CARNEGIE DELI -- Embassy Suites Hotel, 8517 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 790-5001. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. No reservations. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4.50 to $9.25, sandwiches $3.95 to $12.75, entrees $3.95 to $16.95. Full dinner with egg cream or beer, tax and tip about $15 to $20 per person.
We finally got what we wanted -- a real New York deli. But an Embassy Suites Hotel in Tysons Corner isn't Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, so it is going to be tricky for the Carnegie Deli to thrive in this unnatural environment.
To some people, a New York deli is the food: pungently cured pastrami and corned beef, potato pancakes and blintzes made in-house. To some, what's crucial is the style of service -- as crusty as the bread and as presumptuous as your own mother. And there are those for whom a deli has to look, sound, smell and feel like a New York deli or they dismiss it totally.
The last two groups can save themselves a trip. The Carnegie Deli looks like a Hyatt Hotel lobby with salamis substituting for hanging ferns. At the entrance are modern sculpture, a waterfall and a marble stairway studded with those rows of tiny lights that make it look like an MGM musical. The dining area itself isn't far off the deli mark, though. Its walls are covered with photos of the original Carnegie, and its green tables are a little too pristine but not anti-deli. Still, you don't have to sit elbow to elbow with strangers at long tables as you do in the Manhattan Carnegie, so real New Yorkers might feel lonely.
The service is clearly more southern than New York, more youthful than age-toughened. The waiters haven't trained with Henny Youngman to deliver their lines, and you'd never see anyone remotely like them in a Woody Allen movie. But, hey, when a guy can distribute half a dozen open bottles of soda from his apron pockets faster than you can say, "I ordered seltzer, not club soda," it's only a matter of time before he gets the whole shtick right. These young waiters are toughening by the minute, and in another 30 years, when they have been here as long as the New York Carnegie's waiters, they'll be great. So if you stick around for the food and forgive the fresh youth of the environment and staff, you'll find the Tysons Carnegie a pretty close relation of the New York original.
The centerpiece of this operation is the pastrami sandwich. And while I don't want to give away the punch line to anyone who hasn't seen a Carnegie pastrami sandwich, one look and you'll never forget it. This sandwich is probably cheaper by the pound than even the mediocre pastrami you buy at your nearby deli carryout. In fact, all the sandwiches are astounding, at least in size. And the Tysons pastrami is every bit as good as the New York pastrami -- as long as it is served hot and hasn't been left to dry out. Ditto the corned beef.
In other words, Tysons is getting the same wonderful stuff as the original (except rye bread, which is made locally and is pretty good). The difference is in the handling by the Tysons kitchen. Foods are sometimes kept too long, reheated harshly or carved incorrectly.
Sometimes the kitchen seems to have not the faintest idea of what deli food is supposed to be. I've had a counterman tell me that the chopped liver tasted sour not because it was going bad, but because somebody must have accidentally put pickle juice in it. And once, the stuffed cabbage was not only insufferably vinegary but too tough to chew. Pirogi have been left to stand until they developed a tough skin, and on a brisket platter the meat was cut with the grain rather than against it and hacked so thick that it tasted like rope in gravy.
You don't have to dismiss the Carnegie altogether for its ignorance, though. When the Carnegie is on target, you can get the best pickled herring and whitefish south of Baltimore. The chopped liver is smooth and mellow, in the grand schmaltzy tradition of Jewish-mother cooking. And the stuffed kishka is a revelation. If you don't know about stuffed kishka, it's like a sliced roll of pure'ed turkey stuffing, but finer, richer and drenched in a gutsy dark gravy. And while the chicken soup is not as good as homemade, it comes with matzo balls or kreplach, those meat- stuffed dumplings that have nearly disappeared from the scene.
Somebody at the table has to order a sandwich to share, and you should at least see the reuben, piled so high with corned beef and sauerkraut under its melted swiss cheese that it looks like two heads of cauliflower au gratin. But don't stop at sandwiches. The cheese blintzes are stellar -- with the lightest and thinnest of pancake wrappers and a soft, sweet farmer cheese filling. Among the hot entrees, the saute'ed chicken livers are so perfectly cooked that the Carnegie ought to give classes to show how to choose delicate fresh livers and saute' them crusty but just pink enough that they nearly melt when you eat them. Those chicken livers give me hope for the short ribs, chicken paprikash, corned beef hash, boiled flanken and goulash, which were recently added to the menu. Carnegie has also branched out into the likes of pasta pesto primavera, but I'll stick to tradition.
As for side dishes, the potato pancakes were revised midstream. Though still thick, crisp and good, they now taste more like McDonald's hash browns and less homemade. The onion rings are thick-cut bermudas in a light puff of batter, worthy competition for the potato pancakes. The potato salad and coleslaw are fresh, good plain versions of deli salads. And the pickles, which serve as centerpieces as well as something to nibble, are the real article.
You wouldn't want to escape the Carnegie without at least a bite of cheesecake, this one so dense and thick it sticks to the fork. And if you have room for other desserts, the chocolate mousse pie is as rich as ice cream and even better, and the rugelach are homey and flaky.
Skip the gefilte fish, which tastes as if it came from a jar, and ditto the borscht. After repeated attempts, I would advise against the brisket -- it is just too drearily dry. The tongue is ordinary, the liverwurst is not even ordinary, and the big fat omelets are overcooked as well as bland. The smoked fish occasionally have hung around too long; sturgeon has sometimes been crumbly, smoked salmon fishy and oily and whitefish chewy.
There may be even more to miss. The menu at the Carnegie is as overwhelming as its sandwiches, and much should be weeded out to find the true deli at its core. Prices -- a notch below New York's -- are astonishingly low if measured by the ounce.
A great deli is, by definition, an age-worn deli. If Carnegie keeps trying and deli fans are patient, we eventually could find ourselves with one. In the meantime, Washington at last has a place to go for a great pastrami sandwich. ::