2nd Ave Deli
A comeback is staged on 33rd Street.
Wed Jan 30 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Few things are fully appreciated until they’re gone. Two years after a fatal rent dispute shuttered the original location of the 2nd Ave Deli, my recent pilgrimages to the midtown reincarnation have flooded me with gratitude. The pastrami could have been rubber and I’d still have grinned from ear to ear.
I ate at the original more than 200 times—partly because it was a classic, mostly because the food was consistently great. Jeremy Lebewohl, the 25-year-old nephew of founder Abe Lebewohl, has done a solid job trying to re-create the aesthetic glory, albeit in a smaller space, located in the middle of a sleepy block between Third Avenue and Lex—an address destined to confuse tourists for decades to come. Same Hebraic logo, silver facade, black-and-white tiles, etched glass and celebrity photos—it’s as if the original returned as a Hollywood set, at two thirds the scale. Wistful aficionados will feel comfortable enough.
Apart from the prices (jacked a healthy 25 percent or so overall), they’ll recognize the menu, too: Every dish has returned, listed in the exact same order. The free pickles and shredded cabbage “health salad,” the daily soups (split pea Wednesdays, turkey gumbo Thursdays), the triple-decker sandwich combos, the “instant heart attack” (meat stuffed between potato pancakes), all tempting me as if it were 2005.
Although the recipes are the same, the kitchen has some difficulty executing them. Take the matzo ball soup, which is to the 2nd Ave Deli what porterhouse is to Peter Luger. The old version: best in the city, maybe the best in the world. Carrot- and dill-fueled chicken broth dotted with pasta, with rich and eggy shot-put–size matzo balls. On two separate trials, the size and fluffy texture were there, but the taste was off: On the first visit, the egglike flavor could be detected, but only in the middle of the dumpling; the second round was bland and oily, with watery broth. One old-time waitress (approximately half the staff are veterans of 2AD 1.0), sensing my consternation, confided that the new staff was still learning how to properly fold the mixture.
While it’s generally unfair to judge a new restaurant against a ghost, the deli is selling itself specifically as the seamless continuation of the legend. And so the bulk of the classic dishes bounce around, like in a tennis game, from the ranks of As Good as Ever back to Not Quite as Good as Before. In the former camp, count the chopped liver, still made with beef and chicken livers, schmaltz, eggs and onions, whipped to a perfect mousse consistency; oblong stuffed cabbage, the tender meat-and-rice filling complemented by a red sauce packed with lemon rinds; and the deli sandwiches, including juicy pastrami and corned beef, both of which are still sliced thin and piled high, and skillfully straddle the line between fatty and lean.
The disappointments, besides the matzo balls, included chewy cherry blintzes (delayed significantly because the first batch was burned), potted meatballs (dense and institutional-tasting) and a cinnamon-raisin rugalach reminiscent of a brown-sugar Pop-Tart. Relativity matters here: Even the disappointments outrank the goods at the majority of surviving Manhattan Jewish delis (only Katz’s and the Carnegie come close).
Lebewohl has made a few slight additions, including grebenes (fried chicken skins and shredded onions, the Jewish equivalent of pork rinds, a small cup of salty, curled-up scraps that I found dubiously worth the calorie indulgence or $6 price tag) and an expanded appetizing section, including a light and pleasingly mild whitefish salad.
By and large, the 2nd Ave Deli authentically lives again, with one especially improved feature: a 24/7 schedule. Those looking for a fix need to take advantage of this, as I found that dining at prime time, during lunch or dinner, on the weekend or weekdays, required a long wait and the willingness to endure a scrum. Once, while exiting, I couldn’t get out the door as one woman who was tired of the wait and jostling refused to budge for my group. “I’m not moving,” she informed me. “Well, we’ve already eaten,” I shrugged. “If you don’t move, you don’t get in.” She gazed at the salamis hanging from the deli counter—just like old times—and, in our little game of chicken (soup), she blinked.