Saturday, January 30, 2010

Much ado about deli...

Without further ado (or much ado about nothing…), let’s review some of the highs, and lows, of the local deli delights…

Filling the bill (and the belly) of my traditional deli experiences would be Rein’s in Vernon, CT, Zaftig’s in Brookline and the S & S Restaurant in Inman Square in Cambridge. Kugel’s in Framingham is a close, but not quite, wannabe, and Joan & Ed’s is like a “Stepford” deli-has some fake essence of the real thing, but not quite real at all.

Let’s discuss.

As I have said in prior posts, my delis need to have big sandwiches, great pickles, traditional “Jewish-style” delicacies (in other words, some foods normal people wouldn’t be caught dead eating, although many of these food will kill you) and some sweaty guy in the back cutting some smoked meat. Great delis will be very popular, and engender a dedicated following. Honestly, there aren’t that many here to choose from, but here goes…from the bottom:

Joan and Ed’s Deli, Natick, MA-I gotta admit, like a dog whistle, this is lost on me. I have never enjoyed one thing I’ve eaten there. I find it passable, but their location (at the former Shopper’s World in Framingham) went from bad to worse when they moved across to the strip plaza at Sherwood Plaza. While they have a deli case up front for take out and “per pound” deli, there is something not quite right about it. I find the affect of the staff to be off-putting, and their prices surprisingly high for food whose quality is somewhat questionable. I know they have followers, but I’m not one, though they do a big “shiva” business. On a positive note, they give you the requisite half-sour pickles and a small container of cole slaw at the time of seating. Just don’t dare ask for more…

Kugels, Framingham, MA-Kugels has been a favored breakfast place among the locals and older crowd. They have switched owners a few times, but the menu seems to stay the same. They have the usual standards, both for breakfast and lunch. I have to admit I do like a good breakfast, and the few times I’ve eaten there, it’s been good enough. Problematically, it’s very small, and in an obscure location (in Trolley Square in Framingham Center). The tables are squeezed together tightly, and I could smell the guy at the next table better than I could smell my food. Though the menu says “deli”, the environment is more “sandwich shop”. That being said, I went for lunch yesterday and had a hot brisket sandwich, with extra gravy on the side for dipping. Though the brisket was sliced thinner than I’d like, it was tasty. My dining companion Sterling got a fresh-roasted turkey sandwich, which was too large for her to finish, but was fresh and tasty as well. Kugels is about half way to being a deli. The menu is right, but not the location or décor.

S & S Restaurant, Cambridge, MA-The S & S is pretty close to what people imagine for a deli, except without the hanging meat, guys with filthy aprons, or cutesy deli décor. It’s a big floor plan, with multiple rooms, and really long lines. You can always tell a popular deli by people’s willingness to wait for the food-I am usually unwilling. I admit that I was only there for a breakfast on a Sunday morning, but it was packed with all sorts of people ordering all the classic deli breakfasts…smoked fish, bagels, eggs. The lunch menu looks huge, with all the standards…if you’re in Cambridge, this could be a place to eat.

Rein’s Deli, Vernon, CT-I always think that you have to beware of places that are so well known. If you have ever driven I-84 from Boston to NY, you know that passing through the Nutmeg State (is that the best CT could do?) means passing Rein’s in Vernon, CT. I admit that not only did I pass it, I did so with glee, not being pulled in by its siren song of smoked meats. I remember going there once when I was a kid, and my parents being shocked at the prices. Now as an adult, I passed it for years, never having the desire to stop. That changed about a year ago, when I was convinced by some traveling companions to pull in for a sandwich.

Rein’s touts itself as a New York style deli. It’s at the end of a strip plaza, and when you walk in, there is usually a huge line, but in true NY fashion, the wait staff hurries you out and pushes people through. Though the lines are long, the wait is not, but be forewarned, you’ll be shown the door as soon as your plate is cleared.

Rein’s menu is typical deli, but they have the décor and good to back it up. I think on my most recent trip there, they may have switched to all Hebrew National meats, except the smoked ham, of course. Their menu is huge, and you can get sandwiches in two sizes. I like a good Reuben and Rachel (cole slaw instead of sour kraut), and Rein’s makes a pretty decent one. Their fries, as touted by my friend Judy, are really good, and since Rein’s is on the direct route between Boston and NY City, you’re bound to see someone you know. The Fung Wah bus won’t be stopping here, but probably a day trip from Hebrew Senior Life.

Zaftig’s, Brookline, MA-this is an updated version of an old-fashioned deli. The menu is replete with the usual suspects…the knishes, the kishke, the kugel…but filled with so much more. They serve breakfast anytime (better than Bickford’s), and along with the basic omelets, they have some funky offerings such as a Mackintosh Apple and Vermont Cheddar omelet. I had a corned beef Rachel (light rye, corned beef, cole slaw and Russian dressing, no cheese, toasted). The ambiance is right on, the menu covers all the bases, and then some, and the food is good. Your daddy’s deli, this ain’t, and I like it. Apparently I like my delis like my women and Zaftig’s in Brookline was the best of the bunch.

Honorable mention has to go to the best sandwich shop hoping to be a deli-Sam LaGrassa’s in the Downtown Crossing area of Boston. I saw LaGrassa’s on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network, and met up with charter subscriber Ben there for lunch this past week. LaGrassa’s is a small place with some individual and communal tables. The have a huge sandwich menu, and everything is made right out in the open. The table of steamed smoked meats and cold cuts looks good, and they have prompt and efficient service. Ben and I got the same thing-the pastrami/corned beef combo with Russian dressing and cole slaw. A non-toasted Rachel, with double the fat content. Quite delicious, though I didn’t feel that well after eating. I wonder if it was my body’s way of saying “enough is enough”.

