Douglas Singer is not a name that leaps to mind when discussing Washington's most prominent chefs. His career has been largely spent serving someone else's vision (think: sous chef at Zaytinya, Cafe Saint-Ex and Oyamel) or developing culinary operations for Joe Englert's funky watering holes (from the Argonaut to Capitol Lounge).
But about two years ago, the Cleveland native started testing recipes at home for his own corned beef and pastrami. It was a labor of love: a love for the delis of his youth. The Jewish delicatessen is "something I grew up with as a kid, and it never left my bones," Singer says.
So he pulled out Cambro containers for curing and immersion circulators for cooking. He talked to chefs, microbiologists, food technologists and chemists. He even went to Iowa State University to attend its short course on sausage and meat processing.
"About 600 pounds of brisket later, I came up with the final products," Singer says.
His corned beef and pastrami are now the cornerstones of Singer's Significant Meats, a small, mostly mail-order operation based in Union Kitchen. About six months ago, Singer partnered up with Peter Smith, a chef best known for his Chinatown restaurant, PS 7's, which closed in late 2012. Smith was also, for a brief period, co-executive chef at Newton's Table in Bethesda, a relationship that ultimately helped Singer's Significant Meats move into its next phase:
A pop-up restaurant inside Newton's Table.
Every Sunday and Monday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Singer and Smith take over the bar at Newton's and transform it into a Jewish deli — but one with a wider cultural focus. So while you can order Singer's melt-in-your-mouth corned beef or brisket, you can also dig into an iconic bite of D.C. (Smith's half-smoke on a Parker house bun) or Pittsburgh (a Primanti Bros.-style sandwich with corned beef, pastrami, gruyere, French fries and a fried egg). A snapshot of the menu is below.
I visited the pop-up on its first day, and while the mostly two-man operation had some logistical problems (the smartphone-based credit card reader was misbehaving, the wait for a sandwich stretched on too long), the meal itself was an homage to the art and craft of curing brisket. My thick-cut pastrami on German rye (from Breads Unlimited, also in Bethesda) boasted an almost buttery texture while balancing a honeyed sweetness with pungent black pepper notes.
I count the pastrami among the most luxuriant I've had, including the lip-smacking version produced by the guys at Kangaroo Boxing Club. Singer's lush corned beef and pastrami are the result of hours of brining, smoking and cooking. Singer and Smith sous-vide their briskets for two days following an eight-day brine and cold-smoking.
The sous-vide process takes longer because Singer has reduced the salt levels in his brine, to prevent his brisket from turning into a sodium sponge. The less salt, he says, the longer the cook time. Singer also uses only celery juice powder as a preservative, rather than lab-produced nitrites and nitrates. The chef also doesn't add phosphates or other chemicals to retain moisture or set color.
"We don't use anything you can't pronounce or know what it is," Singer says.
For months before the chefs opened their pop-up, their sandwich meats essentially flew under the radar. "We know we have a good product," Smith says. "We wished we could let everybody know it."
The pop-up could be a precursor of things to come for Singer's Significant Meats. The chefs are scouting for locations for a permanent retail spot. Singer, for one, likes the whole theater of delicatessens.
"Half of the deli experience is about the shtick. It's the face-to-face with the customers." Singer says. "At this little pop-up, we joke around that we give you the best no-service possible."
Singer's Delicatessen at Newton's Table, 4917 Elm St, Bethesda, 202-744-1220. Hours: Sunday-Monday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Singersmeats.com.