Reviving The Spirit And Schmaltz Of The Jewish Deli
On a recent morning, just south of Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, about a dozen people are lined up outside a restaurant waiting for its lunchtime opening.
Jon and Ralph Rosenbaum are at the front of the line and are the first to be greeted by DGS Delicatessen general manager Brian Zipin, who leads them down a white tile hallway and seats them at a small table against a brick-exposed wall.
It's not the first time the two brothers have eaten at DGS, which calls itself a modern Jewish cookery. The New Jersey natives have lived in the nation's capital for years, but they say it's overdue for a delicatessen.
"It's nice that we finally have a place that has quality Jewish food, Jewish-American food, I would call it," Jon says. "We have a couple of other places, but they're not terribly good, so we're very happy with it."
The menu is not exactly what you would find in a place like New York's famous Katz's Deli. There's a grilled eggplant Reuben, smoked salmon pastrami served on bagels imported from Montreal, and a pickle plate. The menu describes the pickles as "half sours, dills and whatever else we can get our hands on."
The men behind the restaurant say they aren't trying to create literal reinterpretations of Jewish deli food. Instead, they say, they see themselves as part of a renaissance currently happening with Jewish cuisine.
Experimenting With Tradition
"Barry and I worked together about ten years ago," says partner Nick Wiseman, referring to DGS executive chef Barry Koslow. "There was an authenticity about cooking Jewish food that we hadn't felt cooking French or Italian food because it was our roots. It felt like our own."
Both Wiseman and Koslow say they have childhood memories of Sunday brunch with bagels, lox and schmear — but they weren't raised in a particularly religious family. And they definitely didn't keep Kosher.
"We spent a lot more time eating Chinese food than Jewish food," Wiseman recalls.
The duo have worked in some of D.C.'s finest restaurants, but when it came time to open their own restaurant, Jewish food just felt right.
"When we started cooking this food and looking back at the history and sort of relearning these recipes, it did feel very authentic, like we were learning more about ourselves," Wiseman says.
It was also exciting to bring Jewish food back to Washington. In the 1920s, the nation's capital had plenty of Jewish delis. But, as happened in many U.S. cities, they died off.
The third-generation Washingtonians saw their chance to revive their Jewish heritage with a modern taste.
"There's this whole movement of people wanting to make everything from scratch, bringing back the old mom and pop feel by being the store owners, being there, working on everything, procuring everything and making it all by hand. And it's exciting and, hopefully, it's something that's gonna stick," Koslow says.
A New Way Of Noshing
The modern Jewish delicatessen is showing up across the country in places like Brooklyn, at Mile End Deli, as well as San Francisco's Wise Sons and Portland's Kenny and Zuke's. Each of these restaurants is serving up traditional plates like Reubens and chopped liver while also taking liberties.
"My dad put it best the other night when he was laughing at me," Koslow explains. "He said, 'How did you become the expert on all things Jewish in one year?' And I laughed too, because growing up, let's just say I wasn't the best Jew."
For Passover this year, the restaurant's first since it opened four months ago, Koslow is serving a vegetarian menu. For meat eaters, there was matzo ball soup infused with bone marrow.
"Traditionally, matzo balls are made with chicken fat, or schmaltz," Koslow says. "What we've done for the holiday is we've replaced the schmaltz with bone marrow ... and we roast it very slowly so that all the fat renders out, and then we save all that fat. You can smell just how rich and decadent it is."
They also infuse the broth with Asian influences like ginger and scallion, simply because, Koslow says, "it's fun for us to do something different."
As proud as Koslow is of his matzo balls, he recognizes they'll never top the ones made by Jewish grandmothers, or bubbes.
"Everybody says, 'These are almost as good as my bubbe's, almost,' " Koslow says, boasting that so far this Passover, he has already made at least 400 matzo balls for his customers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you want to call yourself a Jewish delicatessen, there are certain staples that you've got to have: Pastrami piled high in a Reuben, kosher pickles with that perfect crunch and, of course, chopped liver. Yet in delis in places like San Francisco, Portland and now Washington, D.C., chefs are messing with these expectations. It's a bold move, maybe a little blasphemous, but the owners say they are staying true to their roots.
