Gaping at the wacky assortment of smoked foods in the display case at Neopol Savory Smokery, I’m as slack-jawed as that happy idiot of TV fame, Gomer Pyle. There are nine styles of smoked salmon, some of them topped with such ingredients as caramelized onion, Thai rub and cranberry.
Smoked New Zealand mussels glisten in their green-gold shells. Curried smoked chicken salad, smoked hummus, smoked egg salad, smoked duck, smoked bacon, smoked garlic and even smoked tofu beckon from the case.
No matter how often I visit Neopol — either the first store, in Baltimore’s Belvedere Square Market, or its new outlet at Union Market in Northeast Washington — I never lose that sense of wonder. To me, it’s the smokehouse version of Willy Wonka’s madcap chocolate factory.
“We are more of a European style of smoking,” founder Barbara Lahnstein tells me when I stop by to talk technique. Her son, Dorian Brown, runs the business.
She is referring to Neopol’s smoking method as well as its ingredients. To demonstrate their approach, Brown walks me over to the rectangular all-wood red smoker, blackened from years of use, and opens the heavy doors to reveal a pastrami in the latter stages of smoking. “Need to cool the fire down,” Brown says. He tosses soaked maple chips on the low fire.
Neopol keeps the temperature between 125 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly above cold smoking (90 degrees) and significantly below barbecue (225 to 275 degrees). Unlike traditional smokehouses, which tend to keep the heat steady throughout the cooking process, Neopol plays with the fire, typically, though not always, building from 125 degrees, holding for awhile at 150, then finishing at 175. “We go on feel,” Brown says, referring to how he decides when to add wood, what kind, and how much.
The idea is that the different temperatures create the textures they want, such as a moist flakiness to the salmon. Blending cherry, apple, maple and oak woods adds complexity to the flavor. Ingredients include some not found in your average barbecue joint: Neopol uses coriander and cardamom in spice rubs and adds oranges and wine to brines.
Smoked salmon is Neopol’s top seller. The raw fish is flown in from Scotland three times a week, cured for 24 hours and, in keeping with the philosophy of cooking by feel, is smoked for three to six hours. The time depends on such variables as the salmon’s weight and fat content and the amount of moisture in the wood, which affects how hot the fire burns. “It’s done when it’s done,” Brown says.
Salmon flavors include a spicy whole-grain mustard, a classic herbes de Provence, a sweetpiquant ginger. Some of the salmon is rubbed with orange marmalade. “The marmalade holds in the salmon flavor, adds a little flavor and acts as a buffer to the smoke,” Brown explains, adding that marmalade was chosen after trying other ingredients, such as maple syrup: “You can leave the salmon in the smoker without the fish breaking up. It helps keep the fish moist.” The smoked fish is sold by the pound, in spreads and even in a house-made crepe with hand-mashed potatoes.
Neopol’s signature is a smoked-salmon BLT: house-smoked bacon with slices of fresh tomato and a pile of spring lettuces topped with a layer of smoked salmon on toasted bread slathered with Neopol’s own aioli. The salmon’s rich flavor and soft texture beautifully complement the hearty, chewy bacon to make for an inspired twist on a traditional favorite.
Neopol also makes a killer item that’s called a salad but is more of a chunky spread. Thick with pieces of smoked salmon and spiked with diced celery and onion, it is, by any name, an addictive appetizer.
After explaining their method, Brown closes the smoker doors. “We have our own idea of how we want it to be,” he says.
His mother may call the style European, but it is really all Lahnsteinean. Having moved to Baltimore from her native Stuttgart, Germany, in the early 1980s when she was barely into her 20s, she taught herself to smoke foods because she missed the smoked herring of her youth. She trained on a typical backyard grill and moved up to a smoker that she designed. Unlike many students of the smoking arts, who apprentice with someone or read everything they can, Lahnstein simply followed her whim, experimenting as she went along. She added rosemary branches and orange peels to the fire to see what flavor difference they would make. She liked pheasant, so she smoked pheasant.
“My mom,” says Brown, “is not like other people.”
Indeed, her approach to cooking reflects her free-spirited, willful approach to life. Shortly after she moved to Baltimore and gave birth to Dorian, her husband left her. Lahnstein’s English wasn’t great. She didn’t know anybody. To say that she was a stranger in a strange land is an understatement. “But I didn’t want to go back to Germany,” Lahnstein, 54, says through a thick accent. “I didn’t want to hear ‘I told you so’ from my mother.”
She befriended a neighbor, Odessa Dunson, who became Dorian’s godmother. The friendship was all the support Lahnstein needed. The two women taught themselves to smoke salmon, kebabs, shrimp, chicken and the aforementioned pheasant. (Not herring, though. She couldn’t get the same quality here as they have in Germany, she says.) They sold their smoked foods at farmers markets and, in 1993, opened a cafe/art gallery in Baltimore called Metropol. When Metropol lost its lease and closed in 1997, Lahnstein and Dunson returned to farmers markets.
In 2003, with backing from a Baltimore developer, Lahnstein went out on her own and opened Neopol in the Belvedere Square Market, where the business remains.
Eventually, Neopol began also operating at Washington’s Eastern Market weekend flea market. Representatives of the then-fledgling Union Market in Northeast Washington asked Neopol to open a pop-up. It sold in one day what Lahnstein had hoped to sell in two. That success led to the opening of a permanent outlet at Union Market.
Brown, 31, whom Lahnstein made majority partner in 2009, admits to being “hesitant” about the move to Washington and credits general manager Jeni Paik for the new outlet’s success. The Union Market location doesn’t have an on-site smoker, and Paik transports the food daily from Baltimore and oversees the operation. It has been a hit: Sales at Union Market have more than doubled since it opened.
Neopol is expanding its Belvedere store, adding a pantry of smoked items and a second J&R wood-fueled smoker. Under consideration is an outlet at a farmers market in Philadelphia, and mail-order.
In the kitchen, Brown smears salmon with orange marmalade, preparing the fish for its varying-heat treatment. “We’re always open to new ideas,” he says.