Though it once boasted hundreds of Jewish delicatessens, it’s been a long time since Brooklyn has celebrated a new deli opening in the borough. Most now exist in the southern reaches of the BRK, down in Mill Basin, Flatbush, or Coney Island. But last night, Jewish deli returned to downtown brownstone Brooklyn, when Mile End finally opened its doors.
It’s been a long time coming, ever since Brooklyn Law School student, and Montreal Jew, Noah Bernamoff began curing smoked meat in his Park Slope apartment, smoking on his roof, and serving it to friends last year. There were months of experiments, lease negotiations, construction headaches, and inspection delays. But finally, yesterday, Mile End was in business.
Some people called it the most hotly anticipated opening of a restaurant so far this year in New York City. There’s been an impressive amount of media hype, with mentions in Blackbook, the New York Times, Time Out, and New York Magazine (I wrote this one). Ever since that article, I’ve been deluged by friends begging to know when MIle End would open. So I joined seven of them in a very cramped table (made for half that number), and we ate everything there was on offer.
Hostess and Noah’s recent bride Rachel Cohen greeted us at the door, dressed as a deli woman’s version of strawberry shortcake. She ran the floor service, taking orders and delivering food with a smile and a cool head, making sure everyone was attended to and well fed. With Noah behind the counter smoking and slicing with co-workers and a few friends (one huge guy in a Habs shirt should be hired immediately), the mom and pop vibe in full action. Considering the place is no larger than my apartment, everyone soon got to know each other pretty well, with tables of strangers all making friends. Conversation was loud and joyous, punctuated by Weezer tracks over the stereo.
Now let’s get to the main event: the deli.
I actually have tasted their food twice before opening. Once, when Noah was cooking at home, and once in December, when he had a preview for friends. A few of the things I had then weren’t available last night, so let me tell you about them.
Karnatzel: yes, that elusive thin, long garlic beef salami, found only in Montreal, is now available south of the border. Noah’s is homemade, and has the requisite snap and crunch. It goes great with his homemade mustard, though he should heed suggestions to broaden the mustard selection for clients. Some folks like yellow, some like brown, and some are more willing to experiment.
Pickles: last night, the pickles weren’t ready, which is a shame, because he does great things with salt, water, spices, and vegetables. Pickled cucumbers snap with garlic authority, while green tomatoes are still juicy, yet firm. The red peppers have a great fire to them, so I look forward to checking all these out. There was also a smoked vegetable bowl, which had beets and other root veg in it. A great option for those non-meat eaters, who Noah has not forgotten.
Smoked Turkey: This is a whole spiced and wood smoked bird. Not some processed breast or even portion of one. The real deal. And it’s fantastic. Moist, smoky, a touch spicy. Well worth ordering.
Now, let’s get back to last night and the main event.
The “Beauty”: with apologies to Russ and Daughters, my favorite bagel, lox, and cream cheese sandwich on earth is found at Montreal’s Beauty’s, a classic diner with a Jewish flair. Noah and Rachel have their own homage to that glorious thing, serving a toasted Montreal bagel (flown in daily) with Batempte whipped cream cheese, fresh sliced tomato, red onion, capers, and homemade lox. Yes, that’s a side of salmon that Noah cures, smokes, and slices by hand. It’s gorgeous, and I’m actually looking forward to my breakfasts at Mile End in the future. For Montreal bagel fanatics, know that this is the only place in NYC to get the real deal.
The Ruth Wilensky: I think I’ve written enough about Wilensky’s that you should all know what I’m talking about here. Noah’s not trying to copy that sacred and secret sandwich, but this love affair is a wonderful thing. Take the beef salami he cures and smokes himself, slice it thin, and grill it between two halves of an onion bun…with mustard. No mustard is ten cents extra…just like Wilensky’s. It’s hot and crisp, and the homemade salami just seems to crackle with each bite. Really perfect. (*I don’t have a photo because I ate it too quickly)
Borscht: Light beet borscht with a dollop of sour cream. Refreshing, simple, and understated. Makes me so happy I’m peeing red (wait…that’s the beets).
Poutine: Half my party came for the poutine. Three were vegetarians, and the poutine with mushroom gravy, fresh cut fries, and cheese curds, was actually better than the one made from a chicken/veal stock. Both required ordering a second and even third round of. Yes, in a poutine crazed city, a new kid is on the block.
Smoked Meat: Which brings us, of course, to the main event. Montreal smoked meat, a la Brooklyn. Noah cures his briskets slowly, in a mixture of spices that is as aromatic as it is fiery. He then uses wood smoke to finish them off, steams them, and slices by hand. As I watched him carve away, I couldn’t actually believe that he is now the only other place in New York to hand slice his meat. Amazing. The meat was glorious: a fatty debauchery with flavor in every ounce of its fibre. Don’t compare it to Schwartz’s or Abie’s or anything else. Don’t compare to Katz’s or Carnegie or Empire National pastrami. This is something unique, which you’ll only find at Mile End, and it’s worth a taste, if not your outright devotion.
Overall, I think last night was the start of something magical. New York’s deli scene has been focused on the past for some time, and in many ways that’s a great thing. Katz’s, Carnegie, Stage, Sarge’s, 2nd AVe, Liebman’s, Adelman’s, Ben’s Best, etc… They’re all preserving what was, and what was, and is, remains exceptionally good. It’s the basis of deli culture all over the continent, and it is so damn delicious. But with an eye on the past, too few delis in New York have looked toward the future. And that’s left them vulnerable to becoming relics.
What Noah and Rachel have done at Mile End is take a first step toward a new future for Jewish deli in New York. They’re focusing on doing something different. Not fusion. Not “interpretations” of deli. Nothing fancy. Instead, they’re bringing it back to its roots, rebuilding a mom and pop style deli, where everything is made from scratch (local and seasonal and sustainable, when possible), and in the process, broadening the definition of what a deli can be in this deli mad city. They’ve introduced new flavors, new techniques, and done so in a small, economical, and friendly neighborhood atmosphere.
The food is delicious. Some things will improve (I’d love to see more zing in that coleslaw). Some things may not be for everyone. But if you love Jewish deli and find yourself in New York City, head over the bridges and tunnels to Hoyt and Atlantic, and take a seat at the counter in Mile End. It’s a hopeful look at the future of deli in deli’s homeland, and we should all welcome it with open hearts and mouths.
Mile End Delicatessen
97A Hoyt Street (at Atlantic)
Brooklyn, New York 11217
Note the manliness of this hug.