10 New-School Jewish Delicatessens and Eateries
Photo By: Alice Gao ©Alice Gao Photography
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Photo By: Clay Williams ©Clay Williams
Photo By: Jason Dixson ©Jason Dixson Photography
Jewish Food, 2.0
David Sax’s book Save the Deli sounds the alarm about the decline of Jewish delicatessens. But a lot has happened since the best-selling book’s 2009 copyright. There’s new energy — delis are drawing lines that rival ramen spots — and it expands beyond the Big Apple. But one thing that hasn’t changed is how intimidating it can be to open and operate a Jewish deli, because you’re competing with both every deli that came before you and everyone’s bubbe. It’s crucial then to have a point of view and stick to it — whether that’s modernizing menus with nontraditional twists, folding in ethnic fusion, or embracing trends influencing restaurants more broadly, including a back-to-basics attitude. In other words, the hand rolling of bagels is being done not by our ancestors but by 30-somethings in plaid with espresso breath and beards who have trained under the likes of Andrew Carmellini and Joël Robuchon.
Photo courtesy of Wexler's Deli
Atlanta: The General Muir
Flashes of the South find their way into Chef-Owner Todd Ginsberg’s cuisine, which helped earn him consecutive Southeast semifinalist nods from the James Beard Foundation. Take his field pea salad for example — a staple of every neighborhood restaurant with Southern-accented servers. Ginsberg’s version is filled with herbs, salmon roe and creme fraiche, so it simulates a lox platter. Then there are his fried chicken dinners on Fridays that locals throw elbows over. They often feature pastrami-braised collard greens. Ginsberg cites one of the biggest links between Jewish and Southern cuisine as preserving meat, and more specifically, the less prized cuts of meat. While the Emory Point restaurant is pushing the envelope, its name honors the past, as The General Muir is named for the ship that carried partner Jennifer Johnson’s family from Europe to New York in 1949, including her grandparents — Holocaust survivors — and her mother.
Photo courtesy of The General Muir
Brooklyn: Shalom Japan
To know that Jewish and Japanese cuisines are sewn together with care at Shalom Japan, one needs only to dip a spoon into the restaurant's signature dish: matzo ball ramen with foie gras dumplings. This soulful bowl embodies the spirit of the Williamsburg eatery. Married chef-owners Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel helm the kitchen, which also cranks out wonders such as challah made with lees from the sake brewing process; tuna tataki with a Sephardic smear of black tahini; and okonomiyaki with all the trappings of a Reuben. General Manager Thierry Mopurgo leads the drink program, which is equally whimsical. Take his Oy Vey Iz Kir for example, which floats Manshevitz instead of a predictable liqueur, or his selection of shochu. “Our cuisine is unique, so most customers are willing if not wanting to experiment with things they don’t know, and shochu is one of those things,” Mopurgo says.
Photo by Alice Gao
Chicago: Eleven Lincoln Park
Sweet-toothed diners shouldn’t hesitate to order Eleven Lincoln Park’s black-and-white challah French toast with two chocolate sauces and a pretzel dusting. The homage to a black-and-white cookie is proprietor Bradley Rubin’s reluctant hat tip to New York delis. “It’s not really a Chicago thing, but it’s what people came to expect, so I finally broke down,” Rubin says. “The world doesn’t revolve around the New York deli,” he adds. “Everyone does it differently, but New Yorkers think they’re the only ones with street cred.” There are abundant references on Eleven Lincoln Park’s mammoth menu, including the indulgent #43: The behemoth between bread, complete with corned beef, a latke, sour cream and onion strings, is a callback to the #19 at Langer’s in Los Angeles. It’s a signature dish, along with the open-faced Rubin’s Reuben and matzo ball soup. Nostalgia, and a little love, is paramount at Eleven Lincoln Park, hence the retro candy counter.
Photo courtesy of Eleven Lincoln Park
Los Angeles: Wexler's Deli
Wexler's Deli has only 10 stools to serve definitive pastrami sandwiches and bagels layered with silky lox. Fortunately, the deli's location in Downtown LA’s Grand Central Market provides room for the masses to experience these deli staples injected with fine-dining attitude. Chef and co-owner Micah Wexler cooked in primetime kitchens like Tom Colicchio’s Craft and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which gifted him a lust for perfection. “It doesn’t matter if you’re searing foie gras or making pastrami, the experience you’re putting out should be the best,” he says. “We want you to have the best pastrami, the best bagel and lox, not the most interesting or creative." That’s why the sandwich shop smokes its own meat and fish and hand slices it to order. Keep it simple and order the Macarthur Park — a tribute to Langer’s — piled high with pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye paired with a Chocolate Phosphate, a fizzy throwback drink of seltzer, chocolate syrup and phosphoric acid.
