Ocean preserves: Pickled, cured and smoked fish

Age-old methods for conserving seafood—pickling, curing and smoking fish—are turning up in stunning plates around NYC.

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Beyond bagels and lox, New York restaurants are spinning pickled, cured and smoked fish into sensational dishes. Drawing on ancient cooking methods from around the world, chefs are plating Scandinavian cured fish, Portuguese salt cod and German pickled herring in artful compositions. Check out these modern bites made from humble preserved seafood.

  • Photograph: Filip Wolak

    Beet-cured hake smørrebrød at Aamanns-Copenhagen

  • Photograph: Jolie Ruben

    Rollmops at Allswell

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    Cured arctic char at Gramercy Tavern

  • Photograph: Filip Wolak

    Grappa-cured striped bass at Runner & Stone

  • Photograph: Filip Wolak

    Smoked trout at Maysville

  • Photograph: Jolie Ruben

    Smoked salmon rillettes at Maison Premiere

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    Chickpea-and-bacalhau salad at Aldea

Photograph: Filip Wolak

Beet-cured hake smørrebrød at Aamanns-Copenhagen

Beet-cured hake smørrebrød at Aamanns-Copenhagen

This sleek Danish canteen spotlights the open-faced sandwich smørrebrød, whose name translates to “buttered bread,” a hallmark of the national cuisine. The luncheon fare is often layered with traditional preserved seafood (pickled herring, smoked salmon)—a technique that arose out of the country’s long, cold winters. But for this modern rendition, the Scandinavian-inspired spot uses local fish: Northeastern hake is marinated in beet juice, cut with a splash of apple, for two days, dyeing it a deep fuchsia. Atop house-baked rye bread, the lush, earthy slivers are draped over a spread of salt-baked mashed potatoes, drizzled with fragrant rosemary oil. Fresh dill and scallions lend herbaceousness, and more rye—a scattering of crumbles—provides a nutty crunch. $9.

  1. 13 Laight St, (between Sixth Ave and Varick St), 10013
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Rollmops at Allswell

A staple of Northern European cuisine in medieval times, the pickled-herring snacks rollmops were traditionally eaten during Lent. Here, chef-owner Nate Smith makes a less virtuous case for eating them year-round, with this puckery bar bite. The toque uses a two-step process to draw out the fish’s pungent flavor, before restoring its lustrous texture: He salts the Rhode Island–sourced seafood overnight and then brines it for 24 hours with shallots, bay leaves and orange zest. The silver fillets are rolled and pinned with fiery house-pickled hot cherry pepper and shallot, standing in for the traditional gherkin. Tangy crème fraîche cools the mouth-tingling morsel. Two for $4.

  1. 124 Bedford Ave, (at North 10th St), 11211
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Cured arctic char with leeks, walnuts and apricots at Gramercy Tavern

Chef Michael Anthony transforms the silky trimmings from arctic-char entrées into a vibrantly hued starter at Danny Meyer’s refined farm-to-table institution. He cures slender pieces of fatty belly, collar and tail in an aromatic blend of toasted coriander seed, salt, sugar and a trio of citrus zests (lemon, orange and lime). Served on a soft bed of sautéed leeks, the buttery fish is colorfully decorated with piquant accoutrements of bitter purple radicchio, white wedges of blanched turnip and glossy orange pebbles of briny trout roe. Roasted walnut pieces and dried apricot bits add tannic richness and sweet flavors to the wintry dish. $14; served only in tavern.

  1. 42 E 20th St, (between Broadway and Park Ave South), 10003-13
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Grappa-cured striped bass at Runner & Stone

A gift of grappa from some winemaker relatives provided the creative spark for chef Chris Pizzulli’s cured aquatic dish. The toque, who shares kitchen duties with bread whiz Peter Endriss, submerges whole local sea bass in 1898 Candolini Grappa Bianca—a high-proof, herbaceous white spirit distilled in Italy—to imbue it with a subtle anise taste. Carpaccio-like wisps of the satiny pale seafood are balanced with a shaved-fennel salad and verdant drops of basil-infused olive oil on the gorgeous monochromatic plate. Pile the ingredients onto crusty slices of house-made baguette for an upscale crostini. $9.

  1. 285 Third Ave, (between Carroll and President Sts), 11215
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Smoked trout with watercress, mushrooms and red onion at Maysville

Like its sister restaurant, ’cue joint Char No. 4, this Southern-inflected American tavern banks on the transformative power of smoke for its menu, including this whole-fish stunner. For this homage plate, Gramercy Tavern alum Kyle Knall took cues from his old boss Michael Anthony’s signature smoked brook trout. Knall hot-smokes the deboned fish, with head and tail attached, over applewood chips, lending the freshwater swimmer a delicately smoldering flavor, and then roasts it in a high-heat oven until crispy. Charred red onion plays off the succulent white flesh’s aroma, while pickled mushrooms and vinaigrette-dressed red watercress clean it up with a zippy kick. $24.

  1. 17 W. 26th St, 10010
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Smoked salmon rillettes at Maison Premiere

As a part of recently launched brunch,  chef Jared Stafford-Hill remixes the iconic New York bagel and lox with this elegant update. Stafford-Hill poaches salmon in olive oil and butter and blends it into paste to approximate a seafood version of the rillette, the rustic French meat pâté. The blend is pressed overnight in a crock and cold-smoked over hickory for five minutes. In place of a bagel and cream cheese, a decadent coral cake—something like a dense lox spread—is served alongside a warm slab of focaccia, cool crème fraîche and a creamy celery-root puree. Diced capers and red onion rep the classic’s extras, while two jiggling poached eggs and a bitter frisée salad dressed in red-wine vinegar push this sandwich remake into a full-fledged meal. $14.

  1. 298 Bedford Ave, (between Grand and South 1st Sts), 11211
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Chickpea-and-bacalhau salad at Aldea

  • Rated as: 4/5

At his glossy modernist gem, Portuguese-American chef George Mendes harkens back to his roots with this elegant spin on a humble ingredient: bacalhau, the salted cod developed centuries ago in a prerefrigeration era. Mendes sticks to his ancestors’ tried-and-true technique: He covers a boneless fillet—sourced in Chatham, Massachusetts—in salt for two days, to gently draw out the moisture and concentrate its flavor, before rehydrating the dried flesh in cold water for another couple of days. Instead of the traditional hearty pairing with paprika-spiced onions, Mendes tosses the pearly-white flakes—which have been confited in extra-virgin oil to maximize moistness­­—with slow-simmered chickpeas. A sprinkling of red watercress, parsley, pickled shallots and orange zest brightens the refreshing plate. $11.

  1. 31 W 17th St , (between Fifth and Sixth Aves)
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