Living in New York has many advantages. Theater, museums, opera…all the cultural accouterments I can read about in New York Magazine and never go to.
But it also has its disadvantages. Rats, traffic, and rent that makes Tokyo jealous.
So it’s taken me a few weeks to check out the new Caplansky’s, which I did on two visits back. Here’s my impression:
When Zane Caplansky opened at the Monarch in June, 2008, he had no expectations, and neither did the people who first ate there. His idea was simple: to cure, smoke, slice, and serve his own smoked meat…influenced by Montreal, but distinctly Toronto’s own. He set up shop in the unused kitchen of a beloved dive bar (but a dive for certain), and expected to slowly build it into a business.
The rest, as they say, is history. People got a taste, the lines formed, the press came, and Caplansky’s was the runaway hit of the past year for sandwich geeks and deli fans in Toronto.
Now comes the next chapter. Zane got too big for the Monarch’s slapdash capacity, and opened his own new delicatessen at the corner of College and Brunswick. This is the former heart of deli in Toronto, where delis like Smith’s , Bekcer’s, Litman’s, Shapiro’s, Goldenberg’s, Weltt’s, and Shopsowitz once plied their trade to the Jews who lived in and around Kensington market. That Jewish market is largely gone, though the area still retains a Jewish foothold. There’s four old and beautiful synagogues in the streets nearby, as well as the klezmer and folk club and restaurant Free Times Cafe, who serves the most delicious Jewish Sunday brunch in the city. While most of the Jews in Toronto live up north, in Forest Hill, York Mills, Thornhill, Richmond Hill, and other suburbs, this remains the historic heart of the community…our Lower East Side.
Caplansky’s new space is an ode to the past, but it doesn’t traffic in nostalgia. There are no old Kensington photos on the walls, no aged newspaper clippings. It’s clean, bright, and inviting, with a blue color scheme that’s very Toronto (Go Leafs!), and walls of windows all around. The tables are basic, the chairs comfortable, the decor subtly deli (white tiling) but not over the top (Pickle Barrel anyone?). The two flourishes are a stained glass style window featuring the now famous Victor Tavares photo of Zane in profile, and a raised cutting station, where two slicers disassemble smoked meat, tongue, and turkey in full view of the customers. It’s deli as theater, with the meat at center stage.
Zane’s gone from having a staff of some two dozen to having over sixty; from two meals a day to three, and the shift hasn’t been seamless. Service has been the major complaint from customers (myself included) but compared with the chaos of my first visit, the second showed serious improvement, and this will definitely work itself out in time.
Ok…enough waiting, let’s get to the food.
First, let me say that the smoked meat is sensational. The two times I’ve tasted it, I’ve noticed a texture and consistency that supercedes what he had at the Monarch. Perhaps it’s the new smoker, or the tenderizing power of a real steamer. Maybe it’s the new facilities or some form of divine intervention. All I can say is that it was sublime. Crusty on the edges, spicy but not overwhelming, hints of smoke and plenty of soft fat to make it go down. The new cutters know what they’re doing, that’s for sure.
The other big surprise was the pickled tongue. Toronto is a tongue town. Yitz’s does it well, as does Pancer’s, Steele’s Deli and the New Yorker. Caplansky cuts his by hand, which makes a big difference. It’s wonderful. Buttery, just salty enough, with a little whiff of garlic. By far the best tongue I’ve tasted since the UK.
Here’s a little video my brother Daniel took of me eating there the other day.
What else can we talk about:
Oh yeah, the fried salami (voorsht, or wurst), which is actually the best I’ve had anywhere. I don’t know why or how either. It’s cut just thick enough, it has a bit of char, and the fat somehow caramelizes into a sweet crust. In the sandwich with honey mustard it’s great. On its own it’s great. And my brother tells me it’s great with the eggs for breakfast. He doesn’t make the salami. It’s just Chicago 58, but it’s good. So good. The smoked turkey is moist, succulent, and tender. An easy winner.
The chopped liver? Well, here’s where I get a bit picky. Too gamey and dense for my taste, with an edge of sourness too it. But it’s Zane’s mother’s recipe, and considering Elinor Caplan is one of Canada’s fiercest politicians, I’ll keep my criticism short. He’s working on it, and others have said they like it, so there you go.
I liked the kishke as well. It’s homemade, with real beef casing (guts), and schmaltz. He serves it as three little rounds with smoked meat gravy, which is very tasty, though I’d like to try the kishke on its own. I did find it a bit firm, but again, that’s personal taste.
What does Zane think about all this:
What else is there to say? Every time I’ve visited, I’ve seen tons of people I know. It’s becoming a downtown hangout, and that’s a good thing.
356 College St (at Brunswick)