A new generation of restaurateurs has reinvented nearly everything about the traditional Jewish deli: At places such as San Francisco’s Wise Sons and Brooklyn’s Mile End, the sandwiches are reasonably sized; the knishes and babka are handmade; the coffee is of high quality and the counter clerk’s more likely to pontificate about the origins of kugel than snap at a customer for speaking too softly.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the deli’s staunchly urban identity. Unlike other imported cuisines, which have popped up far from the immigrant communities associated with them, deli hasn’t strayed much beyond the very biggest cities.
Nick Zukin, founder of Portland’s revered Kenny & Zuke’s and co-author of the newly-published The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, says he doesn’t foresee thoughtful deli sweeping the nation anytime soon.
“I don’t know if the Jewish deli will “blow up” as a whole in the same way ramen has,” he says. “It has some drawbacks that ramen doesn’t – the main one being that it’s meat-heavy and therefore expensive, whereas the bulk of ramen is noodles, just flour and water, as cheap as it gets. The restauranomics lean in ramen’s favor.”
But while Charlestonians craving new-wave chicken liver may still have to drive to Atlanta to get their fix at The General Muir, Zukin predicts a few artisan deli mainstays may wedge their way onto non-deli menus.
“The love of great pastrami is universal and I’ve seen it sneaking in to high-end restaurant menus in unexpected and often very treyf ways,” he says. “For example, there was a place here in Portland doing a pig heart pastrami. And a local butcher makes a “pigstrami” from pork belly.”
Locally, lamb pastrami’s on the menu at Warehouse, the subject of this week’s restaurant review. And the current deracinated interest in whole grains, pickles and horseradish may result in more restaurants turning to artisan delis for bread, side dish and sauce inspiration.
But for eaters who’d rather not wait for artisan deli practices to trickle down, The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home is chockablock with recipes. Befitting the book’s artisan slant, a few of the recipes call for something of a time commitment, such as the roasted onion-poppy seed bialys, which require the usual rising and resting required for making bread. But the majority of recipes sound eminently doable: I’ve already dog-eared the page featuring a Hungarian egg salad with anchovies.
By the Jewish calendar, this might not be the most opportune time to discuss deli: Yom Kippur, which is traditionally observed by fasting, starts tonight at sundown. Yet for the generous synagogue-goers who every year leave services a few hours early to prepare a break-the-fast spread for their fellow congregants, there are a number of recipes in the cookbook which would be highly suitable for the festive table. Zukin and Michael Zusman’s recipe for smoked whitefish salad is ready-made for a toasted bagel.
Smoked Whitefish Salad
From The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2013
1 ½ pounds whole smoked whitefish, or 1 pound smoked whitefish, boned and skinned
1 celery stalk, finely diced
¼ red onion, finely diced
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh dill
½ c. sour cream
¼ c. mayonnaise
Juice of one small lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the fish in a medium bowl and break it up into flakes with a fork. Add the celery, onion, parsley, and dill, and mix until thoroughly combined. Stir in the sour cream, mayonnaise and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The salad can be made up to 3 days in advance.