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Why Eel Meals Have Been Popping up on Menus Across New York City

Sierra Tishgart of New York Magazine guides Brendan through the brave new world of eel.

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For the most part, Americans only know eel from Japanese cuisine, like Unagi and Anago sushi. But that might be changing. Sierra Tishgart is the senior editor at New York Magazine’s Grub Street food blog and she recently wrote an article about the emergence of eel on New York restaurant menus.

Brendan is not a big fan of eel, but to learn more, he met up with her at High Street on Hudson, one of these eel-happy establishments. First, he asked her what inspired the article.

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Sierra Tishgart: I love eel. It is always something I order when I’m at a Japanese restaurant, and it lends itself really well to a sweet savory preparation. And whenever I see it on a menu, I get it. It’s just one of those things for me, and I was really excited to start seeing it pop up on more and more menus in New York outside of Japanese cuisine.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what kind of eel dishes have you been seeing?

Sierra Tishgart: There is an eel sandwich at Harry and Ida‘s where they actually have an eel tank inside their restaurant.

IT’S #NATIONALSANDWICHDAY ! (? @trycaviarnyc) #smokedeel #sandwich #meatandsupplyco #deli #bestdayoftheyear

A photo posted by Harry & Ida’s (@meatandsupplyco) on

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow. That’s dramatic looking, let alone tasting.

Sierra Tishgart: Very dramatic. There is a blood sausage and eel dish at Mimi’s in Soho

Brendan Francis Newnam: That sounds intense. [Both laugh.] That sounds like a nightmare. What are we– Who am I kidding? Blood sausage and eel?

Sierra Tishgart: I know, right? Blood sausage is quite good though.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It sounds like if there was one of those internet word generators for scary food items, I think that would come out.

Sierra Tishgart: Yes. I think this would all be in it. There is a brunch dish at Mission Chinese Food that is eel wrapped in yuba.

Thanks to the @villagevoice for naming our brunch one of the top ten in NYC!! Link in profile

A photo posted by Mission Chinese Food (@missionchinesefood) on

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yuba is noodles?

Sierra Tishgart: Yuba is like tofu skin. I think they also put cornflakes on it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.

Sierra Tishgart: It’s kind of… they always have a wink there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Very brunchy.

Sierra Tishgart: There is an eel salad at a place called Té Company in the West Village. That also has smoked eel.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So why hasn’t this happened sooner?

Sierra Tishgart: Well, it’s so hard. It requires an eel tack. Basically, you have to bleed out the animal, and then like tack it to a board because they’re still so slimy and slippery. So, butchering it is like really intense [Brendan laughs]. One restaurant I interviewed…

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m laughing but not because I… I feel bad for the eels. I’m actually laughing because I’m a little bit grossed out.

Sierra Tishgart: There’s a place called Harry and Ida’s that I featured in the story. And they said that the eels are so strong that sometimes they open up their walk-in refrigerator and they have escaped from the boxes and are just slipping around the restaurant.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Ugh. Nightmare.

Sierra Tishgart: So, butchering them is a whole intense process. Sourcing them is actually quite difficult because there are major sustainability issues.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well that’s why- I was talking to someone at the Monterey Bay Aquarium at Seafood Watch the other week, and they said don’t eat eel.

Sierra Tishgart: Yes. There is an argument to be made. It seems like there is one eel guy in Connecticut who is providing these restaurants and does it as above the board as you can.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And it’s an eel farm?

Sierra Tishgart: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. I see you look a little guilty there.

Sierra Tishgart: I know.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because I read this article and you know…

Sierra Tishgart: It’s like anything with these ingredients you could make a strong case against eating meat. There are problems.There are problems there, and there is no denying that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Sierra Tishgart: So, they are butchering the eel in-house, which is…

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. A big time-consuming process.

Sierra Tishgart: …Very intense. Very time-consuming, labor intensive. But then, even after they butcher it, they smoke it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And this is because eel is… when you get it in its natural state, it’s probably exactly what people think it is. Which is just really chewy and hard.

Sierra Tishgart: Yes. It’s very tough.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And fishy and tough.

Sierra Tishgart: One chef — Will Horowitz from Harry and Ida’s — said it’s like trying to fillet a tire.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Ugh [laughs]. All right. We’re sitting here on High Street on Hudson and we’re looking at eel tartine, I suppose. Eel toast. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s watermelon radishes…

The Eel Tartine at High St on Hudson. Photo Credit: Grub Street)
The Eel Tartine at High St on Hudson. Photo Credit: Grub Street)

Sierra Tishgart: I believe there’s some smoked egg. The eel is really the main highlight, and it has been prepared for four days. So this one item on their dinner menu that is not their signature item, sells a decent amount. But it’s not like, “Oh, everyone’s lining up for this eel!” It takes four days of work, which is quite amazing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And do you know what they do?

Sierra Tishgart: So the chef, Jon Nodler, he brines the eel in aromatics and salt for two days. He hot smokes it until the skin crisps. And then he packs it in olive oil.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That sounds kind of delicious. That does bring me over to you.

Sierra Tishgart: Sounding better to you?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right.

Sierra Tishgart: And then what they do is they take scraps of one of their breads that they make in-house. They puree the scraps with a local porter and pickled habanero, and they make a Japanese-style eel glaze. It’s a little bit sweet, spicy, and sour.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So that’s a lot of work to make this little piece of protein.

Sierra Tishgart: Lot of work [laughs]  for a $14 dish.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. So let’s taste this.

Sierra Tishgart: Let’s taste it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: [Eats toast.] Mmm. Wow. It’s a pretty complex toast. I mean you got the crunch. You got the savory. You got the cool. You got the hot.

Sierra Tishgart: There’s a lot going on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: In the heart of it, I think I can find the smoky eel.

Sierra Tishgart: I really like it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The texture is really unique. Like I like eel in sushi. But I feel like this is… gives a certain mouth resistance that is uncommon.

Sierra Tishgart: It’s a very fatty fish. It’s an oily fish.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why do you think chefs are turning to eel, if it is so complicated to make? If guests are a little squeamish? Why is it happening?

Sierra Tishgart: I think it’s really a point of pride for these chefs. It’s really kind of incredible how you’re seeing even a place like this that is quite casual putting that much attention and care into a dish from start to finish. I think they see it as a wonderful learning opportunity for themselves and their staff.

And it’s also, yeah, it’s a little bit of a badge of honor of like, if you know how eel works, it really is quite impressive. And I think the New York restaurant landscape is so competitive right now. And you’re seeing a lot of really talented chefs open up pizza restaurants and burger joints. And that’s all great. I love pizza and burgers.

But I think the eel is representative of a bit of a backlash to that, in that, you know, “Screw the stuff everyone knows and likes. We’re going to challenge people a bit. And we’re going to challenge ourselves.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I don’t think the burger’s in any danger here though.

Sierra Tishgart: No. The burger’s in no danger. [both laugh.]

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