BARRY KOSLOW: If you come on in, it's a little cold.
GREENE: But this smells like a Jewish deli.
KOSLOW: This smells like a Jewish deli.
KOSLOW: So these are all briskets for the pastrami.
GREENE: This is Barry Koslow. He's the executive chef at one of these restaurants, DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. He's been hard at work serving the Passover holiday crowd, but he took a few minutes to show me his walk-in refrigerator in the basement.
KOSLOW: And if you look over here, we have a lot of our pickles - cauliflower pickles, these are jicama. We have carrot pickles...
GREENE: So pickled jicama that I'm looking at, is that a new spin on pickling, or...
KOSLOW: Absolutely, we'll pickle anything. We don't care.
GREENE: Koslow has worked at some fine restaurants, cooking mostly French cuisine. He was raised Jewish - never all that religious - but when the time came to open his own restaurant, that's the tradition he chose.
KOSLOW: I think everybody loves a bagel with lox and schmear, you know. And I started thinking to myself, like yeah. You know, this really rings true to me. This will really give me an opportunity to learn more about myself, my family, my heritage, my culture - and that was exciting to me.
GREENE: And exciting to put a new spin on traditional food, Koslow has taken some liberties: Pickled jicama. He sometimes uses Lebanese yogurt, or leben, in place of cream cheese. And brace yourself: He even serves up a grilled eggplant Reuben.
Yes, as you've probably guessed, the kitchen is not kosher. Koslow says he knows purists might not feel like this is their place.
KOSLOW: My dad put it best the other night when he was laughing at me, saying - he was like, How did you become the expert on all things Jewish in one year?
KOSLOW: And I laughed too, because growing up, let's just say I wasn't the best Jew.
GREENE: So, Koslow walked me into the kitchen. He had all these ingredients spread out - time to make matzo balls.
KOSLOW: You want to get dirty?
GREENE: Ah, sure.
KOSLOW: Don't want you to get matzo balls all over your shirt.
GREENE: Yeah, I don't want to get matzo balls all over the place. OK. I'll never refuse an apron.
Matzo ball soup is one of the central dishes on the Passover menu here.
KOSLOW: Traditionally, matzah balls are made with chicken fat or schmaltz, as we call it. So...
GREENE: Schmaltz is a great word. I love that.
KOSLOW: It's a great word and it has great flavor and you use that to flavor your matzah balls, but also to help keep them soft. So what we've done for the holiday is we've replaced the schmaltz with bone marrow.
GREENE: Bone marrow?
KOSLOW: So what we do is we roast it. And you can smell just how rich and decadent it is.
GREENE: Wow. That is decadent.
KOSLOW: So we're about ready to roll. Are you ready to get dirty?
GREENE: I am so ready to get dirty.
KOSLOW: OK. So, get a little bit in your hand. And what you want to do is roll it with the palms of your hand...
GREENE: OK, like a light roll?
KOSLOW: ...very gently. Yeah, like a light roll.
GREENE: Alright, love Play-Doh.
KOSLOW: Yeah, you know, like when you're making Play-Doh with your kids.
GREENE: Now, yours looks like a perfectly round golf ball-shaped thing. And mine looks like a blob.
KOSLOW: Well, this is probably my 400th matzo ball this week already.
GREENE: He is proud of all those matzo balls. But attention all Jewish grandmothers or bubbies: Koslow says your matzo balls will always be the best.
KOSLOW: You know, everybody says these are almost as good as my bubbie's - almost.
GREENE: Almost as good as...
KOSLOW: My bubbies.
GREENE: My bubbies, which is like?
KOSLOW: Which is the best.
GREENE: Which is the best of any family's you say it's as good as my bubbies. OK.
GREENE: Right, almost as good.
KOSLOW: Never as good.
GREENE: Right. Right, you don't want to offend anybody.
GREENE: That's Barry Koslow. He's executive chef at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. He'll be rolling out his pickled jicama and those matzo balls tonight for Passover.
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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.