Posted by Rob Eshman
More than Jews have kept delis, the deli has kept the Jews.
Yes, that’s a direct ripoff of Ahad Ha’am’s famous dictum about the Sabbath.
I didn’t know Heschel, but I bet if I could have gotten him alone over a cup of cold beet borscht at Rattner’s, he would have thought it over, wiped the sour cream from the corner of his mouth, and said, “You know, you may have a point.”
The deli is where we eat, meet, laugh, commiserate, celebrate, feast, deal, cry. Take pulpit and prayer out of a synagogue, add corned beef, and you’d end up with something like a deli. God is, of course, in both.
LA has the country’s, maybe the world’s, best delis. That’s according to David Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” Brents, Langers, Juniors, Factors, Sauls, Izzy’s, Pico Kosher, Nate n Als, Canters— but even with this embarrassment of kishke, business is tough. The venerable Canters on Fairfax depends for its bottom line on the Kibbitz Room bar. There is more profit in selling shots to hipsters at 3 am than in turning out a great lox, eggs and onions. Time, which Heschel said stands still, is Eternal, on the Sabbath, passes delis by.
In his book, Sax described a deli that is trying to keep up with the times, if not change them. Kenny and Zukes is part of Portland, OR’s farm-to-table, handmade, local, sustainable food movement. They pickle their own cucumbers. They cure their own lox. They brine and smoke their own pastrami. They boil and bake their own bagels. The rye, the sauerkraut—all housemade, all from local ingredients.
I had to try it.
And last month, on a family trip to Portland, I finally did.
We got to Kenny and Zuke’s on the last day of a long vacation weekend. It was way up their on our list of must-see Portland sites, along with the Columbia River Gorge and… well, Kenny and Zuke’s Deli. I mean, Rose Gardens? Museums? Every city has those. But there is only one deli in America that is trying to reinvent the deli.
Portland is a city that prays at the alter of local, sustainable, farm-to-table food. At a place called McMenimin’s Edgefield, they roast their own coffee, brew their own beer, grow and bottle their own wine, and distill their own spirits. The next step, I can only imagine, is raising their own customers.
So how was it?
If Kenny and Zuke’s is the future of the deli, then the deli has a very good future. We arrived hungry at 4 pm on a Sunday, and ate our way through a menu that is as well-curated as a think tank web site, and features all the greatest hits, and then some. (Note: Kenny and Zuke’s is not kosher—it’s kosher-style.)
How’s the lox? Thinly cut, hand-sliced sheets, the color of a late summer peach, draped over a chewy, hand-shaped bagel. Capers, onion, bright red tomato and a light, fresh cream cheese. Perfect.
The homemade pastrami, I rushed to Tweet at the time, was peppery and tender, but still no Langers. I immediately heard back via Tweet from Kenny himself that his pastrami is house-cured from natural, local beef. He didn’t have to protest—it was a great sandwich—and kudos for consciousness—but Langers’ pastrami is meat crack— you can’t beat the high.
But in every other category, Kenny and Zuke showed the power of homemade food from great local ingredients. The pickles and the pickled vegetable plate, the fluffy, salty potato knish, one of the world’s lighter kugels, which actually tasted of high quality potatoes, a rich chicken soup with a very light matzo ball, and a rye bread that reminded me of the dense, high loaves we bought fresh at Bea’s, and—oh—the egg creams have a good shock of bitter chocolate and a head like a Portland ale.
The deli is retro and clean, with big windows onto busy Stark Street. But you will not mistake Kenny and Zuke’s for Canter’s or Nate n’ Al’s. The wait staff is young and friendly, and most sport whatever is the city’s minimum legal requirement of piercings and tattoos. We missed the neurotic buzz of worn vinyl booths alive with the song of a thousand kvetches, handlings, wisecracks, and shmoozes. There’s a book of Yiddish curse words on display, but no Yiddish in the air. It seems everything in Portland is local and sustainable except a sizeable Jewish population.
But that’s not Kenny and Zuke’s fault. If anything, they are doing their best to revive old traditions, to build the Jewish equivalent of a baseball field in the hopes that, if you build it, they will nosh.
It inspired me, it excited me. When I returned to LA, I gushed to Al Canter about it. At 80-something, Al still goes in each morning to check the register receipts at Canters on Fairfax.
They make their own pastrami, I said to Al. They cure their own lox.
“You know who else used to do that?” Al said. “We did. But try getting the Health Department to approve barrels full of cured pastrami.”
Maybe LA’s laws have to change to make it easier for a pastrami-curer to come to a restaurant near you. Maybe a new generation has to be willing to take the time, to work out the recipes, to develop the clientele, for such retro-treats.
