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You Shouldn't Go Hungry 

East Coast West Delicatessen

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
My earliest impressions of faraway New York City are a jumble of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, King Kong on the Empire State Building, Lyle Lyle the Crocodile, the despised New York Yankees, and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, an evocative novel about a young Manhattanite who spies on a variety of Upper West Side neighbors and in the process introduces her readers to the delights of brownstones, subways, and egg creams. That last delight was particularly arresting -- a simple concoction of syrup, milk, and seltzer made perfect through the long experience of the local counterman. Over the years I developed additional addictions to pastrami and cheesecake, and even a flirtation with Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic didn't dissuade my burgeoning affection for this rich, strange cuisine.

To put it another way, New York and I go way back. So it was with a sense of familial tenderness that I recently headed east for yet another visit. My intent was to jump-start the local economy single-handedly, and to that end I booked accommodations at the Plaza, took in a couple shows, and dined at several Gourmet magazine-anointed restaurants (Jean-Georges: overrated; Babbo: terrific). But a man's gotta eat real food, too, especially in such a perpetually stressed-out environment. In addition to my usual stop at the Grand Central Oyster Bar for a bowl of stew, I indulged in the smoked sturgeon on pumpernickel at Barney Greengrass, the pickled herring at Russ & Daughters, the blueberry blintzes at Ratner's, and the corned beef and pastrami at the Second Avenue Deli. Such meals brought me double satisfaction, both in the myriad tastes and textures of the food itself and in the absolute nonnecessity of any further dining for eight or nine hours afterward.

The East Coast West Delicatessen opened on Polk Street last August, and its name is a perfect expression of its philosophy, which is to say that it's a melding of the two culinary styles. With its tiled, nondescript, cream-colored surroundings it looks just like Barney Greengrass or the Second Avenue Deli -- except for the psychedelic op-art lithographs of Billie Holiday hanging from the walls. The counterfolk and waitstaff lack the crab quotient for which New York delipersons are so acclaimed, but they still retain the underlying warmth and wit of their eastern brethren. The food, while not authentically appetite-annihilating, is for the most part spicy, savory, and satisfying in the fresh Californian tradition. It's a good thing my friend the curmudgeon has moved back to New York or he'd be here every day mocking the light, crisp blintzes, the delicate chopped liver, and the tender corned beef.

The best deli food is, among other things, comfort food, which is why I found myself at East Coast West four separate times during the week before Christmas. There's something about the aroma of a bowl of "boiled chicken in a pot" (aka chicken soup) with matzo balls that's thoroughly revivifying, particularly when the opposite seat is piled high with shopping bags and the end of the day is not near. This chicken is not only falling-off-the-bone tender, it's served in a rich consommé with noodles and fresh, surprisingly crisp vegetables, and the matzo balls are like velvet -- orbs of dough moist with absorbed flavor. Another outstanding entree is the braised brisket, a platter of fork-tender, thickly sliced pot roast ribboned with winter-fighting fat, with chunks of carrot, potato, and onion nestled alongside. A good way to fight the winter chill is with the Potato Pancake Delight, which combines several aspects of the deli experience into one fragrant package. First there are the pancakes, wonderfully salty, greasy examples of the genre, with crunchy edges and soft, almost creamy innards. Layered on top are prodigious helpings of pastrami and corned beef, the former peppery, smoky, and brick-red in the great Lower East Side tradition, the latter disappointingly mild although supple in texture. The Hungarian goulash is a bit too California -- East Coast West replaces the traditional flat noodles with bow tie pasta, and the mushrooms and cubes of beef are practically flavorless. The stuffed cabbage is a much better option: Sweet and tangy, with a bit of a bite, these tender packages of ground beef, onion, spices, and pungent cabbage are a true cross-cultural delicacy.

A deli is only as good as its sandwiches, and East Coast West's tongue on corn rye with mustard is splendid -- enormous and packed with the richest, creamiest beef tongue I've tasted since Petrini's bit the dust. Neither accompaniment (coleslaw or potato salad) is anything special, but the pickle's terrific -- crisp, barely briny, and rich with the taste of cucumber. You can also throw together your own sandwich when you order one of the fish platters. Each comes with cream cheese, caper berries, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, and those good, chewy bagels from the Bagelry up the street. The smoked salmon isn't as rich and oily as the stuff served at Swan a couple blocks south, but it's still smooth, free of saltiness, and firm. The smoked whitefish chunk, a puréed fish loaf that's too soft for its strong fishy flavor, reminded me a little too much of gefilte fish. But the pickled herring in cream sauce is a dream: a rich, puréed spread with the excellent flavor of smoky herring.

Another fine noshing option is the chopped chicken liver, which in East Coast West's manifestation is a slightly sweet, delicately flavored dish with a nice chunky texture. Get it with a side of crunchy, somewhat sour pickled green tomatoes, a tasty study in contrasts. (Skip the gummy, rubbery potato knish, however.) For dessert nothing beats the kugel, which is like an old-country bread pudding with noodles instead of white bread; its custard, apples, cranberries, and dried apricot create a festive sweet. Equally delicious are the blintzes, two light crepes stuffed with piping-hot sweet cheese and dollops of sour cream, with tangy apple-cranberry compote as a side. The deli also offers two fine bakery options, a moist chocolate babka cake and one of those New York cheesecakes with the density of chilled ivory.

My last visit to East Coast West was on Christmas morning. I picked up the combination fish platter, some chopped chicken liver, a little stuffed cabbage, a couple of sour tomatoes, and a nice piece of kugel, then headed to the family headquarters in North Beach. We laid out the noshes next to our ornamented California pine, drank Anchor Steam, looked out at the cool, sunny weather, and snacked on bagels, cream cheese, and smoked whitefish with horseradish. East, west -- who cares? Eat, eat!

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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