A battered sign in Yiddish hangs near portraits of rabbis on a gleaming white-tile wall. Jewish memorial yahrzeit candles occupy a high shelf. The chalkboard menu touts soul-warming comfort foods: whitefish salad and chopped liver, schmaltz herring and lox, rugelach and halvah.
Shelsky’s of Brooklyn looks like a classic New York “appetizing” shop, where Eastern European Jewish specialties have been sold for generations. Except it’s three years old. And it’s run by a wisecracking 30-something former chef whose right arm bears a pig tattoo. And its luscious house-cured salmon can come in such palate-popping flavors as Szechuan Kung Pao or Jamaican Jerk.
Welcome to the New York Jewish deli, circa 2014.
Grumpy waiters, grimy rooms, so-so edibles? Fuhgeddaboutit. At hip Hebraic hangouts like Shelsky’s (141 Court St., Brooklyn; 718-855-8817, www.shelskys.com), gourmands are reinterpreting the foods of their forebears in thrilling new ways. And they’ve made Jewish food an unlikely hot ticket for New York’s famously fickle foodies. Leave Carnegie Deli to the guidebook crowd; the trend puts a whole new spin on a New York must-have.
“Deli has become cool again, but it never went away,” says Peter Shelsky, who opened Shelsky’s in 2011 after spending “hours” in line each weekend at Russ and Daughters, the century-old Lower East Side mothership of New York’s appetizing culture. “People are rediscovering what they already knew.”
Purveyors like Shelsky aren’t just dishing up nostalgia. While working within a familiar culinary canon, they’re applying very contemporary flourishes — think ingredient-driven, farm-to-table, handmade and every other ethos that drives today’s restaurant culture.
So, although Shelsky sells gefilte fish based on his Grandma Yetta’s recipe, his deli also offers exquisite aquavit-cured gravlax ($11.99 for a quarter pound) and off-kilter sandwiches like the El Vicente ($15.50), with sturgeon and jalapenos, and irresistible, it turns out, on a bialy.
Those kinds of riffs have also sparked controversy among deli purists, who question how real “traditional” food can taste in a restaurant that has been open less time than it takes salmon to spawn.
“Authenticity isn’t the tiles on the floor or old photos on the wall,” counters Noah Bernamoff, whose tiny Mile End Deli in Brooklyn (97A Hoyt St., 718-852-7510, www.mileenddeli.com) helped ignite the nouveau-Jewish craze when it opened in 2010 with a bare-bones menu of such Old World specialties as smoked meat or Montreal-style cured beef. “It’s in the method. We expend a great deal of energy and money to make homemade products. That’s what makes us authentic.”
It’s hard to argue after tasting Mile End’s sublimely simple chicken-and-matzoh-ball soup ($8) or the darkly earthy chopped liver with gribenes ($9), the Jewish version of chicken cracklings.
Mile End’s success led to a second location in Manhattan and a busy catering business. Bernamoff’s newest project, Black Seed (170 Elizabeth St., 212-730-1950, www.blackseedbagels.com), salutes the legendary bagel stores of Montreal, where we both grew up. His bagels, a hybrid of Montreal chew and New York lightness, have achieved cronut status among Manhattan cognoscenti; expect long lines if you visit the sleek, wood-paneled Nolita shop on weekends. Lox and dill spread with radishes and sprouts ($7), heaven on a rich pumpernickel bagel, is worth the wait.
“Black Seed is about classics,” Bernamoff said. “We’re not making stupid flavors like blueberry or chocolate chip. The great institutions of bagel serve basics, and that’s what we do.”
Down the street, Bari Musacchio and David Heffernan took the same approach with Baz Bagel (181 Grand St., 212-335-0609, www.bazbagel.com), their two-month-old appetizing shop and bagelry on Little Italy’s eastern fringe. The pair met at legendary 106-year-old Upper West Side smoked-fish emporium Barney Greengrass, where Heffernan was a server and Musacchio a longtime customer. Both lived in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood; why, they commiserated, don’t we have a place like this near us?
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Musacchio, 32, told me over a plate of butter-soft house-cured gravlax ($10) with a puffy, perfectly chewy bagel forged in Baz’s own kitchen. “Our food’s straightforward. There’s no need for deconstructed latkes on tiny plates.”
