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FOOD AND DRINK

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Carnegie, Schmarnegie: Don’t Worry About the Future of Jewish Cuisine

Some old delis may close, but many other Jewish eateries are thriving, from Manhattan to Pittsburgh. Here’s our big fresser of a guide to the best of Jewish cuisine in North America

The news was terrible. Learning the original Carnegie Deli in Manhattan was going to close at the end of 2016? It was enough for deli fans to gag on their kishkes. Even worse, it revived a fear that has plagued purveyors of pastrami for years – namely, the fear that the Jewish deli is an endangered species, destined to disappear from its spiritual home in the northeastern quadrant of North America.

The Carnegie Deli itself served its last sandwich on Dec. 30, 2016, and there’s ample cause for sadness if we simply recall what is lost. We visited the original Carnegie Deli in late fall before it closed and were seated close between other visitors to New York.

By the time of its demise, the deli had become an undeniable tourist trap, yet it retained a certain schlocky charm. The famous signed photos crowded onto every wall were famous in their own right. We gazed up at the grinning mug of Bill Clinton. Now there’s a man who probably didn’t need to feign appreciation for sandwiches whose meat was piled four or five inches high, rendering unthinkable the very notion of actually picking it up and eating it like a sandwich.

While it’s true that the Carnegie brand and recipes (notably meats and cheesecakes) will live on through its online ordering service – if you have a U.S. address, anyway – there is something to be lamented.

Adam McDowell / Billy

The Woody Allen sandwich at Carnegie Deli (note: This is not an endorsement of Woody Allen)

David Sax, the Toronto-based author whose book Save the Deli remains the most enjoyably serious treatise on the subject, says we shouldn’t be too sad about the loss of one deli.

It is true that some of the old-line Jewish delis will vanish, just as they were vulnerable when he was researching his 2009 book. “The grand days of thousands of delis in small, Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods in North America are over, because there are no more of those ships full of immigrants arriving from Poland and Russia and so on. That population has not existed since the Holocaust,” Sax says.

But there’s reason for hope: Look around in certain North American cities and you’ll find that Jewish food is alive and well and trying on new guises: as a trendy cuisine and/or as casual food for the (gentile) masses. And some of the old businesses are more or less the same as they were, but finding new vigour in the hands of new owners.

“The deli, which was shrinking for various reasons, has now had an interesting renaissance and growth, especially of newer places,” Sax says.

In Montreal and Toronto, new investment is propelling local names Schwartz’s and Caplansky’s to make a push for mainstream appeal. In Brooklyn and Boston and beyond, the deli is suddenly cooler than bubbe ever would have believed.

Where to nosh, then? Here are some of Billy’s picks for the best of Jewish cuisine.

Montreal: Schwartz’s and Arthurs Nosh Bar

The famous Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, established 1928, still has lines out the door after all these years. At almost any time of night or day, locals and tourists wait for seats at the counter or one of the shared tables, salivating for a medium fat (never order lean!) sandwich, cherry soda and fries.

Schwartz’s has also recently opened a takeaway section next door, for those who want to bring some of the meaty magic home – or simply don’t want the meat smell on their clothes all day. By all means take a hunk of smoked meat back in your luggage (salty and vacuum sealed, it will keep for days without refrigeration), but heed our warning: Read the instructions carefully before serving! Steaming it first is absolutely crucial.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to open a competing deli in Montreal, a city whose culinary DNA is thick with the fat of Schwartz’s. Who has the moxie to be a newcomer here? Arthurs Nosh Bar, and it has been an instant hit since opening last year. Located in St-Henri, this restaurant run by Alex Cohen and Raegan Steinberg offers a mashup of modern European and old-school Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) tastes.

There’s a schnitzel sandwich with challah bread (with side order of thickly sliced cucumbers) and a latke smorgasbord: a big, crisp, and fluffy potato pancake served with gravlax, scrambled eggs, sour cream, tomato, cucumber and caviar.

