Think of Lenny's Deli in Carmel as an introductory course to Jewish delicatessens.
Thursday, June 21, 2001
Everyone who grew up in the New York City area had their favorite deli. I don''t know what things are like there for the current generation but for mine, delis were as integral a part of everyday life as pizza joints, diners and soda fountains--which were better known as candy stores.
In my neighborhood, when you wanted a Jewish Deli, you went to Moe''s on 221st Street and White Plains Road. A Jewish Deli is like a temple. The owner is like the Rabbi--except he''s feeding your spirit instead of your soul. For me, going into a real Jewish deli is a joyous occasion every time.
At Moe''s, half the fun was jawboning with Moe while I placed the order. It usually went something like this: "Moe, gimme a pastrami on rye, a knish and a cream soda, and not so fatty on the pastrami." "FATTY!? You should only hope you meet a girl with so little fat, you meshugenah, you. This is the best pastrami in the city." "I don''t know Moe, last time it was like chewing my baseball glove." "Yeah, you should go eat your glove you son of a *@!, what do you and those hoodlum friends of yours know, anyway?"
It was all in good fun--we all knew Moe''s was great and Moe certainly knew it. With all the people in the neighborhood he fed, he''d have been out of business if they weren''t happy. But he could never rest on his laurels. Every day, Moe was in there, doing the same exact magic act, cranking out unbelievable sandwiches, hot dogs, knishes, matzo ball soup, bagels and lox--the whole shebang.
When I moved away from the Bronx in 1974 and started living in other areas of the country, I simply resigned myself to life without Moe''s (or any other good Jewish deli).
In Carmel Plaza, that collection of classy shops on Ocean which is trying not to be a mall, you''ll find Lenny''s Deli. With what appears to be a big-city skyline in the logo and with sandwiches named Rudolph Giuliani--Mayor of N.Y., and Brooklyn Burger, plus a few more named after stars (a Manhattan deli tradition) Lenny''s Deli is obviously positioning itself as a New York, Jewish-style deli. Along with the sandwiches, the extensive menu is packed with everything from matzo ball soup to kreplach to gefilte fish, as well as lox, potato knishes and Hebrew National knockwursts (the best). They even have egg creams and Dr. Brown''s sodas--Jewish Deli staples. (For those who don''t know, egg creams--which you couldn''t get in a NY deli, for those you had to go to the candy store--are a wonderful concoction of chocolate or vanilla syrup, a small amount of milk and the rest seltzer.)
Since it has a space on the ground floor right in the middle of Carmel Plaza, plus some cute outdoor tables in that fun, flowered setting, Lenny''s should do well with the captured audience. For tourists or browsers on Ocean, there really aren''t too many choices for simple, not-too-expensive lunches and Lenny''s offers a reasonable alternative to the limited lunch options.
The key to eating here is to approach it like it is a casual restaurant in a busy shopping mall (oops) that serves interesting deli-style sandwiches and dishes. Don''t expect it to be a New York Jewish deli if you''ve eaten at one before--that would be an unrealistic expectation. But if you haven''t been to a traditional Jewish deli, Lenny''s provides a glimpse into that world.
Staple menu items like pastrami, corned beef, brisket of beef and chopped liver are obviously purchased from a quality purveyor and display good, authentic flavor--what wine geeks refer to as varietal integrity. Like a traditional Jewish deli, the small kitchen is right smack in the middle of the action and the stuff is prepared on the go. All it lacks are the subtleties that would elevate the fare from good to superb. Pastrami, perhaps the best barometer of a deli''s commitment, should be tender and gristle-free, pungent in flavor, steaming hot and so moist it drips--the great deli mavens hold it in steaming, mustard-infused water, then grab it with tongs, shake it out and layer it high onto real Jewish rye bread. I believe the pastrami could achieve that level of quality here, ultimately, if the desire to wrestle with all the trifling details is great enough. For now we must settle for something less.
The same applies to the other primary meats--corned beef and brisket--which are tasty, yet lack the delicacy and moistness essential to great deli sandwiches. The other essential is the bread. Good Jewish rye bread has a firmness that prevents it from wilting under the juiciness of its contents. The bread here could use an overhaul--it''s too soft and becomes soggy too easily.
I enjoyed the knishes, which tasted good and came with sour cream. I asked for yellow deli mustard to dip them in (a must) and found that dipping them in both the mustard and sour cream was a treat. The chopped liver sandwich, served with sliced egg, is OK, although slightly diminished because of the bread.
The accompaniments--the cole slaw, potato salad and dill pickles--are all good and make for a well-rounded plate to go with the sandwiches. At an average cost of about $11 per sandwich, you kind of expect a good plate of food.
Overall, Lenny''s is a good spot to drop by when you''re in town and hungry for a decent sandwich or other deli specialty. I hope that the staff dedicates itself to improving the preparation and execution of these Jewish-style deli treats so future diners may get an even better feel for the joys of spirited Jewish deli life. Oh yeah, and they could all use a little more moxy.
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