When Noah Bermanoff and his wife, Rae Cohen, opened Mile End off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn last January, the demand for smoked meat was so great that they routinely ran out by 2pm. "It wasn't a strategy," Noah said in their nearby warehouse prep facility off Third Ave. in Park Slope. "We just weren't prepared for that kind of response." Now, a little less than year later, they are more than prepared—and expanding. Over the summer, Mile End hired Torrisi-vet Aaron Israel to focus on the dinner menu (beyond the coveted Montreal-style deli meat) and delve into the general concept of Jewish food, done well. Like your Grandma's but better. Don't tell my Grandmothers, Mile End is better. (Pictured: Aaron Israel.)
They're also planning a Manhattan outpost and looking for a bigger prep facility in Red Hook. Meanwhile, they just hired baker Rich Maggi to make fresh rye bread.
For now, all the prep for the 400-square-foot restaurant is done in a warehouse that's shared with pickle company Brooklyn Brine. Aaron walked me through knish rolling and a few menu staples and tested out the special Christmas menu—naturally, an all-Chinese food evening.
The warehouse feels more like a workshop or art studio, there are four or five chefs churning out rye bread, borscht, or rendering chicken fat. It turns out the secret to Jewish food isn't love; it's schmaltz.
Chicken fat is laced through out the kasha varnishkes, a delicate balance of noodles, buckweat and gizzards, with that chicken fat coursing throughout and fried bits of it sprinkled on top.
At the warehouse, we start in the walk-in, which is filled with meat. Mile End goes through 1400 lbs. of brisket cut from Pat LaFrieda a week. The meat is rubbed and rotated over 10 days, rinsed, rubbed again, then smoked for eight hours. The smoker smells like campfire and coriander. It may sound strange, but I could see myself being very happy curled up in the smoker just breathing in the leftover scent.
Also in the walk-in are the hanging birds for Aaron's main course, Shanghai duck. They look fat and round and pale, dangling next the buckets of brisket, they've been blanched and hanging for two days.
There's a tray of chicken, pickling asparagus and trays of salmon and white fish in various stages of curing. They take four days to cure the lox (most delis take two). They use as little salt and sugar as possible and refrain from pressing the fish. The salmon ends up defined by a wood grain fat pattern and a taste that is delicate and buttery, a bear-in-a-stream's dream meal.
We start with the duck, naked, and stuff it with ginger, scallions, casis among other things, and prepare it to be cooked low and slow in its own fat for roughly three hours. While the duck is cooking, we make egg rolls and Jewish "pork" buns—Aaron's interpretation is lamb's tongue (pictured) brined for four days with pickled cucumbers and cilantro and hoisin sauce. "I think of tongue as nature's hot dog," Aaron says. The texture is rubbery, the flavor smokey and each bite is punctuated by a toothsome density.
The buns have a great balance of tangy pickled vinegar, smokey meat flavor and fresh sprigs of cilantro. Though Mile End isn't a kosher restaurant, the kitchen is experimenting with different ways to follow Jewish custom—like perfecting a lamb bacon.
Next up is my favorite part of being in a kitchen, the staff meal. The baker, Rich Maggi, has whipped up an off-the-menu (but should be on-the-menu) pot of hearty Hangover Soup—smoked lamb, bacon, hot dog, sausage, potato, onion, cabbage, chili flakes, sweet paprika, vinegar, all simmered in a beef and chicken stock. This bowl of leftover goulash could conquer winter; it wouldn't taste nearly as good in Southern California.
Yukon and Idaho potatoes are baking for the knish stuffing, the duck is roasting, and carrot, cabbage and rehydrated shrimp are simmering for the test egg rolls. Meanwhile, we talk deli. "You know the bar is set so low for good Jewish food," Aaron says. It's true. New York delis haven't had to contend with the same kind of culinary scrutiny that other ethnic cuisines have.
Rather than challenge the establishment pastrami, Mile End calls its trademark sandwich "smoked meat." Aaron, who has been in the kitchen at August, A Voce and Torissi, takes a studied and inventive approach to Jewish food.
We cook down the parsnip, celery root, onion, chicken fat, and a couple bay leaves, then mix it all with potatoes to make the knish filling. We roll out a simple dough into a long oval, the shape and size of a baguette. The key to Mile End's knishes is size and ratio: Whereas most knishes could double as shot puts, this one will be cut into two-bite medallions with a very light crust.
I spread the filling across the dough and roll it into a log, score the top and bake it for 10-12 minutes at 325 degrees, then—once it's golden brown and crusty— I sprinkle on some poppy seeds.
The duck comes out of the oven and is split. The stuffing is removed and Aaron glazes the bird with sauce made from Chinese five spice, Schezuan peppercorns, soy sauce and roasted garlic. Then he cooks it again, glazes it again, and cooks again until the skin is reddish brown and crispy.
He cuts it into thick bites, and we gather round to taste his handy work. The glaze rounds out the flavor and the crispiness of the duck skin compliments the tender meat.
It's spicy, sweet, salty, subtle—the perfect centerpiece for a Jewish Christmas dinner. Tradition!