Lufthansa Highlights: Delicatessen Bliss
"Sweetheart, are you saying you don't know what a pastrami on rye is?" Jenny, a slightly rotund, peroxide blond waitress at the Stage Deli on 7th Avenue, is perplexed. "That's a smoked corned beef sandwich, served hot, with sweet mustard. We make the best in the world. Why don't I just bring you one?"
It's nine o'clock in the morning. Wouldn't a toasted bagel with jam and butter be more like it? At the table next to me, two slender and very well-dressed ladies are chatting about a premiere at the Met. With a curt "Enjoy, ladies," Jenny thumps a plate with a single hot pastrami sandwich down on their table: a mountain of meat between thin slices of toast. Jenny obviously disapproves of customers splitting a hot pastrami, especially when the persons in question are thinner than they have any right to be in the first place.
There are delis on every street corner in New York City, but only a few are genuine. The real ones have iconic status and a long history. They started out as a nicer sort of snack bar that served kosher food and was patronized by Jewish immigrants who brought their appetite for matzo ball soup and gefilte fish with them to the New World. The oldest Jewish deli is on Houston Street on the Lower East Side, the part of the city where practically all immigrants began their new life.
Katz's Deli opened in 1888. Long an institution in New York itself, the deli's worldwide renown was cemented by Meg Ryan's legendary fake orgasm scene in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. Katz's Deli is large, high-ceilinged, and brightly lit. Tables that have been wiped off countless times and chairs worn smooth by legions of patrons stand in long rows on a terrazzo floor. The walls are plastered with pictures of celebrities who've eaten here: Jerry Lewis, Tom Hanks, Rudy Giuliani, Liv Tyler, and Tony Curtis, to name a few. "And five presidents of the United States," owner Alan Dell proudly adds.
The menu is sizeable. Katz's beef hotdogs, served with sauerkraut, onions, and ketchup are regarded as the best in the city, but there are also exotic specialties from Eastern Europe such as cold beef tongue and New York classics like bagels with lox and cream cheese. No pork, of course, and if they were going by all the rules, they wouldn't be serving their Rueben sandwich (corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing) with Swiss cheese.
"A Jew would never eat cheese and meat at the same meal," Mr. Dell explains, but the Rueben is so popular that now every deli has it on the menu. Katz's bestsellers are the classic pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. Its customers consume up to five tons of beef per week, all of which is cooked, pickled, or smoked in the deli's own kitchen and always sliced by hand.
A pastrami sandwich contains about a pound of meat, so it's no wonder that many people, especially women, like to split them. "That's fine with me," says Dell with a grin. "Here, we'll do almost anything to please the ladies." He's an old-fashioned sort of restaurant owner and always a gentleman, ready to help a woman into her coat. "I learned that from my father and my grandfather," he laughs, "and that's why so many ladies come to our deli."
Abraham Lebewohl probably had the same old fashioned charm, until the day in 1996 when he was gunned down in front of his delicatessen on Second Avenue. A notice still hangs in the window promising a $ 100,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest of his murderer. The Second Avenue Deli is one of the smallest, most exquisite, and most tastefully furnished delis in the city, with tiled walls, a mosaic floor, old wall lamps, wooden tables, and booths and chairs upholstered in dark leather.
Once you've managed to get a table, they immediately bring you a carafe of ice water with lemon, a dish of slaw, and a dish of pickles. Pastrami sandwiches are the most popular item on the menu here as well, usually with an order of coleslaw or French fries on the side. A hot pastrami sandwich costs $ 14.24, plus $ 4.95 for the coleslaw, the same for fries. All things considered, a reasonable price for a meal that's plenty for two people.
The prices are a little steeper at Carnegie's, which is probably New York's most famous deli. They offer a "Woody Allen Pastrami" for $ 16.95, named after a scene in the film Broadway Danny Rose that was shot here. Carnegie's is small, and it's brick walls are covered from top to bottom with pictures of guests. There are lots of celebrities here, too, such as Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, and, of course, Woody Allen.
New York also has other delis that do well even without celebrity associations. Tourists are not likely to wander into Ben's Deli in midtown Manhattan, despite its cavernous Art Deco interior and specialties like stuffed cabbage Hongroise and kreplach (small dumplings filled with ground meat or mashed potatoes).
Or Artie's Deli on the Upper West Side. This is another spacious restaurant with an attractive black-and-white décor that includes old lamps, mirrored walls, and marble tables. And from the window tables you can watch the bustle outside on Broadway.
Guido is one of the long-time waiters here and knows many of the guests by name. These are mostly locals from nearby streets, who come to enjoy blintzes (a thin rolled pancake akin to crêpes, filled with cottage cheese and fried), knockwurst with beans, or "Pastrami Burger Deluxes." "They're also welcome to order just a bowl of soup," he says amiably. "We know that not everybody can manage a pound of meat. Our soups are homemade and excellent."
A line always forms outside at lunchtime. If you want a more relaxed atmosphere, it's best to come later. Like most delis, this one is open almost around the clock, from the break of dawn (6:30 am) to (just about) the break of the next dawn (4:00 am).
Finishing your meal is less of a challenge in one of New York's newest delis, called simply "Delicatessen." In good weather, this modern new-generation deli is open to the street on two sides and brimming with young people. The servings are normal-sized, and traditional Jewish specialties are at most a source of creative inspiration for the cooks. Here, Reuben sandwiches have metamorphosed into a sort of fritter, calf's liver is grilled instead of pan and the matzo ball soup is jazzed up with coriander and lemongrass. Delicatessen nouveaux cuisine? Maybe, but old-style actually tastes better.