Wednesday, April 02, 2008

New (Old) Deli

According to the New York Times, the 2nd Avenue Deli had been gone for about two years before reopening at a new location recently, but I thought it was longer than that. For some reason I thought the deli, at Second Avenue and 10th Street, had closed only a couple of years after the 1996 murder (during a robbery) of owner Abe Lebewohl, an East Village legend. Perhaps the fact that I've been gone from the East Village since 1987 accounts for my skewed sense of deli time.

For me, the 2nd Avenue Deli was the best of the surviving New York kosher delis, a dying breed. The grunge of Katz's never appealed to me, nor did I find their sandwiches up to Lebewohl's standards. I have no problem with "kosher-style" delis in principle, being a radical atheist who scoffs at all dietary laws and superstitions, but the two most famous of them, Carnegie and Stage, are mediocre, overpriced tourist traps.

When I was a kid, in Brooklyn, in the 'sixties, good kosher delis were still a dime a dozen, just like decent by-the-slice pizzerias, both now, for the most part, distant memories. I think I must have eaten deli, whether corned beef, or pastrami, or tongue, or "rolled beef" (virtually extinct, but available at 2nd Avenue Deli and Sarge's), or just a couple of franks with mustard and sauerkraut, at least once a week. We took good deli for granted.

So what happened? New York is still full of Jews, and most of the non-Jews I know, after years in New York, are certifiably "Jewish-style." Were the delis done in by those awful health-conscious years? Or perhaps by the death and/or assimilation of all those Jews with recent Eastern-European roots? Places like the Stage and Carnegie Delis are New York institutions, still on the inevitable tourist itinerary (once, at the Carnegie, I heard a hyper-goyish, Midwestern woman ask the waiter if they had "chocolate phosphates"). Everybody I know laments the loss of deli ubiquity, so what gives?

Whatever, the good news is that the 2nd Avenue Deli is back, though no longer on Second Avenue or in the East Village, but on 33rd Street between Third and Lexington. The prices, on the other hand, aren't the greatest news, but no worse than at the tourist traps that can't hold a candle.

For the first weeks at the new location there were constant lines out the door. I figured I'd let the idiots who couldn't wait wait, and I'd go when things quieted down. What's with people who absolutely have to go to some new hot spot pronto? As far as I'm concerned, it displays the same lack of proportion that prevents people from successfully dieting, i.e., from realizing there's always tomorrow for whatever you crave today. If the restaurant is any good it'll survive, for a while at least. If you'd prefer to wait in line with the rest of the sheep, be my guest; I'll see you inside in a couple of months.

Some of the early reports about the new 2nd Avenue Deli gave me and my dining companions some mild pre-meal jitters. There were reports of surly service and food that didn't live up to the deli of yesteryear. Perhaps the problems were due to improper preparation for the onslaught of humanity, but I can assure you now that, at least as far as the meat sandwiches are concerned, there's nothing to be concerned about. Corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, both on rye, had a platonic fat-to-lean ratio and flavor to spare, especially the pastrami, which in my recent deli experience has been eclipsed only by the transcendent smoked meat of Schwartz's in Montreal.

Two of the 2nd Avenue Deli's signature items, which I didn't try this time, are matzoh ball soup and the "whole hog" of chicken soups, chicken in a pot, boiled chicken with matzoh balls and vegetables. Both are still available, but do be warned that the latter is twenty-three bucks, so you'd better have a pretty bad cold.

One disappointment was that knoblewurst (garlic sausage), which used to be sold as a side, is now only available on a sandwich, so I didn't get to try any. I also seem to remember baked meat knishes at the old deli, though I might be mistaken. Anyway, what they have now is a fried meat and potato knish, mediocre and seriously overpriced at $7.95. The biggest disappointment, however, was the gummy, flavorless, and underheated stuffed derma.

Stick with a pastrami sandwich. And maybe a bowl of matzoh ball soup. If there are two of you, split the sandwich. They're enormous, and maybe you shouldn't eat a whole one until world hunger is solved.

Second Avenue Deli on Urbanspoon


Blogger Richard said...

Pete, of course I grew up like you in the age of kosher delis every few blocks on most avenues in parts of Brooklyn. I don't know if you saw the article in the New York Times about the end of Wolfie Cohen's (of Wolfie's from the Junction and Miami Beach) Rascal House, the classic deli on Sunny Isles Beach.

The demographics of kosher deli clientele are obviously responsible. When I emailed the article about Rascal House to my father, who lived in Florida for about 25 years before retiring to Arizona, he said it made him very depressed to see that that world he knew was gone -- but then he also said that he never really went there since 1982, when he became a vegetarian!

Within three blocks of my old house in Brooklyn, though, there's still a pretty active classic deli, the Mill Basin Kosher Delicatessen on Avenue T between E. 58th and 59th Streets. I used to go here at least twice a week as a kid. Weirdly, they had a real Lichtenstein on the wall back then.

7:39 AM  

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