When I first scrolled past this hunk of smoked watermelon on my Instagram, I rolled my eyes in disgust, thinking it was another food fad with hopes of riding the viral wave that is social media. We’ve seen everything from a spot using avocados as hamburger buns (who in their right mind would think that is a delicious or functionally-sound idea?), a bakery turning cakes into pinatas filled with sprinkles (I’d rather have a regular cake than a pile of crunchy, stale sugar) and ice cream parlors shoving plastic tails into their cones and calling them mermaids (are you fucking kidding me?). Each one is an example of eateries capitalizing of the need of millennials to live their best life on social, while throwing out quality, innovation and practicality.
As I entered Duck’s Eatery in the East Village, I wanted to hate this watermelon. But I didn’t. I not only enjoyed it, but I found it to be a thoughtful, innovative dish that gave me hope that some viral food might not be complete trash. Chef Will Horowitz has been playing around with brining, lacto-fermenting and smoking whole fruits and vegetables to transform their molecules into something unlike what you—or your taste buds—were expecting. By going through this process, the resulting fruit swaps out a great deal of sweetness for a punch of sour and umami, mirroring much of the experience you’d get from meat.
Okay, let’s be real, it’s not trying to be ham, other than its scored shape and the fact that it’s smoked. Instead, this is a dish that’s going to make you rethink everything you thought about watermelon by using cooking techniques that have been around for thousands of years. I will say that I wouldn’t necessarily want to eat a whole plate of it (in the same way that I wouldn’t want a huge plate of ham), but I would recommend giving it a try just to see fermentation and smoking can create a completely new flavor profile for fruit.
I didn’t stop there. While the watermelon is an order-ahead large format item ($75 and comes with one snack and three sides), the menu always sports a smoked cantaloupe burger ($16) following the same techniques. The cantaloupe takes on a firmer texture akin to eggplant, paired with caramelized onions and ranch to give you the salty, sweet and savory aspects you crave in a burger without ever having a patty.
Come for the ’gram, stay for the fruit. It’s truly more than meats the eye.