May 04, 2012
There was much buzz across The Five Towns last week when we broke the news of the demise of the King David Deli – a fixture on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst in its current incarnation for 27 years. Prior to being King David, for probably 20 years prior it was the Cedar Kosher Deli. So a Jewish deli has been in that spot for much of everyone’s lifetime. Much hand-wringing was expended this week by socio-cultural pundits as to the meaning of this passing. Here is our take on it:
Way back in days of yore (like 30 years ago) when Glatt Kosher restaurants were few and far between and when they did exist they were either low-end pizza joints or delis, it was a given that any kind of deli with supervision was going to survive and even thrive, regardless of the quality of the food and/or service. One of the key hallmarks of many Glatt Kosher restaurants until recently (and this includes flying El Al for that matter) has been dismal service combined with ragingly mediocre food. We don’t know if it’s because of a lack of talent on the part of the chefs or proprietors and/or the sense of “taking the customer for granted” that comes from a captive audience of folks strictly observing the kosher dietary laws with no place else to go other than eating at home, but Glatt Kosher dining was no picnic until fairly recently.
And therein lies the rub for King David – today thanks to newfound affluence among the kosher observant population, combined with a greater culinary worldliness and sophistication (along with a greater comfort level with culinary experimentation) the kosher consumer is no longer happy with bland food and equally bland service. The stakes at the table have been raised by the profusion of sushi (see Danny O’Doul’s article about sushi in The Five Towns on page A9) and the entrance of other exotic Asian dishes – there are now also kosher Mexican and endless permutations of schnitzel and sandwiches to boggle the mind. Kosher Chinese is more than ubiquitous. Israeli food is everywhere. Good Italian is taken for granted. French bistros and steak houses are the norm. There are a lot of restaurants chasing a fixed population that has become very discerning and demanding if they’re to pay top dollar-plus for the privilege of dining Glatt. This has also been reflected in the kosher supermarkets, takeout counters and wine stores where the bar keeps being raised on a weekly basis for inventiveness and variety.
Some have said that the day of the deli is no more. We beg to disagree. While deli has become expensive relative to years ago, folks have no problem shelling out large sums for steaks, sushi and drinks. The issue is value for the money. Many Glatt delis have been fine with proffering mass-produced, processed, shrink-wrapped and nuked meat; with sawdust tasting bread; with no-bite mustard, pickles and kraut; with soup so loaded with MSG and devoid of meat that it looks like an energy drink or Mountain Dew; with knishes and dogs that taste a day or week old.
Jewish deli food is actually exploding in non-kosher and non-Glatt environments where people still crave that pastrami, corned beef, tongue and chopped liver experience. Places like Mile End (not kosher) have just expanded from hipster Brooklyn to Manhattan’s NoLiTa on the back of their creative menus and house-cured meats. The scion of the Kutsher’s family has opened a chi-chi outpost in Tribeca (also not kosher) that is mobbed by the young and trendy, offering their nouveau take on time-honored classics. A Lebewohl heir reopened the Second Avenue Deli to a packed house every day for the hungry masses yearning for chopped liver made with chicken fat; fried perogen and giant knockwurst. They’ve been so successful that they opened a second location recently uptown. You have the landmark Carnegie and Katz delis (also not kosher) with standing room only at lunchtime. On the Glatt side, Mendy’s has done so well they now have something like a half dozen locations and Mr. Broadway in the Garment District is always full at lunch.
How do they cut the mustard? People love artery clogging food and will pay for it as long as the taste and quality are there along with the service. Meats like pastrami, corned beef and brisket need to be picked, brined, cured and spiced in-house, not in a giant faceless factory in Iowa. They need to be fresh everyday and kept in steam trays so that the meat melts to the touch for softness. The meats need to have some fat in them. Lean pastrami and corned beef are an oxymoron. Like a good steak needs marbling, so do these kinds of meats to have any taste. There’s nothing worse than bone-dry nuked pastrami and no measure of mustard will remedy it. Rye bread needs to be baked fresh with top-quality wheat and be moist as well. Onions, garlic and poppy seeds need to be infused throughout the inside of the bread like in the old days, not just sprinkled on top. Knishes need to be handmade. Pickles need to bite you back. Peppers have to be on the table and have to make you cry. The stuffed cabbage has to be pungent and made with top-tier ground beef. Gefilte fish must be produced from the best fresh whitefish. Chicken soup needs to taste like the kind your grandmother made, may she rest in peace. Borscht can’t come from a jar. Fresh baked apples and rugulach for dessert can’t hurt either.
Kosher-keeping Jews have flocked to sushi, Chinese and steak and eat out and take out at prodigious rates. Deli can do well if and when Glatt deli owners put at least as much effort into their food as their non-Glatt and non-kosher counterparts. The most Jewey Jews are happy to eat Jewish food (go to any giant Kiddush on a Saturday morning) they just want it to be as good or better than their steaks, Italian, French, Mexican or Asian. That in many of our most Jewish neighborhoods deli is struggling just should not be. The first step is not taking the customer for granted, because if you do, they’ll just eat burritos and hot wings instead.
Filed Under: Editorials
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