We left sunny, warm spring-like Ottawa at the very civilized hour of 11 am. After a quick and bumpy ride, we arrived in the Big Apple just after noon to a cloudy day. Our flight landed at Newark NJ, so we taxied to Manhattan. The ride gave us a bit of a view of the Lower East Side where we are staying for the weekend. Neither of us is familiar with this part of the island.
We reached our destination, the Hotel on Rivington, unpacked, grabbed cameras and set out on foot to Katz’s Deli two blocks away. Katz’s is famous to New Yorkers for it’s fabulous deli offerings and famous to the rest of us because this is where Meg Ryan had her famous public orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally”. We recently watched Anthony Bourdain chow down here on “No Reservations” and decided that Katz’s was a must this trip.
Katz’s Deli NYC 2:10 pm Friday. The place is chaos. We enter through a single door over an inlaid stone surface, all but worn away with time and foot traffic. Two uniformed but casual security people hand us a green ticket each. “Don’t lose it, it’s your only way out.” they say as we are being hustled further inside by the swell of people coming into the joint behind us. Directly in front of us is a deli counter four rows deep with people. Menus are overhead and small.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the ordering process that we can suss out immediately. Rob overheard somebody say there was waiter service at some tables. After circling the area like sharks for 20 some minutes and glaring at a well dressed ignoramus hogging a table for four with one empty glass on it and his nose in a book, to no avail (guess they are used to that in the big city), we pounced on a table with two gentlemen in mid-rise from their seats, with two other couples breathing down our necks.
We waited nearly ten minutes for a waitress, when the manager came over and explained that we were not actually in the table service area, but he kindly sent a waitress over anyways. Phew! We are hungry hungry hippos at this point.
We order several deli classics to try but we have no intention of finishing the generous deli portions. Sandwiches are served on rye and club bread. They come naked (ask for mayo at your peril warns the paper placemat menu). No sides, no accompaniments. Pricey at $15.75. Rob opts for the corned beef and I chose the pastrami, both on club bread, so we could compare. As well we ordered potato salad, pickles, fries and noodle kugel.
The pickles arrive first, a large plate of bright, crisp half sour pickles, tasting of cucumber, pickled green tomatoes, and classic, excellent, slightly crisp garlic dills. Inexplicably, the noodle kugel arrives next, hot and steaming. Noodle kugel is much like bread budding except wide, flat egg noodles are used instead of stale bread to soak up a sweet custard. Like good bread pudding the ingredients condense into a uniform sweet chewy layer at the bottom. The kugel is crusted with toasted slivered almonds dusted generously with cinnamon. The dense interior, light on the fork, is studded with peaches and plump golden raisins. Delectable.
With dessert out of the way, we prepare for lunch. Arriving next at our table is an unappetizing plate of potato salad. Never in our experience has there been such a large discrepancy between the looks and the flavour of a single menu item. Rob took one for the team and ventured a hesitant bite. I was not going to waste the calories and as I waited for his verdict of which I was already quite sure, I was surprised to hear him exclaim “This is really good” What!? Katz’s potato salad is not made in house. Sally Sherman supplies the salad to many area kosher delis. The potatoes are steamed, sliced and seasoned with salt and vinegar, then amply dressed in a mayonnaise vinegar sauce. This potato salad is white. There is no paprika. There is no parsley. There is no pepper. White and gloppy. And wow! So this is what classic New York kosher deli potato salad must be. The internet is rife with foodies trying to decipher the secrets of this salad.
Hot and fresh from the fryer, the steak-cut fries arrive crispy on the outside, soft and steamy on the inside. These are surely what ketchup was invented for. Our waitress is back in seconds and places our sandwich orders on the table. We both apply a generous squirt of spicy brown deli mustard and go into the hunch. My pastrami is smoked in-house and is lean with just enough fat to moisten the excellent club bun. The meat is succulent and thickly hand sliced directly from the steamer upon order. This is the best pastrami sandwich I’ve ever had. It certainly out does the pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, which while excellent, relies on quantity for impact.
The corned beef (a version of the same pastrami that has been pickled in a secret dry cure for over a month) had a mellower flavour, was beefier and less juicy in texture, and while excellent in its own right, the pastrami ruled the day.
$15.75 for meat on a bun? Absolutely. This is the definitive standard by which all others are to be measured. This isn’t steamed over Shopsy’s or the thin sliced, rainbow streaked, over processed meat from your local grocer. This is craft and calling, made perfect by repetition and tradition.