Decked out like a mid-century diner, complete with a shiny white counter and vinyl banquettes, Baz Bagels might offer the most traditionalist menu of the new wave, with respectful treatments of comfort food such as kasha varnishkes ($5), matzoh brei ($9), and perfect latkes ($10) — “all the things I ate growing up,” Musacchio said.
Why, I asked, should customers eat at Baz when places like Barney Greengrass are still very much kicking? “We have music. We actually have customer service. And it’s fun,” she said. “I love the rough-around-the-edges places. But that’s not us.”
Theo Peck takes more license with the Jewish canon at Peck’s (455A Myrtle Ave., 347-689-4969), his bright-blue storefront in Brooklyn’s bustling Clinton Hill neighborhood. But as deli royalty — his great-grandfather Jacob Harmatz founded Ratner’s, the legendary Lower East Side kosher-dairy palace — he seems entitled.
“I’m tweaking it,” Peck told me from behind the counter of his five-month-old shop. “But it’s important that there’s some part of the tradition to it, and that it’s not just Jewish food in name.”
Although he offers old-school renditions of deli staples, Peck’s signature has been lighter doppelgangers of Jewish dishes. His French-style chicken liver terrine plays off Peck’s coarser chopped liver. His tzimmes — typically made of carrots and honey — includes roasted carrots soaked in carrot juice and honey with salsa verde buttermilk dressing, a condiment that did not appear at our Seder tables. Crème fraîche, rather than mayonnaise, lubricates his ethereal whitefish salad.
If there’s any place that bridges the deli’s past and future — literally — it’s Russ and Daughters Cafe (127 Orchard St., 212-475-4881, www.russanddaughterscafe.com). The four-month-old restaurant is the first sit-down extension of the beloved Russ and Daughters shop around the corner; owners Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, both in their 30s, are great-grandchildren of the founders.
The cafe’s lustrous white counter and backlit metal signs touting “BAGELS” and “CHUBS” will look familiar to anyone who’s made the Russ and Daughters pilgrimage. “We didn’t open in response to this new appreciation of Jewish food, and we’re not riding trends,” Tupper insisted. “We do what we do, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Their lineage shines through in classic treatments of noodle kugel ($7), superb schmaltz herring ($12) served with a shot of vodka, and soul-warming potato knishes ($8) with caramelized onion. There is, however, an incongruity in paying $18 for a sable-and-bialy plate called “the Shtetl.”
“It’s a huge irony,” says Ted Merwin, an associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who studies Jewish food and culture. “This used to be cheap food, street food. But this is post-modern American culture, in which we don’t care about context.”
At least deli purists still have Katz’s (205 E. Houston St., 212-254-2246, katzsdelicatessen.com), the behemoth that dominates the Lower East Side corner where it opened a century ago. Rather than pushcarts, Katz’s neighbors are now boutiques hawking $400 Japanese selvedge jeans. But aside from prices — a pastrami sandwich clocks in at about $18 now — little has changed. Under fluorescent lights in a cavernous dining room, Wall Street suits chow down on sky-high pastrami sandwiches beside slightly dazed tourists contemplating knishes.
“All the new places are just a take on the deli,” said Jake Dell, the restaurant’s third-generation owner. “Katz’s is The Deli. We’re the last of the Mohicans.”
Unlike the newer arrivals, Katz’s unabashedly peddles nostalgia along with its superior matzoh ball soup ($5.95) and kishka ($8.25). And that’s the way customers like it, Dell said. “The sights, sounds, and smells are the same as when you came the first time with your father or grandfather,” he said as a neon sign crackled behind us and a counterman barked pickup orders to the servers. “And that’s how people like it.”
That includes the peculiar but irresistible custom of a Katz’s ticket, which diners take from an attendant when they enter through a turnstile and surrender on the way out.
“Katz’s is unapologetically New York,” interjected Fred Austin, Dell’s uncle and an owner of the restaurant. “It’s loud, confusing, hurried. But it’s fun. And the food speaks for itself.”
Sometimes, rough edges are a good thing.
Kaminer is a freelance writer in New York.