussy. The visual aspect is not as important here and so lighting is not as critical. As for the rest of it, it is simply a function of how popular and fun the place is. It’s small, good and relatively inexpensive, so it is bound to be loud and crowded. Under the circumstances, it works quite well.
I was there with my wife and two of our sons. We were seated at a table along a bare brick wall. Looking in to the restaurant, my wife and I were able to watch a Buster Keaton silent movie projected on the brick wall in front of us. Our sons faced the street. The movie added to the madcap, fun atmosphere without having to focus on it. The occasional glimpse toward the wall generally left me with a laugh. It was a clever and entertaining conceit that fit in well with the aura of distressed chic.
We ordered food to share and worked our way through a reasonable sampling of the menu. While each dish was different, they all shared the characteristic of being loaded with flavor.
Plump mussels were smoked and bathed in chili oil. They were served in a tin like one would find Spanish mussels in escabeche conserva accompanied by toast that had been slathered with smoked house made cultured butter with maple and chives. Each component was delicious individually and then all together.
Brisket tartare was an off-the menu gift. It was well seasoned with house-cured anchovy, dehydrated grapefruit and vanilla oil and was quite decadent. It was the kind of tartare that I could have kept spooning into my mouth and would have were it not for everything else to come.
We ordered the smoked boudin noir with collard stem kim chee, charred apple, chili and black garlic aioli. When it came, the platter also included a brand new boudin blanc with oysters and other goodies and sliced smoked duck. These latter items were an additional gift from the kitchen. These were all delicious with both boudins particular stand-outs, especially with a bit of the black garlic aioli dotting the bites. Horowitz loves the food of Louisiana and this is evident in his cooking. His translation is accurate, but with some personal flair added.
Littleneck clams were perfectly cooked so that they remained full, soft and juicy. They were served in a style of a beach clam bake with charred corn on the cob, tomatoes and a powerful, sage inflected broth. I don’t typically associate sage with clams or seafood in general, but it worked. It was just enough to notice without overwhelming the rest of the flavors.
Celeriac was nicely roasted and well developed with burdock root, preserved meyer lemon, togarashi and wakame butter as pistol-packing sidekicks. This was my wife’s favorite dish of the night and I couldn’t argue with her. It was indeed excellent.
My favorite dish of the night was one that I didn’t really expect. My youngest son wanted to order the red beans and rice, so we did. Buttressed by smoked lamb vreast with cumin, chili and cilantro, it was totally satisfying.
Ducks Eatery has become very well known for their smoked whole goat’s neck and rightfully so. With a nice curry flavor, this was a melt-in-your-mouth extravaganza designed for two or more people. The supremely tender meat was moist, sweet and just plain delicious.
Desserts were also good. Beignets were reminiscent of New Orleans with a dark chocolate espresso sauce giving them just that little something extra.
Even better than the beignets was the totally delicious smoked pot de creme with chocolate, chili and salted caramel whipped cream. The kitchen achieved a nice balance with these desserts, avoiding a trap of total sweetness.
In short, Ducks eatery is just a relatively simple restaurant doing things in an artisanal way and crafting delicious, affordable food. What’s not to like about that?