I steeled myself to ordering dinner food instead of brunch noshes, feeling duty-bound to try some serious cooking to review. I could pick up bagels, smoked fish, and chopped liver from the front-room deli case on my way out for the next few days' breakfasts. Most dinner entrées come with soup or salad (unless you order à la carte to save a buck), plus all the rye bread you can eat, served with a week's worth of something that looks like whipped butter but tastes more like unsweetened whipped cream. Dave began with matzo ball soup. It is just one big ball (as in the racy old World War II song about Hitler's endowments), the size of a baseball, but airy and delicious -- if you like matzo balls. That is, they are rather bland dumplings, and maybe you have to grow up with them. Inept cooks who precisely follow the recipe on the back of the matzo meal box produce horrible, hard cannonballs that hit your stomach with a thud. But D.Z. knows the secret, which is to separate out the whites from the yolks and beat them to a high foam, so the dumplings come out light enough to, um, float your balls. (I think they may also use club soda for aeration, as many Ethiopians do when making injera pancakes in cool climates, where the batter doesn't ferment enough to puff.) And the chicken soup is very good, tasting just like Aunt Frieda's, with plenty of carrot pieces (which add sweetness to the broth). My only gripe is that, unless you specify, they also put in noodles, which just get in the way. You can also have the soup with kreplach (beef-filled pasta pockets) or with all three garnishes.
Marty ordered the exotic sweet-sour cabbage soup, which is tomatoey and pungent, probably a culinary contribution of Hungarian Jews, who are known for their love of tangy, complex flavors. It's a more intense version of the sauce that bedecked my stuffed cabbage, the centerpiece of the "ethnic sampler plate" I ordered for my dinner.
The sampler doesn't come with a soup but showcases several classic Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish dishes. The stuffed cabbage (filled with dense ground beef, with much less rice in the mixture than typical versions) has a light, sweet-tart sauce punctuated with raisins. The interesting sides include kasha varnishkes -- a combination of bowtie (farfel) pasta and buckwheat groats cereal. Unlike my mom's weird, evil-smelling attempts at the dish, the buckwheat is mild and pleasant, and the combination is more than the sum of its parts. Kishkes literally means "guts," that is, cleaned beef intestines (cow chitlins) stuffed like sausages with a ground vegetable mixture. In D.Z.'s modern version, the chitlins are long-gone, so you have simple cylinders of dense ground veggies, the equivalent of sausage patties, as opposed to actual sausages. The rusty color of the mixture announces the prevalence of carrots. The kishkes come with a touch of Uncle Sam, an accompanying all-American beef gravy. "I love the kishkes," said Marty, so I guess they must be authentic. (I can take 'em or leave 'em. Strikes me as sophisticated baby food -- but I did like the gravy.)
Finally, on the sampler, a great big potato knish -- a thin, buttery pastry shell stuffed with coarse-mashed potatoes. The Knish King of America is a little storefront on Manhattan's East Houston Street (pronounced House-ton) that's been at the same spot since about 1493, called Yone Schimmel's. I've eaten Yone Schimmel's knishes, and D.Z. Akin's knishes are not Yone Schimmel's. However, they're a good try, better than most. A little heavy, maybe (well, all knishes are heavy), and a tad dry, but recognizably a knish and not some horrible Americanized thing with too-thick pastry or (God forbid!) a low-fat filling. The waiter offered sour cream to go with it -- not traditional, but I thought I'd try it -- and he brought a bowl containing a good half-pint.
Marty was tempted by fond memories of D.Z.'s "honey-fried chicken," wondering aloud how this item ever landed on a Jewish deli menu. A possible answer: Miami Beach in the '50s. "When I was six," I recalled, "we spent the summer there. Not far from our hotel in South Beach was a little restaurant that specialized in 'Chicken in a Basket' -- delicious batter-fried chicken with honey syrup to pour over it. It was incredibly popular with the zillions of New York Jews who vacationed in Miami, especially the kiddies." And that may be how Southern fried chicken converted to Judaism.
Marty was also tempted by the roast chicken, which is probably just like Aunt Frieda's holiday dinner entrée. ("It's very good here," Marty said.) But mindful of her diet, she ordered the chicken breast cutlet (sized like the sainted Anna Nicole Smith). You wouldn't mistake it for what Italy does with cutlets. Barely breaded, the flesh was dry, although aided by goyish, delicious, flour-thickened chicken gravy. (I don't think Jews make gravy, except for Thanksgiving.)
Dave chose Romanian skirt steak, a specialty he remembered from Sammy's Rumanian, a famed old-time steakhouse on the Lower East Side. It was a rich, tender piece of beef, medium-rare to Dave's order, smothered with sliced mushrooms and onions. "It really surprises me how close they come to Sammy's version," he said. Tasting it -- delicious! -- I could see how Sammy's endured for about a millennium, even as the neighborhood went Puerto Rican, then yuppie, till the last old Jew was gone and Sammy's packed it in.
For dessert, we split a pair of cheese blintzes, served in traditional style with sour cream and applesauce on the side. The blintzes -- slightly thick crêpes -- were rolled around barely sweetened coarse-grained Russian-style pot cheese. (Not cottage cheese! Not ricotta! Not creamy! According to my ex-mother-in-law, who showed me how to make 'em, nothing but pure, lean, tangy pot cheese will do.) We marveled and reveled at D.Z.'s ability to find this increasingly rare Old World cheese. The house-made applesauce was extremely sweet, but of course the blintzes aren't. That's how it should be -- tradition!