For something less salty, try the Arthurs version of cheese blintzes – cottage cheese pancakes that are sweet, rich and fluffy. Arthurs doesn’t do smoked meat, so maybe it’s not planning to take over Schwartz’s after all. But the lines are out the door here on weekends, too.

Arthurs

Toronto: Caplansky’s and Pancer’s Deli

With famous spots up and down Spadina Avenue, Toronto used to be a pretty solid deli town. That era was long over when Zane Caplansky set up shop in the back of a dive called the Monarch Tavern in 2007. His noble aspiration: to offer pub-goers his own versions of old Jewish classics, like he could still remember tasting at Switzer’s Deli on Spadina in his youth.

The fact that you could suddenly sink your teeth into arguably-Montreal-quality smoked meat sandwiches in Toronto was miraculous news, and word quickly spread. (It may have helped that plenty of local journalists happened to be Monarch regulars … ahem.) Anyway, Caplansky’s was a hit. A likeable guy, Caplansky soon became something of a local character, too, making frequent appearances in local and national Canadian media.

Caplansky's

By now, Caplansky’s has long outgrown the back nook at the Monarch – its flagship became a bricks-and-mortar restaurant on College Street, which has since been joined by other locations. Last year, Caplansky approached the branding strategy firm Jackman Reinvents to tweak the look and feel of Caplansky’s restaurants, with the aim of taking the brand national – if not beyond.

If the success of Caplansky’s helps spread knowledge of kishkes and pickled tongue to the wider public, we say mazel tov. (Don’t tell Beyoncé. She already knows.)

Meanwhile, in a largely Jewish corner of uptown Toronto, the beloved Pancer’s Original Delicatessen – famous for its corned beef sandwiches, as well as having been a youthful haunt of members of the rock band Rush – lives on, after a brief scare in 2014. The family that had founded the deli back in 1957 had sold it in 2010. Four years later, they were alarmed to discover that the new owners were planning to let the business close. Two generations of Pancers swept in and saved the day, and the restaurant remains a destination for deli lovers swinging through North York.

Boston: Mamelehs

This is deli for a Harvard crowd (the restaurant is located in Cambridge), so don’t be surprised by a dose of precious nostalgia at Mameleh’s. There are old-fashioned chrome swivel chairs at the counter, and a little retail corner is filled with kitsch items like “Orthodox Chew” salt water taffy and B-list Hebrew detective movies.

There is also much to trigger Proustian memories of your grandmother’skreplach, should you have any. If you’re a fan of pastrami so flaky that falls apart under the rye, you’ll love the sandwiches at Mameleh. The “Jewish pupu platter” is a bar mitzvah buffet on a plate: The sampler includes chopped liver, schmaltz on toast, potato knish, pastrami and pickles.

For sweet treats try the chocolate babka, or take home a dozen of the dense raspberry walnut rugelach. Mameleh’s also does old fashioned egg creams at the soda counter. It’s all very “haimish," which is sort of a Yiddish version of the Scandinavian hygge. Coffee is by local roaster Great Barrington, more than a few steps up from the watery stuff at your typical old-school deli (that’s one thing they never did get right).

Mameleh's

New York: Mile End, Frankels Delicatessen & Appetizing, and Russ & Daughters

In the ongoing New York/Montreal rivalry over the superiority of Jewish delis and bagels, a New York deli, Mile End, seems to give a tacit nod to Montreal's predominance. Its owner is actually a Montrealer originally: Noah Bernamoff was in law school when he started making smoked meat in a smoker on his roof, and curing salami in a closet in his apartment.

Mile End is named after Montreal’s boho chic neighbourhood, once ground zero for Jewish immigrants. At the main Brooklyn deli (there are satellite locations in midtown and downtown Manhattan), bagels are wood fired, Montreal-style. They come from Black Seed, Bernamoff’s bagel shop. The sandwiches are stuffed with smoked meat – not pastrami, which is more traditional for New York.

