Pop-up restaurants are yesterday’s news in most cities. When St. John’s chefs finally clued in, only a few were interested enough to do one.
Several cooks from Raymonds did a pop-up last year at a Duckworth Street venue, Todd Perrin sort of did one at Mallard Cottage before it officially opened, and chefs have gotten together with Roary MacPherson at the Sheraton to do what they’ve called pop-ups as fundraisers for various causes. More power to all of them for trying.
Then there’s the group who can’t say no to smoking brisket for profit.
Jonathan Richler, an avid foodie, along with a few of his buddies — trained cooks Adam Blanchard of Five Brothers Cheese and David Williams of Get Stuffed — have pulled off their second Jewish deli pop-up (thanks partly to Chinched, which rented them space).
I’ve known Richler for over 10 years. He’s a Jew with a passionate interest in Jewish history and culture. I’ve interviewed him several times about everything from Jewish religious holidays to Jewish cuisine.
Being me, my ears always pricked up when Richler would describe a traditional recipe for juicy baked chicken, or some other Jewish dish.
Richler has scads of energy, he loves people and likes to have fun. Add to that his interest in food and educating people about Jewish culture, and a Jewish deli pop-up seems a logical fit.
After all, the Jewish deli has made a wondrous contribution to world cuisine since the first one opened (Katz’s, according to author Ted Merwin in “Pastrami on Rye”) on New York’s Lower East Side in 1888.
Delis aren’t as popular as they used to be. During their heyday, I ate dozens of times at Ben’s, Schwartz’s and Dunn’s in Montreal. I still crave Ben’s thinly sliced smoked meat on rye (not to mention the cheesecake) but, sadly, it’s something I’ll never taste again. Ben’s is gone and most others are a pale imitation of what they used to be.
Last year, I ate at the Carnegie Deli in New York. It, like New York, is still awesome.
Doing a reasonable interpretation of Jewish deli food in St. John’s is a tall order. On the basics, Richler and company did a good job.
A few items were not quite up to par, and there was one surprising fail. Perhaps the overwhelming turnout for the pop-up caused pressure that resulted in the lapses.
Timing is everything
We were seated at 4 p.m. at the one-day restaurant that would disappear like Brigadoon at 9:30 or so that night (Sunday, May 18).
If the deli ever pops again, you’ll need to set aside 2 1/2 hours for dining in. It’s not produced in deli time, but then such rare experiences should be savoured not rushed. A less expensive takeout option (with less food) was also available — $30 as opposed to $40 for dine-in.
Pop-ups don’t sell booze, so we were offered standard non-
alcoholic beverages with one drink slightly altered. It was deli cherry Coke, made by adding a little cherry syrup. That’s what I ordered.
A plate of appetite starters for two included chopped liver, dried chanterelles and potato knishes, pickled red pepper, pickled fennel, Israeli pickles and matzo crackers.
The chopped liver was food-processor smooth and had lots of oniony flavour. I didn’t taste or spot any bits of the oft-employed hard-cooked eggs, though.
Give me a pile of chopped liver on a matzo cracker that I can wash down with cherry Coke (or was that cherry Pepsi?) and I’m happy. The pickles and pickled veggies were brilliant, but the knishes were not.
I like flaky, tender pastry and, if not flaky, it must at least be tender. Fillings should also be substantial. Here we had indelicate pastry with scant filling.
What I could taste of the filling did have potential. The earthy, dried chanterelles had been rehydrated and blended with potato.
Mount Scio savory in the knishes was a nice idea, and (quite correctly) the pungent herb was used sparingly.
Here’s the thing about matzo ball (dumpling) soup. Three balls is acceptable in a rich, schmaltzy broth. (Schmaltz is chicken fat and is essential in good Jewish cooking.)
If you only have two balls per bowl they should be extra big balls, like golf balls. Or, you should add some vegetables or noodles, or both.
Our plain broth had excellent, smoke-tinged flavour but was not schmaltzy. In fact, it was so lean you could freeze it and skate on it. The savory-flecked matzo balls were lonely, small and dense. Large, light and airy is preferable.
An old Jewish proverb says, “Worries go down better with soup.” But the soup must have substance, or your worries will catch in your throat.
The smoked meat in my smoked meat on rye was good. It was also black and crisp at the edges. Like all proper deli smoked meat sandwiches, it was fatty. (Jewish cuisine is meant to build you up.) But it could have been moister. Several slices were dry.
The surprising fail I mentioned earlier referred to the fries that came with my sandwich. The menu talked about pickled turnip and potato fries. Pickled turnips I knew, but as fries?
Anyway, it didn’t matter because all of the fries were UFOs, unidentifiable frying objects. (Wait, is that one sweet potato? Is that undercooked turnip?)
It was mostly a mass of black, scrawny, tasteless dreck. I asked David Williams about them. I held out hope for some logical explanation. He said he’d get back to me but didn’t.
By far, the best savoury (and I don’t mean the herb) plate of the day was the chicken schnitzel on bagel with coleslaw, potato salad and pink pickled egg.
The modestly creamy coleslaw was crunchy and fresh tasting. I enjoyed the addition of a few strands of salt meat on top. A little meat always makes vegetables taste more interesting.
The so-called German potato salad was too bland for German salad. Where was that yin-yang of the sugar and vinegar? The pink pickled egg made up for the low seasoning of the salad.
I’ve now resolved to eat more pickled eggs and pickled things in general. (I remember when a friend operated a pub on Cochrane Street. One highlight of my visits was treating myself to a pickled egg from the large Warren’s jar on the bar. Do bars have pickled eggs anymore?)
A Georgetown bagel with egg-washed, breaded and crispy fried chicken breast meat between it was the star of the plate.
I think Georgetown bagels are made too small (have you noticed?) but at least they taste right. The bagel, the chicken and the schmaltz mayo were close to perfection.
I was more impressed by the scoop of vanilla ice cream than by the chocolate rugelach underneath it.
Most likely the ice cream was from Chinched, but the maker was not identified. The rugelach was a tad dry. Nevertheless, the chocolate, vanilla and pastry together made a good team.
One heavenly blintz filled with cottage cheese and napped with blueberry sauce ended our meal.
It was extraordinary, and, as full as my belly was, I could have eaten several more.
The pancake was light, the sauce bright and the milky, slightly sharp, chewy cheese was the ultimate counterpoint to the soft pancake and sweet berry condiment.
Jewish pop-up deli, the second, was good. Let’s hope No. 3 will be better.
Lunch for two with one cherry Coke and tip — $96
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent
* * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Associationof Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website,
www.karlwells.com. Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells