2013 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
DGS is no standard-issue deli. For starters, the Dupont Circle outpost comes with a bar. Further, the kitchen is more respectful than reverential regarding tradition.
Bluefish stands in for herring, because chef Barry Koslow likes that bluefish, which he pickles and drapes with salsa verde, is local and more abundant. I appreciate the way he thinks, and I dig the way he cooks. Koslow's chopped chicken liver laced with rosemary and sherry and studded with "Jewish bacon" (fried chicken skin) might be the best I've had outside someone's home, while his crisp golden chicken schnitzel bedded on tiny dumplings and garnished with pepper relish is a dish a generous grandmother would feed you.
There's too much salt in the otherwise appealing matzoh ball soup, but I wouldn't change a crumb of the bagels, wood-fired rounds from Montreal, or the fluffy cheesecake, which the chef bakes here. Open wide, too, for Andrea's Delight, which stacks corned beef, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing into a behemoth enclosed in double-baked rye.
The restaurant's initials are spelled out on the wall in the cozy upstairs dining room wrapped in brick; District Grocery Stores were a cooperative of Jewish-owned markets in the city at the turn of the 20th century. But today is reflected in the terrific wines selected by co-owner Brian Zipin and the choice cocktails that make DGS as diverting for drinking as for noshing.
It’s not from bubbe, but it’s not a bad start
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Approaching me from behind, my server cries, “Hello, gorgeous!”
Momentarily flattered, I’m quickly humbled. Hello, Gorgeous is the name of the cocktail I’ve ordered at the new DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle, and my attendant is merely announcing the drink -- sherry, Pimm’s, Dolin blanc and smoked orange juice -- as she places it on the table in front of me.
Cocktails aren’t the first detail you expect to notice in a delicatessen, but DGS is no ordinary source of pastrami and rye. Introduced in November by cousins Nick and David Wiseman, third-generation Washingtonians, with food by chef Barry Koslow, the two-story restaurant aims to freshen up familiar Jewish cooking while honoring its past: DGS stands for District Grocery Stores, a reference to the cooperative of Jewish-owned markets that dotted the local landscape at the turn of the 20th century.
Expectations are high. Washington doesn’t have a good track record for convincing delicatessens, even though the idea of them is on just about every chow hound’s wish list. The principals at DGS know what they’re up against and have done their homework, consulting with Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan and Washington baker Mark Furstenberg, and buying double-baked rye from Upper Crust Bakery in Beltsville and choice bagels from St. Viateur Bagel in Montreal. Koslow, who last cooked at
Tallula in Arlington, is making his own mustard, pickles and more. Not everything leaving the kitchen is equal, or consistent, but much of the food in these early months is promising.
You can’t call yourself a Jewish deli if you don’t serve matzo ball soup, so here it is, full of flavor from its pale golden chicken stock and supporting a centerpiece of surprising fluffiness. How does it maintain its shape yet be so light? The chef isn’t saying.
Koslow is more forthcoming about his superb chopped chicken liver, based on a recipe from food writer David Hagedorn’s grandmother and made luscious with its rosemary and sherry seasoning. Served in a “cup” of radicchio, the appetizer is studded with airy fried chicken skin, or what the chef likes to call “Jewish bacon,” for scooping. Lightly toasted dark rye bread serves as another escort.
There’s no herring on the menu. Instead, Koslow offers the more local and plentiful bluefish, which he pickles and drapes with a vivid salsa verde tweaked with chopped egg and capers.
Thinner and sweeter than their New York counterparts, the wood-fired Montreal bagels at DGS are alone a treat. Top them with smoked salmon pastrami, and you’ve got a nosh I could eat every day. The kitchen needs to hold back on the pickled mustard seeds, though, which when over-applied detract from the silken fish. The same is true of the pastrami sandwich, in which the very good slices of brined, smoked and steamed brisket (an eight-day process from start to finish) are smothered by mustard.
The dinner menu welcomes Schmutzy Fries, a comical riff on poutine that heaps excellent french fries with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and smoked meat. The snack is messy, fun and best shared, given its heft. (As a hangover cure, Schmutzy Fries are sure to give menudo stiff competition.)
Cabbage stuffed with ground beef comes with a tomato sauce that is more sweet than tang; I prefer a balance. The main course that looks least as if someone’s bubbe made it is the juicy mahi mahi kebab bedded on slippery orzo and chunks of eggplant. The lightest of the entrees, it is also the one that most reminds you you’re in a restaurant.
The nose tips off customers to one of the establishment’s missed opportunities. “I want to smell pickles” in a delicatessen, a wary friend says. She has a fair point. DGS, which opens with a sandwich counter you can’t actually order from, only watch at, and moves up a flight of stairs to a low-ceilinged dining area where the brick walls are painted with the deli’s name in faux aged letters, tilts sterile rather than scrappy. (Warning: It gets loud upstairs.) The intimate bar near the back door on street level doesn’t fit the usual deli picture, either, but that doesn’t mean some of us don’t appreciate it. A simple bowl of (satisfying) borscht is positively festive in the company of a flute of champagne, gin, lime and lavender syrup, a.k.a. the Mazel Tov.
Kudos to general manager and sommelier Brian Zipin for making DGS as enticing a place to drink as to fress. His former good work at Central Michel Richard downtown shows up on a beverage program that embraces all the liquid pleasures, from celery and cream soda on up. However, it’s his wine list that I’m most drawn to, in part for the way it flatters the food, in part for some offbeat selections -- a quirky red from Austria, an offbeat pinot blanc from Alsace -- and definitely for the prices. There doesn’t appear to be a price-gouger in the bunch; focused on Old World wines, they average $45 a bottle.
Koslow bakes his own cheesecake, which I appreciate for its fluffy texture and sprinkling of tart cranberries. The only way I can finish the chef’s brand of teiglach is if I have help; the syrupy, doughnut-like balls sprinkled with candied slivered almonds are shockingly, authentically, sweet.
DGS has some wrinkles to iron out. The knish with its center of lentils and sweet lamb more closely resembles an Indian samosa, and the coleslaw, while fresh and crisp, was overwhelmed by salt. Smoked chicken is one night perfumed and succulent; another visit, just plain old chicken with roasted potatoes and too-sweet kale. I also have a hunch the vigilant service I’ve received is due to being tagged as a critic and not because every staff member is equally diligent.
Even so, the arrival of even a merely good delicatessen -- respectful if not reverential -- gets Washington closer to striking a line off its restaurant wish list.