A rustic room, a tatted-up chef, and a crazy neighbor ranting on the sidewalk give some reassurance that there’s still a little East Village left in the East Village. At least that was my experience at Butcher Bay, where I sat down with chef Eric Simpson. From the stage-like open kitchen in back, Simpson shows off the experience he gleaned working at high-profile spots like Ortanique on The Mile, Perry Street, and Tailor. His menu at Butcher Bay is simultaneously ambitious and unpretentious, kind of like the East Village of old. “Working at Tailor, it was this amazing million-dollar kitchen with guys covered in tattoos and blasting metal,” Simpson says. “It had a huge effect on the way I like to run this place, just that whole idea of a comfortable vibe, it’s an approachable East Village restaurant, but then trying to capitalize on surprising people. Because it’s fun when you realize you’re getting more than you expected.” Simpson was good enough to walk us through a hearty remix of a New England clambake.
How well does this dish translate to New York? We have such tiny kitchens … This is a New York City kitchen-friendly dish because it’s one pot and that’s the whole idea. That’s how I cook at home. If I need more than one pan to cook my meal, that’s too much work. I don’t want to do dishes on my day off.
How hard is it to source? If you were cooking this for yourself, where would you get your clams? It’s one of the beautiful little aspects of New York City that you can usually walk and find all of the things you need. I live on Avenue D and I would actually go to the Associated Supermarket on C and be pretty comfortable with just a little inspection. It’s just like fruit — if you pick up a shellfish and it feels light and doesn’t have that “heavier than it looks feel to it,” that’s definitely a red flag. But littleneck clams are absolutely cheap and ubiquitous and every market should have them.
What comes next, after you’ve tracked down clams? The rest of it is kind of marrying it all together and just getting that combination of the flavors and trying to stay really, really traditional with it. Basically just clams, shrimp, mussels, potato, corn, and usually wilted greens. Lately I’ve been using Swiss chard because it adds something nice to the flavor of the whole dish. For the sausage, I’ve got stuck on a homemade andouille sausage that comes from La Frieda. It’s exactly what I want, for not being able to get what I see in my head. Growing up in New England, the Portuguese influence is huge in that dish, so if I had my way I’d use linguiça, basically just the sweeter Portuguese version of chorizo. I wound up with this andouille. It has a lot of black pepper to it so you get a slightly more savory and definitely peppery influence in the broth. People can’t figure out why the dish is a little more hearty than they’re expecting and has a little spice to it. The other thing I’ve been using in it that’s not traditional but it just works so well is salt cod. That’s one of the last things that goes in and it adds another layer of seasoning and it winds up being almost an East Coast version of a cioppino — brothy, with lots of shellfish. I wanted that whole New England, this is a wet paper plate on the beach, where you’re trying to eat all this awesome food but your plate’s falling apart and dripping the broth from a clambake.
How long does it take to put together? As long as it takes to open the clams. I start it off with olive oil and the clams. Then lightly roasting the andouille sausage, just developing that flavor a little bit. As soon as I’ve got a little heat out of those, adding the shallots and garlic, and a good amount too. Once they’re toasted it takes away the bite and winds up being a sweet vegetable influence in the dish. Everything else on some level has a little bit of building to it. These are potatoes that are pickled with paprika and sherry vinegar. Obviously not really traditional, other than the fact that there are usually steamed potatoes in a clambake. This just adds an acidic brightness to the dish. Then white wine and then a little bit of salt. These are proper Wellfleet, Massachusetts littleneck clams and they’re pretty salty, so you have to be careful with it. There’s maybe ¼ gram of salt. That’s a two-finger pinch, if you’re going by fancy-cook standards.
What would you drink with it? It’s definitely a dish that goes with beer. Of the beers we’ve got, I really like the DreamWeaver with it. It’s an American microbrew, but it’s a Hefeweizen, with kind of a brassy and almost yeasty flavor that is really good with it. If you’re not a beer drinker, then a spicier, light red wine. I do love the combination of a minerally and spicy, but approachable, red wine with this dish, and shellfish in general. Something like a Grenache. As far as whites go, I’m not all that much of a white drinker, but a dry sparkling wine would be good with it.
Do you follow a set recipe for it, or do you improvise? Consistency is really important. I had it beaten into me, six years in three different restaurants, with a foot in my ass every day of my life basically having chefs go “I don’t care if you don’t like anything about this dish, you’d better dislike the same things every day.” Working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten in particular, every recipe is written down in a book, with things weighed out in a gram scale, and basically the food prep is done like someone with a marionette. There’s no room for interpretation in the dishes, it’s the same every time. And his food is very simple, it’s beautifully balanced, and it’s consistent.
How many people could you cook this for? It depends on how big your pot is. If you got a big stock pot, you could do it for 20 or 30 people in one shot. It’s a simple dish, really no manipulation. It’s all taking advantage of the natural flavors. The other places I’ve worked, this dish would be overkill and twice the price.
Clambake (ingredients for one portion) ● 8 littleneck clams ● 3 PEI mussels ● 3 shrimp ● 3 oz salt cod ● 2 oz vinegar-boiled potato ● 2 oz sliced andouille sausage or chorizo ● 1 oz Swiss chard ● 1 tablespoon shallot ● 1 tablespoon garlic ● 2 pieces roasted corn–2” on-cob chunks ● 2 oz evoo ● 4 oz white wine ● 4 oz water ● Salt to taste 1. Put clams in a hot sauté pan with andouille, shallot, garlic, and olive oil. Start to toast shallot and garlic and render sausage a little. 2. Add wine and water — pull pan away from flame to avoid igniting oil vapor. 3. Add potato, corn, and mussels. 4. After all shellfish are steamed open, add salt cod, shrimp, and Swiss chard. 5. When shrimp are fully cooked and chard is wilted, adjust seasoning in broth, and serve immediately.