Photo courtesy of Wexler's Deli
New York City: Sadelle's
This SoHo hotspot is so new you could probably still smell fresh paint if it weren’t for the heady wafts of freshly baked bagels and bear claws that embrace you like a hug upon crossing the threshold. Sadelle's serves breakfast and lunch (and soon, dinner), but co-owner Jeff Zalaznick says not to label them a deli. “We’re much more about New York classics than deli staples, although they are often interchangeable," he says. “We think of it as a bakery and New York cafe.” The Leo at breakfast, a juicy patty melt, and triple-decker sandwiches inspired by Town Hall Delicatessen keep customers lining up. The cuisine at Sadelle’s also playfully swings high to low. There’s everything from a $48 lunch salad containing a whole lobster and textbook steak tartare to pigs in blankets, but even those are refined. “We wrap cocktail franks in salami and then housemade puff pastry,” Zalaznick says.
Photo by Evan Sung
Philadelphia: Abe Fisher
If Yehuda Sichel keeps it up, he’ll turn a city that runs on Cheez Whiz into schmaltz addicts. The executive chef of Abe Fisher folds the chicken fat he’s deemed “as good as gold” into everything from rugelach and chopped liver to the steamed buns and rice that accompany his Chinatown-inspired duck dish. While the duck platter leaves lasting memories thanks to its sticky hoisin made from Polish plum butter and reduced Manischewitz, it’s Sichel’s Montreal short ribs served family style that have sprouted a cult following. Other signature dishes at the small-plates restaurant inspired by the Jewish diaspora include veal schnitzel tacos, a corned pork belly Reuben and salmon gravlax. Be sure to end every meal with a kosher-waiving bacon and egg cream that gets piped onto a pile of Oreos and maple custard, then stay for the bar scene.
Photo by Clay Williams
Pittsburgh: Nu Modern Jewish Bistro
Nu Modern Jewish Bistro serves a side of education with its fried kreplach and Jewish Penicillin, known to most as chicken soup. The schooling is in Yiddish. Flip your menu over for cheeky explainers, and always glance at the blackboard for the Yiddish word of the week. The name of the restaurant, after all, means “so?” in the language. In addition to serving family recipes and overstuffed sandwiches spilling with housemade Montreal smoked meat, Chef Risè Cohen has dreamed up some ethnic twists — contributing to the bistro’s newness such as a Jewbano sandwich or banh mi (Jewish style). The latter gets a generous slather of chopped liver. “The non-Jewish, younger crowed seems to appreciate our succulent meats, comparing them to pork belly, which they know,” says co-owner and sister to the chef Pamela Cohen. Since Nu is in the Steel City, don’t escape brunch without trying the Yinzer Hash with Montreal-smoked meat, cabbage, carrots and torn latkes.
Photo by Jacob Somogye
Portland, Ore.: Kenny & Zuke's
The City of Roses discovered it was missing pastrami in a big way when Ken Gordon started selling his oak-smoked meatsterpiece at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. It was instantly craved, causing Gordon to shutter his former restaurant and launch Kenny & Zuke's in 2007. While the toothy hand-rolled bagels and house-baked rye also shine, pastrami remains the North Star. Diners find it piled atop burgers, dogs and benedicts — and printed on “Body by Pastrami” T-shirts. While Gordon admits he’s not stuffing foie gras into matzo balls, he does take some liberties. “When Moses brought down the tablets, I’m pretty sure there were no Jewish deli menus printed on them; updating and playing around is fine,” he says. For example, Gordon is about to put smoked seitan vegan pastrami on the menu, despite jokingly calling it Satan. “Put it on the Reuben with all the gunk and it’s acceptable — it’s not pastrami, but it’s pretty damn close.”
Photo courtesy of Kenny & Zuke's
San Francisco: Wise Sons Deli
Wise Sons Deli has humble beginnings as a backyard BBQ experiment by co-founders Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman. Today, it thrives as a modern deli in The Mission focused on from-scratch cooking, and what Bloom calls the pillars of deli food: matzo ball soup, potato salad, pickles and pastrami. They also take some liberties such as the Deli Burger with beet-horseradish spread, deli mustard, iceberg, relish and red onion on grilled challah. The catch? The patty. “It’s a combination of ground raw beef and pastrami,” Blooms says. He’d had patties similarly boosted by bacon and started playing around. “Sometimes the best things are unplanned.” Wise Sons can be many things to many people — a hallmark of a good deli. They don’t phone in vegetarian options (smoked trumpet mushroom Reuben anyone?), and a small but mighty beverage program means you can have a local beer with your pastrami cheese fries.
Photo courtesy of Jason Dixson Photography
Washington, D.C.: DGS Delicatessen
When co-owner Nick Wiseman opened DGS Delicatessen, he didn’t anticipate the chopped liver flavor blasted with juniper and rosemary would be so popular. But the savory scoop served with chicken cracklings is symbolic of the deli’s vision of moving food forward. “Our motivation comes from when delis stagnated in the ‘50s during industrialization,” Wiseman says. “That’s when big brands made all the pastrami in the country, rather than selling quality, they sold kitsch.” DGS follows through by curing, pickling and brining in-house. They also slip in spins such as smoked salmon nachos, latke poutine and Reuben egg rolls. The last dish, Wiseman says, incorporates the Chinese takeout element of his Jewish upbringing. Though a sophisticated bar program might bump with your childhood memories of a deli, don’t ditch the cocktail list with drinks like the Prosecco-based Mazel Tov Cocktail and the classic New York Sour.
Photo by Laura Hayes