LaGrassa’s had some nice sandwiches, and the stuff other people were eating also looked good, but without the traditional deli items, it isn’t really a deli. I would give it a strong recommendation for a sandwich shop, but for a “deli”, not so much.

While I have enjoyed this trip around the knish for you, I think I need to follow my mother, and doctor’s advice-next food quest, salads!!!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deli Dearth

As I waddle from deli to deli, I’ve come to the realization that you ask five people where to find a good deli, and you get 10 opinions, and those opinions won’t even agree on what makes a deli. Having been to many places, I have particular images that are conjourned when I hear the word deli.

About 15 years ago, a colleague invited me to meet him for lunch; he said that he had just discovered a new “deli” in my town, and wanted to grab a sandwich; he told me he’d pick me up in 10 minutes. I hop in the car, and he tells me it’s up the street. I have lived in the MetroWest my whole life, pretty much, and I know every place, and I hadn’t sniffed out a new deli, especially one right on Route 30 in Framingham, but I’ll play along. So he drives us over to the Lechmere Mall, and takes me to “Makkas Pizza”. I said to him “Dude, this is a pizza joint.” He says “yeah, but they have good sandwiches.” Well, that ain’t no deli.

That incident always reminds me how we all have different views of things. To my friend, who hails from the south, any sandwich shop I guess qualifies as a deli. I suppose he would think that “Subway” or “D’Angelo’s” qualifies. I suppose some people think a deli is any place that can produce deli-meat sandwiches, in which case “Store 24” or your local Shell Gas Mart qualify. Now that’s good eatin’.

As an aside, this is not to say that you can’t buy good deli meat at a deli counter in a market. I am particularly fond of the hot pastrami (out of a steam table) at The Crown Market in West Hartford, CT or the corned beef at Larry Levine’s in Peabody, MA (in addition to the corned beef, they sell the most sublime Hebrew National Natural Casing Hot Dogs…).

As I said in an earlier post: “One thing that I have observed over the years is the differing ideas of what really make a “deli”. To me, with my heritage, I expect a massive menu of over-stuffed sandwiches, as well as other traditional sides (such as knishes, kasha, and kishke). The ambiance is completed by pickles in jars, salamis and other netted meats hanging from the ceiling, and sweaty old men in filthy, formerly white aprons, cutting the meat and swearing under their breath in Yiddish.” Mostly, it means feeling a little guilty you’ve eaten some of this stuff, and knowing you shouldn’t be doing this on an every day basis.

I have discovered that there is a dearth of delis in the Metro Boston area…even Boston itself doesn’t have that many. In addition to the few I’ve already posted about, I have eaten at six others. As my arteries clear, I have begun my reviews. In tomorrow and Saturday’s posts, in anticipation of my appearance on WBZ 1030AM Saturday night at midnight on the “Jordan Rich Show”, I will share my thoughts with you on the local deli scene, as well as my favorite.

For now, enjoy some stuffed derma…it’ll get you right in the “kishkes”…

Sunday, January 10, 2010

No Oasis...

I thought I’d kick off the details of the deli quest by describing our experience at the “Deli Kasbah”. It’s been several months since I “enjoyed” this experience, but some things just stick with you for a while, including the meal itself.

I note from their website that they are now known as just “Kasbah”-this is probably just as well, because it was less a deli and more a full-serve restaurant. And by “full-serve”, I mean that our waiter was as warm as Mickey Goldmill or Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”.

This could have been one of the stranger dining experiences ever. First, the place is located in a basement at 251 WEST 85th Street NY, NY-to get there, you go down two steps, physically, and socially. Second, they have flat panel TVs all around the restaurant. In your normal place, they’d be showing a football or baseball game. At the Deli Kasbah, where the owners apparently belong to the Chabad movement, they are showing propaganda films of the Lubavitcher Rabbi lecturing throngs of people about the coming of the Messiah. You can only imagine the scene; this film was just like the ones you see from Germany in the 30s, except there’s the late Rabbi pounding his fist on a podium. The sound was turned down, but I could only imagine him yelling “you, eating the corned beef…what’s the matter with you? Why haven’t you called your mother? Wear a sweater, it’s cold out. Where’s your hat? Try the chicken soup…Donate money...” It was very disconcerting.

The food was ok, but if you check the menu, you can see it’s more regular meals than deli. I did get pastrami, which was better than average, but not great. Other people got a Middle Eastern plate with hummus and a variety of meat dishes.

In addition to the usual deli sandwiches, they have some uniquely named meals. There’s “Yoseph’s Dream Steak” where apparently, instead of interpreting dreams about the baker and butler, he’s dreaming about a “Tender center cut rib eye steak, sliced and marinated by our chef in a red wine and mushroom sauce "Joey's Special" Eric says-that’s great, as long as “Joey” doesn’t mean “baby kangaroo”. There’s also “King Moshiach’s Rib Steak”, described as “a 22 oz. rib steak with a HUGE bone, served with red wine sauce” (emphasis theirs). The bone is so HUGE, it’s really 4 ounces of meat and 18 ounces of bone, for a mere $44.95. For that price, the Rebbe should cut it up and serve it to you.

The food was fine, but this was not a particularly good example of a NY deli. Next…

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Breaking Bread

A brief break from injecting corned beef pickling into my veins. I’d love to hear from some of you about what makes a shop a “deli”. How do you define deli? I want to make I hit a broad cross-section for the consuming public…so bring it on.