The menu offers other other deli classics including “mish mash” (scrambled eggs with hot dogs, salami pepper and onions); and matzo ball soup (like the lamented Carnegie Deli’s version, this version of the chicken soup also comes with matzo balls roughly the size of toddler's head.)

In more of a new-school touch, you’ll also be able to sample some traditionally Israeli and Mideast items like chopped salads and zaatar at Mile End.

Mile End Deli

But the bagels and smoked meat are the stars here (the poutine – not so much). We’ve seen so-called Montreal bagels and so-called Montreal smoked meat featured at grocers, bakeries and delis in other cities – and they’re seldom translations a hardcore fan would recognize. At Mile End, these really do taste like Montreal.

Meanwhile, Frankel's Delicatessen & Appetizing in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, reminds us of everything  that New York’s Jewish deli culture has contributed to the culinary annals. Frankel’s was started by two thirtysomething Upper West Side Manhattan brothers. With their partner and chef, Ashley Berman, Zach and Alex Frankel created a menu inspired by family recipes.

Frankel's Delicatessen & Appetizing

It’s true that not everything on the menu at Frankel’s is Jewish – the salmon is Irish, and organic – but it’s served in way that would make their grandmothers proud (with cream cheese and a little dill, and on bagels), as would the latkes, with sour cream or applesauce, and the chopped liver on rye, with dill pickle on the side. Frankel’s is really an homage to appetizing shops in the style of the legendary Russ & Daughters.  

Russ & Daughters is really two places, located a few blocks apart in the Lower East Side. At 179 East Houston St., you’ll find the takeout store, where the shelves are jammed with specialties including the promised “caviar, smoked fish, herring, bagels and elegant food gifts.”

For the traveller, that means souvenirs. Tell the giftee that you bought them at a place that opened all the way back in 1914 and is still being run by the same family.

And incidentally, don’t call this a deli: As the signage points out (and David Sax explains), this is an appetizing store. Roughly speaking, that means you buy things – many of them fishy – to smear on bagels.

The café at 129 Orchard St. is where a youthful and multi-accented group of diners line up on weekend mornings for a brunch that’s plenty appetizing in all its salty maritime glory. Even the “pastrami” is fish: The pastrami-cured salmon, served on a soft pretzel bun, is as satisfyingly salty and savoury as anything made of beef. It even smells quite a bit like pastrami. (And if you really need to munch on something meaty, try the earthy chopped liver with matzo crackers.)

The bustling Russ & Daughters Café sports a classic appearance that could fool you into thinking it’s as old as the affiliated store – gleaming white and chrome with bright blue accents and soft green upholstery, with staff in white uniforms à la the mid 20th century. Yet the café was opened in 2014 by descendants of the original Joel Russ (and his daughters).

Adam McDowell / Billy

Russ & Daughters

As the website explains, the goal was to create an oasis of haimishness – defined here as “warmth, comfort, authenticity, conviviality, and lack of pretence.” That, and they also figured customers deserved a place to just sit down and eat, after a century of waiting.

Bonus: Check out our roundup of four classic New York delis here

Pittsburgh: Nu, a Modern Jewish Bistro

When you think of Pittsburgh you think Polish sausages, not Jewish deli. Created by owners who proudly call themselves as “hybrid Jews,” Nu offers something different for the newly hip Steeltown – it’s a contemporary take on the Jewish deli, one that fits into the modern culinary scene that’s defining the city.

Yes, there’s matzo ball soup on the menu, and it’s cheekily listed as “Jewish penicillin.” But it’s made with chicken confit as well as sliced carrots and rich broth.

The smoked meat comes from small batch beef. Dishes are all artfully arranged on the plate. Coffee is French press. You get the idea. Nu’s brunch is one of the hottest in town at the moment, and it’s all quite delicious in both new and traditional ways.

Published Wednesday, February 22nd 2017

Header image credit: Russ & Daughters. Adam McDowell / Billy

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