TOOJAY'S -- 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 686-1989. Open: Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $4.75, entrees $4.50 to $11.95. Dinner with tax and tip about $10 to $15 per
WE'RE GETTING CLOSER TO the deli of our dreams. Until now we've had elements of it here and there: the pastrami and corned beef at the Carnegie Deli, the well- worn ethnic atmosphere of the Parkway Deli. And now we have another piece of the puzzle, the potato pancakes at Toojay's.
Toojay's is a Palm Beach, Fla., deli chain that, after eight Florida locations, somehow decided to open its ninth in Washington. It seems to have brought along not only its menu, recipes and staff, but also its customers. The first time I tried Toojay's, just a couple of weeks after it opened, it was packed with lunchers who looked as if they had just wandered over from poolside at their condos -- bleached bouffants, pastel argyle sweaters, white loafers and all, perfectly blending with the pink-and-aqua Formica decor. In August, what other brand-new and enormous restaurant could be full at Tuesday lunch?
By the second month, the crowd looked more local and larger than ever. One deli-starved Bethesdan said she had been there five times in the last week.
Toojay's seems to be getting it right, even down to some really terrible cooking. Part of being an authentic New York/Florida-style Jewish deli, I am convinced, is that some dishes are supposed to be bad. No deli owner is likely to admit this, but I've made a study of it over the years. Why else would Toojay's offer a seafood salad composed of red-rimmed fake crab -- with slightly sweet mayonnaise -- and boast of it as "Our Most Popular Seafood Salad"? Ditto the layer cakes, a bakery case full of tall fluffy creations that may look like fantasies to those on a perpetual diet but taste of overkill to people more sanguine about eating desserts. Toojay's has accomplished what many thought impossible -- a cake that is too chocolatey.
The knishes aren't the knishes of my grandmother's generation; with their strange yellow dough wrappers, they look more like the knishes Manhattan street vendors sell. And while the dining room staff is far too cheery and agreeable to fit the traditional deli mold, the kitchen staff makes up for them in churlishness: When I ordered a meat knish, then discovered it was kasha instead, the waitress returned it to the kitchen and reported back, "They were out of meat knishes, so they gave you the closest thing."
On a more positive note, the sandwiches are conversation pieces. You can order them overstuffed or just stuffed, and even the lesser ones are piled so high that the meat upstages the bread. While the pastrami is ordinary -- spongy and faintly peppered -- the corned beef has tang and flavor. Both are so lean that some customers might wish they'd asked for a fatty cut. The turkey has a fresh-roasted quality. And the chopped liver is wonderful, with a homey, coarse texture and the sweet mild flavor of fresh chicken livers. As an appetizer at $3.50 it is enough for a meal; as a sandwich at $4.95 it is enough for a day.
The coleslaw, very creamy and studded with celery seeds, tastes sharp, sweet and crunchy and far better than most. Other side dishes show less character -- everyday frozen french fries and pickles that don't taste even faintly Jewish. For a Florida touch, the platters are garnished with wedges of melon.
This is a mod second-generation deli, with trendy pasta salads, four kinds of chicken salad, even a wheat-berry salad for the nutritionally committed. Except for the last, though, the salads I've tasted have been dry, bland, oversalted or otherwise dreary. The menu also lists a whole diet section (including a diet hamburger platter with a scoop of cottage cheese, I kid you not) and "dinner specialties" from stir-fries to brisket, pot pies and a catch of the day.
But it's traditional deli food we've been craving. And the potato pancakes are enough to bring me back often. They are thicker than most, coarsely grated and barely held together with flour and egg. So the taste and texture of potato is retained, while the surface is lacy and crunchy -- as well as free of excess grease.
Toojay's also makes respectable matzo ball soup, with bits of chicken and vegetable adding body to the broth. Those matzo balls are light and flavorful dumplings -- indeed, so light that they tend to fall apart, but their imperfection is part of their charm.
And while I can find chicken salad or burgers anywhere, there aren't many places other than Toojay's where there is such nostalgia-laden stuffed cabbage, its filling lean and meaty, its sauce powerfully sweet and sour.
A couple of the deli traditions miss, though. The blintz filling is creamy and sweet, like melted cheesecake, and the wrappers are too thick. As for the smoked fish -- for some of us the backbone of a deli -- it is second-rate at Toojay's. The Nova Scotia salmon is mushy and bland rather than delicate, turning the nova, eggs and onions into a pretty wimpy omelet. The kippered salmon has even less taste, and the whitefish salad is an oddly pink and pasty concoction that hits your palate with little more than smoke and salt.
The bagels have sometimes been so pale that I've wondered if they had been baked at all, and their gummy texture takes them out of the competition with Washington's best. How about the rye bread? It is a metaphor for this deli. It looks impressive, since it is thickly sliced. The first bite leads you to the brink of
celebration, since the crust crackles on the tongue. But inside it's squishy, and tastes like caraway-flavored white bread. It is what you would expect from "rye-style" frozen dough you'd just baked for dinner.
Desserts are a big deal here, as the pastry case suggests. And while I've found most of them just showoffs without a lot of character, I am fond of the key lime pie. The cream tastes real, and the lime flavor is strong and tart. Toojay's also serves a good cup of coffee, though surely it could extend its beverages to include egg creams and a glass of seltzer in addition to the old-fashioned bottled soft drinks.
Toojay's has brought Florida style to Washington's deli scene. It could use a little more substance, but its prices are reasonable -- particularly ounce for ounce. And it can keep us happily diverted with potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage while we wait for the Prince Charming of delis to wake us from our dreams.