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Good Fressin' at the Delicatessen 

Introducing San Francisco's best deli

Wednesday, Feb 22 2006
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God knows, we live in a gastronomically blessed region, from the raw materials (I can still hear my Angeleno culinary-worker friends sighing as I led them through the produce aisles at the Berkeley Bowl, at the abundance and the prices -- "Retail here is less than wholesale in L.A.!" someone said) to the purveyors (superb bakeries, fish stores, cheese shops) to the dazzling array of restaurants high and low. But, alas, for me there's always been something missing. I've long bemoaned the lack of a good delicatessen, that useful, haimish place where garlic wafts from pickles and pastrami, eggs come scrambled with lox and onions, and you can eat (or take out) as much or as little as you want -- the Jewish equivalent of a coffee shop or a cafe. When I wrote about a number of disappointing local delis a couple of years ago, helpful readers suggested their favorite brisket and pastrami places. I followed them up. I wasn't impressed.

But my hopes awaken when I hear that restless restaurateurs John Hurley and Justin Hafen have once again rethought their space in the Jewish Community Center. It had changed course and style once before (from Sydney's Home to Sydney's), and has now been divided into two separate spots, one a classic Jewish deli (hello! It's the JCC!) and the other a Chinese restaurant called (415) (which sounds like a Jewish joke in itself, until you glance at the menu, which is Pan-Asian and very high style). The genius part of the equation is that they enlisted Joyce Goldstein, of the much beloved and much missed Square One (as well as many cookbooks, including Sephardic Cooking: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean), to help put together the menu, source the best deli meats, and create recipes.

When my dad and I arrive for a late lunch, I like the sharp, clean black-and-white décor immediately. The floors are checkerboard, the tables and chairs glossy black enameled wood, and there are vintage-y black-and-white photos on the white-painted walls, whose subjects I neglect to check out because I'm hungry. My father wants a corned beef sandwich, and I want brisket -- no surprise, because those are our go-to choices (unless I'm in a pastrami mood. Which I often am). Dad is pleased because the place offers pumpernickel as well as rye, sourdough, and whole-grain bread, but I wonder where the kaiser and onion rolls are. My father startles me by asking for a side of french fries. We also order an appetizer of Joyce's chopped chicken liver. More than half a dozen dishes are awarded this possessive, but I see Goldstein's hand everywhere, especially in the eight-strong list of salads (including Sephardic spinach with walnuts and mushrooms, grilled tuna and vegetables with Sephardic dressing, and Israeli avocado salad with walnuts, celery, and cumin dressing) and the seven dinner plates, which feature a couple of dishes attributed to Joyce's grandmothers as well as a seven-vegetable tagine with couscous.

Goldstein has also cleverly forestalled a certain kind of criticism by heading the menu with this quote: "Every Jewish family has its own recipes. We can't please everyone, but we hope we please YOU!" Joyce's chopped chicken liver is the smooth kind, filled with lots of diced, sautéed onions and a few hunks of hard-boiled egg yolk (my grandmas, Sarah and Celia, favored the chunkier style, with julienned onions and, if there was hard-boiled egg, both the white and the yolk). Luckily I'm a fan of Joyce's version, though I'd prefer some rye and pumpernickel instead of the hard little matzo crackers it comes with. I can't fault the garlicky pickle spears that taste homemade. The skin-on french fries, which arrive even before the chopped liver, are thin, crisp, perfect.

Our sandwiches are less so. My father is not enthralled by his corned beef, and my brisket, although moister and tastier than any I've had in San Francisco, pales before my memory of the wonderful brisket at Saul's in Berkeley. I also blame our frugality: We've both chosen the smallest of the three warm sandwich options, from nosher (small, $6.95) through fresser (large, $10.95) to super fresser (extra large, $14.95). (The cold sandwiches, including corned tongue, roast top sirloin, and tuna and egg salad, come in two sizes. All come with the choice of decent coleslaw or superb, oniony potato salad.) The ratio of meat to bread (and good fresh bread it is) is off. I'd go for the middle option next time. And I'm actually saddened by my $3.50 egg cream, which has an impressive head of foam on top that hides the fact that the chocolate syrup on the bottom hasn't mixed at all with the milk and seltzer.

I order two dishes to go (so that my mom doesn't have to cook dinner), and taste both before we leave: Joyce's potato latkes, the thin pancake style, with nicely crisped edges and robust onion flavor, served with apple sauce and sour cream; and Joyce's Grandma Rae's sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. "What does it come with?" I ask, imagining mashed potatoes. "Nothing," I'm told, which is even more surprising given the relatively small size of the two pale green bundles (a hungry guy could snarf each one up in two bites) and the luscious flavor of the bright, fresh tomato sauce, which cries out to be sopped up with starch.

As we leave, I can tell I'm happier than my dad, who grouses, "The best thing was the french fries." When I come back for dinner with my friend Joyce and her baby, Joyce's thrilled from square one: She loves seeing her name sprinkled all over the menu. I wish we could slide into a booth, but since there are none, we choose a perch on the black upholstered banquette that lines one wall. I'm unhappy when the chicken matzo ball soup we order as a starter arrives at the same time as our entrees, chicken fricassee (attributed to Joyce's Grandma Essie) and Hungarian veal goulash. Service has been cheerful but extremely sketchy, verging on clueless, on both my visits: Dishes arrive without the proper utensils, staffers can't be caught when we need something, checks arrive unasked for when we still want to order more food, dessert, coffee. But it works out, because baby Violet feasts on the tender matzo balls (in excellent chicken broth with sweet carrots and an astonishing number of beautiful, big pieces of poached chicken -- one swell soup) while we attack the other dishes. I prefer the goulash, lots of chunks of veal dyed a reddish mahogany from the richly paprika'd sauce, to the quirky chicken fricassee, boneless meat with tasty little beef meatballs and halved sautéed mushrooms, both served on well-buttered egg noodles: The chicken is interesting, and maybe if it had been a flavor from my childhood I'd crave it to this day, but the word "fricassee" had led me to expect a different, saucier dish.

We finish, sweetly, with a cup of delicate baked rice pudding, more custard than rice, with plump golden raisins, and a Linzer torte, buttery pastry encasing good raspberry jam. But the sweetest bite of all is of the Presidio sandwich we order to take home to Joyce's husband, a terrific, greasy, Reuben-esque amalgam of pastrami, melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye. Mmmm. This is what I'm going to order the next time I'm here. Unless I get matzo brei, a smoked sturgeon platter, noodle kugel, or kasha varnishkes. San Francisco is no longer a deli desert.

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Meredith Brody

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