The Return Of The Jewish Deli

The charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal, also known as Schwartz’s Deli — the most famous restaurant in all Canada — is rumored to be sold soon. The buyers are thought to be an investment group that includes Céline Dion and her husband René Angelil.

The deli, opened in 1928, is famous for smoking its own meat. It’s been the focus of books, movies, and even a theatrical musical comedy. Every culinary expert, rock star and movie star who comes to town makes a pilgrimage.

Still, what does a glamor couple like Dion and Angelil want with an old deli in Montreal? A big opportunity to the franchise and open other locations. Vegas casinos have been pining for one for years.

This potential is partly because the old-time Jewish deli is becoming a culinary tour de force; the question is whether supermarket delis are going to know how to ride this wave. There’s a real danger they’ll let it pass by.

The New York Times published a piece heralding the return of herring to haute cuisine, titled A Starring Role for the Little Humble Herring, by Joan Nathan, James Beard-award winner, a doyen of Jewish cooking in America, host of a PBS show and author. Turns out pickled herring is all the rage in Japan — and is now on the prix fixe menu at Masa, an ultra chic, the super pricey restaurant in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.

The article profiles catering chefs who take pride in smoking their own herring and upscale restaurants that find herring is a best seller. As Nathan writes: “What used to be food for Jewish grandfathers…is showing up on the menus of restaurants both hip and elegant.”

Leading edge retailers are also beginning to play the trend. Ms. Nathan quotes a leading supplier: “Shoppers are finding a more appealing selection in stores. Herring used to be pickled in only wine sauce or cream sauce for Jewish holidays. No more. Now it’s in dill sauce, in curry sauce, with pickles, with mustard sauce.

“’Whole Foods has much to do with this increased interest,’ said Richard Schiff, the general manager of Acme Smoked Fish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the main supplier in New York. ‘They want not just one or two herring jars, but lots.’ And lightly smoked French herring is also now available to consumers at Whole Foods and other stores.”

Is the supermarket deli department ready to take advantage of this trend? There was a time when every self-respecting deli operator personally knew how to debone herring. Is anyone who remembers how left?

Nathan’s herring article is part of a larger trend. The New York Post had a piece titled Bringing schmaltzy back: Hot new eateries serve up posh nosh to the young and chosen. It highlights 37-year-old Zach Kutscher, scion of the family that founded Kutscher’s Hotel and Country Club, an archetypical Jewish Catskills resort where food was king. He opened Kutscher’s Tribeca in Manhattan, a modern day bistro reinterpreting the Jewish classics, many of them traditional deli foods.

As the article explains: “Kutsher’s Tribeca is a sleek, minimalist space where patrons can nosh on a platter of in-house smoked veal tongue while eavesdropping on Harvey Keitel, who’s been seen at the restaurant.”

Kutsher’s Tribeca heralds a renaissance in Jewish cooking which is suddenly becoming hip. According to the article, “There’s Boerum Hill delicatessen Mile End, opening its first Manhattan outpost on Bond Street in March. Weeks-old SoHo cafe Jack’s Wife Freda boasts piri-spiced giblets and a matzo ball soup. Sons of Essex on the LES has added ‘Eggs Benedictowitz’ — poached eggs on a potato pancake with smoked salmon — as well as the ‘Sloppy Judah’ — a pulled Manischewitz-braised (!) short-rib sandwich — to its new brunch offerings. Shelsky’s Smoked Fish in Carroll Gardens, which opened in June, is a mouth-watering hipster den of gravlax and herring. Matt Abramcyk’s new TriBeCa restaurant, Super Linda…boasts a Jewish-Mexican taco on its menu (the pastrami perhaps an ode to Abramcyk’s schooling at Ramaz, an UES Orthodox private school). And the owners of Chelsea tapas spots Txikito and El Quinto Pino are opening La Vara, a restaurant that celebrates Spain’s Jewish and Moorish heritage, in Cobble Hill next month.”

Despite all the interest in health, the rising culinary trend focuses on hearty peasant food, rich and full flavored foods. Foods that delight the senses with their deep appeal. The article also notes: “Joe Dobias, 31, who recently opened East Village sandwich shop JoeDough with girlfriend Jill Schulster, agrees. ‘Fat is in. Off-cuts are in. I think that the whole idea of humble cuisine is really cool right now because that’s where some of the best cooking came from.’

“His menu reflects the trend with sandwiches, such as ‘The Almighty Brisket’ and ‘The Conflicted Jew,’ made with liver, onions, bacon and challah toast.”

The trend is there for supermarket delis to grab, but how many even sell tongue any more? Too many delis are sterile places, focused on utilitarian things such as low-fat cheeses or low-salt deli meats. Here is the zeitgeist swinging and saying the focus is on artisanal, on heritage, on sensual, rich, fatty cuisine. How many of us are ready to capitalize on this return the roots of the deli?