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November 15, 2007

New York, Day II

Dominic Armato

I'm a little unclear on precisely what happens if you do, but based on the signs posted around the restaurant, the stern warning of the fellow handing them out and the looks of horror on the faces of the patrons surrounding us when we discovered an extra ticket lying on the ground, I can only presume it's nothing short of tar and feathering. Or maybe just a $50 charge. Pick your poison, really.

We kicked off day two in the heart of deli central. Houston Street just east of Allen is home to two of New York's most famous, Katz's Delicatessen and Russ & Daughters. I've wanted to calibrate my deli meter for quite a while now, so these two were at the very top of my New York hit list.

Dominic Armato
Much as I consider my hometown of Chicago second to none when it comes to good eats (New York included), I like to think I can objectively identify a weakness when I see one, and deli food is one of the most glaring examples. And much as it pains me to admit it, a decade ago when I was living in Los Angeles, I spent a lot more time at Jerry's Famous than I did at Langer's (I was but a wee food lover then -- be kind). Long story short, while I've spent quality time with some pretty decent corned beef and smoked salmon over the years, my exposure to the best of the best is somewhat limited. It's hard to know what's good until you have some frame of reference, so I couldn't have been more excited about having an opportunity to develop said frame.

Dominic Armato
Katz's was the first stop, and if there were any doubts (there weren't), they were immediately put to rest the moment we set foot in the door. Katz's oozes authenticity. Check that -- Katz's screams authenticity. On a Saturday afternoon, at least, it's a total zoo with as many people standing in line and hunting for tables as there are people actually sitting to eat. Tip for those seeking seating: It's New York -- be aggressive. Once you're past the initial sensory blitz, Katz's is immediately recognizable as one of those places completely lost in time. If you eat cafeteria style, you take your little brown passport to whatever server or cutter is handling your desired foodstuff, where it is marked for tallying at the register on your way out. If you opt for table service, the fellow taking your order will be clad in a powder blue smock that went out of style, if it was ever IN style, three decades ago. Either way, you're surrounded by wood paneling and linoleum, you're seated under fluorescent lighting and the folks at the next table are practically in your lap. Whether you find this charming or distressing depends largely on your point of view, but count me in the former camp.

Dominic Armato
All of this means nothing, of course, if the food doesn't hold up. I couldn't get behind everything I tasted, but Katz's nailed it where it counted. Sides like the potato salad and cole slaw were decidedly old-school, no-frills and really creamy. Steak fries did the job but weren't anything to get excited about. Standard deli fare for my ladylove is a bowl of chicken soup, preferably with matzo, and here Katz's disappointed somewhat. The matzo was, as advertised, exceptionally fluffy and light, but the broth left something to be desired. It had a round, mellow base that I assume was thanks to the vegetables involved, but it lacked that salty chicken intensity that plays so well off matzo. The stars of the meal, unsurprisingly, were the corned beef and pastrami. Hand sliced and exceptionally moist and tender, what I enjoyed most was the lightness of the cure. There wasn't the slightest hint of the tough texture and slick feel that seems to come along with a heavier cure. They both had a fresher, meatier taste than what I'm accustomed to and I loved it. I found the pastrami to be especially revelatory. In stark contrast to the garlicky punch of the pastrami at my new neighborhood haunt, the seasoning rub and smoke on Katz's pastrami is really quite mellow, a beautifully smooth complement to the meat.

Dominic Armato
Stuffed full of beef, we walked a few doors down to check out Russ & Daughters and get a fish fix. R&D is a counter deli rather than a sit down establishment, and for four generations they've been known as one of the finest purveyors of smoked fish in the city. The shop is jaw-dropping. Decked out in gleaming white tile, there are glass cases along both walls that contain about a dozen types of smoked salmon and an equal number of other types of smoked fish, to say nothing of the case that's devoted to pickled fish and assorted salads and spreads. Additionally, they have a rather extensive selection of caviar, as well as all of the bagels and fresh cream cheeses you could need, assorted pastries and chocolates and a front window filled with a variety of stunningly beautiful dried fruits. It's the kind of market I'd love to devote a full week to, coming back for three meals a day to slowly taste my way through everything they offer. Under the circumstances, especially given our level of meat saturation, I think we did admirably.

Dominic Armato
After conferring with one of the fellows behind the counter, we walked out with five varieties of smoked fish and later did a tasting back at the hotel. First we tried their Gaspé Nova lox, which absolutely redefined smoked salmon for me. It was gently cured and smoked, with a smooth, clean flavor and not the slightest hint of underlying harshness that I've encountered with other smoked salmon. It was pure, silky salmon with a light smoky accent, and while it was good enough to eat in quantity all by itself, on a bagel with cream cheese it was like creamy salmon butter. It was shockingly good. Being a fan of belly cuts, the other salmon I picked out was the belly lox, but this I found overwhelmingly salty, even when cut with a little cream cheese. An acquired taste, I'm sure, that I've yet to acquire.

Dominic Armato
Next, we had some sturgeon which I thought was best all by itself. Smoked but not cured, the sturgeon was unbelievably fresh and moist, a pure expression of the fish with a hint of smoke. This was another universal hit, and perhaps my favorite of the lot. Rounding out the cured fishes, I picked up some sable, dusted with paprika and cured and smoked a little more aggressively than the others. It was a little strong on its own, but on a bagel with cream cheese the beauty came through. This was the most complex of the lot, quite smoky and a little firmer in texture. Another big winner that I'd have a hard time passing on next time around. Lastly, my father lit up when he saw whole smoked chubs. They invoked memories of childhood, I believe, so we brought one of those back as well. The belly portion was quite fishy -- a little too much so for my tastes -- but the side was quite lovely, with a firm but yielding texture and a little more grungy character than the cured and smoked fillets.

After this feast, it was a miracle we had room for Jean Georges, which really needs a post of its own. More soon.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10001
Mon - Tue8:00 AM - 9:45 PM
Wed - Thu8:00 AM - 10:45 PM
Fri - Sat8:00 AM - 2:45 AM
Sun8:00 AM - 10:45 PM
Russ & Daughters
179 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
Mon - Sat9:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 5:30 PM


Great site! I'll be back for sure! I'm a Chicago foodie, wanting to meet others.

Beautiful photos, Dom. I rarely have anything but meat at Katz's -- usually just pastrami or a hot dog.

Russ and Daughters is a treasure. When it is herring season, the choices are monstrous and tantalizing. Most of the countermen there are helpful, and Mark, the owner, can still wax enthusiastic about what's new and delicious at his emporium.

Thanks, Marie! If you're looking to get out with some food folk, check out lthforum.com. Go to the events board and don't be shy about jumping right in.

I'm still in awe of R&D, Dave. I didn't meet Mark, but I'd love to. That's the kind of place where the passion is laid out for everybody to see.

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