But local, sustainable, hand-made are not just trends—the next generation demands them, deserves them—along with a place to laugh, eat, shmooze, deal and celebrate—a synagogue without a pulpit, but with many blessings.
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August 14, 2012 | 11:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Say you want to go home and eat, but you don’t want to go home. You want to eat the kind of food you’d make yourself, if you had the day to buy it, think it over, cook it, invite some friends over and eat it. Careful food, but not daunting. Doable.
As our ingredients improve and our skills sharpen, and as dining out becomes more casual, there is bound to be a kind of chowtime Singularity, when eating at the great new restaurant feels just like eating at home. There’s a whole new style of restaurants that seem to aim just that high—a better class of home cooking. Or, in the case of the Superba Snack Bar, a way better class.
Last night we ate at Superba, which just opened on Rose Ave. in Venice. I took one look at the menu and told my son, “This is the kind of food we’d cook at home.”
“Yeah,” he said, “if you made chicken liver mousse. With balsamic cherries”
I don’t. But the point is I could, and if I did I would use great local chicken, and serve it in a careful mound like a scoop of mocha gelato, with a drizzle of thick, dark balsamic soaked cherries.
Anyway, we didn’t order the mousse, but we did work through most of the menu. It’s carefully curated, divided up by Cold Cuts—homemade charcuterie—“Snacks,” and two larger categories, “From Our Backyards” and “From Our Hands.”
The produce, said our waiter, mostly comes from a single local farm, Eclectic Acres near San Bernardino, that the owners “have a relationship with.”
The animating philosophy is local, sustainable, delicious, community—buzzwords, sure, but when done right, you end up with a neighborhood restaurant that attracts people from miles away.
Superba strikes that balance because it combines the homegrown, deply rooted owner with a chef who has cooked far and wide. Paul Hibler started Pitfire Artisan Pizza – a thoughtful sustainable ersion of a small chain restaurant—and he lives in the hood (like, two blocks from me). “You’re the guy with the artichokes,” he says when he sees me.
Yes, and he’s the guy with the great friggin’ restaurant.
Chef Jason Neroni cooked at Mario Batali’s Lupo, in Manhattan and at El Bulli, neither of which even remotely qualify as a snack bar.
So, neither does the Superba Snack Bar, despite the name The atmosphere is casual, Venice, young—Rose Ave. is Abbot Kinney 15 years ago. But food (and prices) don’t exactly evoke a couple of taquitos and a Coke.
I’ll post photos shortly, but for now the English language will have to suffice. Pan con tomato, olive oil & sea salt ($ 8 ) was better than any we’d had last summer in Spain—two pieces of toasted French bread rubbed with cookd-down tomato pulp and doused with good olive oil.
Fried duck egg, papas bravas, truffle vinaigrette & tuna prosciutto ($14 ) had the Spanish paprika smoke, crisp potatoes and vaporous sheets of tuna prosciutto, which reminded me the ocean was around here somewhere. I really liked the Cauliflower t-bone, basil puree, orange/olive pistou ($14 )— a thick crosswise slice of roasted cauliflower, piled with sweet-tart and earthy flavors. Gather restaurant in Berkeley has something called vegan charcuterie—this would have fit right in.
The centerfold dish was something called Charred watermelon, burrata, candied olives & pickled garlic vinaigrette ($15 ). It sounds fussy: it wasn’t. And Negroni’s candied olives may be the new adult M & M’s.
Superba specializes in housemade (“from Our Hands”) pasta. They were, like I said, like homemade, but superb.
Of them all, the Gnocchi, burrata, braised broccoli necks, vincotto & hazelnut bread crumbs ($18)—just some of the finest gnocchi you’ll eat. When they’re gone, you’ll be sad.
For dessert we had a stone fruit tart and a very very smoky S’mores in a jar. All good, but he had me at gnocchi.
Okay, you cannot do this food at home. Because you didn’t train at El Bulli and Lupo. But you recognize the food—the local good stuff, the simple-seeming preparations—it’s familiar but better than familiar.
Hibler told me his next endeavor is a bakery on Lincoln Blvd. that will deliver fresh bread to the neighborhood on bikes, and offer one or two dishes a day for eating in. He’s forging it out of one of the street’s endless supply of used car lots. His restaurants are good at that—making us feel at home, even when we already live here.
533 Rose Ave.
Venice, CA. 90291
Mon - Thurs: 5:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Fri & Sat: 5:00 pm - 11:30 pm
Sun: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm
Weekday Lunch & Weekend Brunch
You know what would be fun? Following what I eat on Twitter @foodaism.