By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008
With a lifetime of pastrami pilgrimages under my belt, I have learned this much: There is good deli, and there is great deli.
Baltimore's northwest suburban community of Pikesville, home to more than 4,000 Orthodox Jewish families and a shopping mecca for the 100,000 Jews who live in the area, is a place that has plenty of both, along with the just so-so. Most of the 40 or 50 kosher and kosher-style businesses are concentrated on or near a mile-long stretch of Reisterstown Road that ought to have an unofficial moniker but doesn't.
Working one's way across the strip could take years and cause considerable heartburn. Luckily, I was able to tap into a higher power, in the form of native son Eli W. Schlossberg, who offered a guided tour.
Schlossberg knows from great food. He grew up working in his father's business, delivering specialty goods to food concerns in Baltimore and to high-end chefs in Washington. The 58-year-old Orthodox Jew has his own food consulting business now, and a midsection that underscores his success. Plus, he's a man of letters, having written a primer called "The World of Orthodox Judaism" in 2004 and an article about the evolution of kosher Baltimore.
What makes food kosher? The explanation could fill a stockpot, but Schlossberg sums it up in his book as food that is good for the soul but not necessarily healthful. Three principles define it: acceptable ingredients, as specifically permitted by Jewish dietary law; strictly defined and supervised methods of preparation (such as making baked goods without non-kosher animal fats); and guidelines under which it may be served (as in, meat and dairy products may not be eaten together). An observant Jew must recite a blessing before meals, which is why there are discreet washing stations with prayer materials in the restaurants where Orthodox Jews eat.
Old-timers say there's less good kosher food to choose from now, not like the days when many of the kosher shops were downtown. Schlossberg disagrees: "There's so much more of everything! Bookstores and paper goods and wine shops and the 7-Mile Market, one of the biggest kosher grocers in America. What can't you find here?"
Still, a casual weekend visitor might be confused. On any given Saturday, the traditional day of rest for observant Jews, some businesses are open. What gives? As Schlossberg explained, those owned solely by Orthodox Jews and offering kosher goods do not operate on the Sabbath. Other shops are only kosher-style.
So unless a Jewish fasting holiday falls across a weekend (as happened yesterday and today, causing lots of Pikesville places to close), a Saturday visit to Miller's Delicatessen (2849 Smith Ave., 410-602-2233; http://www.fetchfood.com) is possible because the place is not really kosher, only kosher-style. It's about a half-mile off the main drag, in the Greenspring Shopping Center. Close menu inspection tells the tale: a ham club sandwich, crab cakes (pork and shellfish are kosher no-nos). Miller's carries hundreds of kosher wines and liqueurs from dozens of countries.
Schlossberg and I cruise past a "glatt kosher" (literally "smooth" in Yiddish; signifies a higher standard of kosher law) Subway and a kosher Dunkin' Donuts. The chain uses nondairy cheese with its meat sandwiches.
Edmart Delicatessen is open daily, including Saturdays (1427 Reisterstown Rd., 410-486-5558; http://www.edmartdeli.com). A pull on the front door unleashes the welcoming essence of pickle barrel. Come for the first-cut Romanian pastrami, center-cut tongue and outstanding coleslaw, all house-made, and for the huge loaves of rye, straight from nearby Rosendorf's Bakery, the wholesale purveyor of most challahs sold in the corridor stores.
The 50-year-old deli is a favorite of Schlossberg's even though he can eat only the packaged kosher food there, not what is prepared in the tiny Edmart kitchen. Schlossberg was a lifelong fan of the deli's founder, the late Martin Lev.
On Sundays, the kosher businesses reawaken, though with shortened hours. The Knish Shop (508 Reisterstown Rd., 410-484-5850; http://www.theknishshop.com) gets busy fast. A case in front features seven kinds of baked, filled dumplings, each the size of a fist. Yet Mosi Treuhaft, 28, who has owned the 36-year-old shop for the past three years, says the knishes are just . . . okay. (They are better than that, in fact.) He refers us instead to a choice of chopped liver: his own or the one made by the Liebes family, a local food dynasty.
The Milk & Honey Bistro is relatively new (since 1991, dairy only; 1777 Reisterstown Rd., 410-486-4344), with a deserved reputation as one of the best soup places in the area. Three kinds are made fresh daily; the mushroom barley is transcendent and rich-tasting.
Of the four bakeries along the strip, Schmell and Azman's (7006 Reisterstown Rd., 410-484-7343) always has several kinds of hamantaschen, a tricorn pastry most of us find only during the Jewish holiday of Purim, and the bakery's signature hunks of ribbon cake, a multicolor layered loaf cake with chocolate icing. Goldman's Kosher Bakery (6848 Reisterstown Rd., 410-358-9625; http://www.goldmanskosherbakery.com) is known for its fancifully decorated items for special occasions. A summertime specialty not to be missed is the fresh peach cake. Goldman's has one of the cleanest bakery kitchens I've ever seen.
For me, the highlight of Schlossberg's tour is Wasserman & Lemberger (7006-D Reisterstown Rd., 410-486-4196), a kosher butcher shop that goes back 60 years, famous for its lean ground beef. White coats, big knives, cases filled with food that is obviously fresh and reasonably priced: It's heartening to realize such commerce still thrives and is only an hour's drive away.
Owner Ari Benjamin offers us samples from five varieties of house-made aufschnitt, a deli loaf artfully composed of different meats such as corned beef, salami and veal. Sliced thin, it's sweet and delicate, and something I didn't know I wanted to buy when I came in. Organize a shopping list and get in line. The W&L guys like to keep the customers moving, and closing time on Sunday is 2:30 p.m.
Later in the day, sushi chef David Wang has begun assembling spicy tuna rolls at the front of Accents Grill, a kosher deli back in the Greenspring Shopping Center (2839 Smith Ave., 410-602-2224; http://www.accentskosher.com). Fresh sushi and good Chinese food will always find an audience among hungry Jews, Orthodox or not. The grill has a nice vibe; patrons can sit in a leafy atrium flanked by Cocoaccino's (410-653-3888; http://www.cocoaccinos.com), a friendly coffee/ice cream/salad carryout. Accents owner Larry Franks fills his freezer cases with excellent kugels to go and more.
Schlossberg has whisked me from butchers to bakers to matzoh ball makers and to other notable businesses, too: among them, Shabsi's Judaica Center (see "Where to Go," at right); A to Z Savings, a paper goods and party supplies store with prices below wholesale (6307 Reisterstown Rd., 410-358-6611); and the 7-Mile Market (4000 Seven Mile Lane, 410-653-2000; http://www.sevenmilemarket.com), where all 20,000 or so products are kosher and fresh fish can be ground to order.
He has shown me more than even a committed deli lover might want to cover in a day or so. But I realize that this long weekend calls for many return engagements, with pickle spears on the side.