Cafe Society

Matzo Luck

The New York Deli News is housed in a classic California Coffee Shop structure, with windows reaching boldly for the early-1960s sky's-the-limit sky. Nevertheless, it's the kind of restaurant that seems to have been around forever. I know for a fact I ate here when I was four or five, only it was on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I ate here again in my teens, when it was in the Village. And I certainly know generations of people for whom a deli like this is their Denny's, their burger joint, their malt shoppe. People who know the difference between "Novy" and lox. People who realize there are no decent bagels in Denver. People who, when they are hungry, are also noisy.

It makes no difference that it's 4 p.m. at the Deli News, a time not associated with a particular meal. Ten tables out of what look like at least fifty are filled with people having a nice little rainy-day nosh. In the kitchen, someone is screaming at someone else in some language or other, and it is very comforting. At the tables, dueling grandmas take a break from their vast whitefish platters to show off pictures of the grandchildren. It is at this point that career waiter Arthur Wener, 85 years old and going strong, does the most traditional thing of all.

"Would you like to see my pride and joy?" he asks the dueling grandmas.
"Why not?"
With a flourish, Wener produces a wallet-sized photo of two cleanser bottles: Pride and Joy.

Such a clean joke! Such delivery! And this bit he's been doing sixty years or more!

No wonder the Deli News is proud of Wener, an institution here since 1989, except for a brief layoff during which he had two artificial knees installed. At this point, you don't even notice a limp. What you do notice are his clear blue, almost transparent eyes, which drill you, as if to say: Do not mistake me for my shtick. After all, I'm older than you.

But he would never say this sort of thing aloud. Instead, he charms the regulars with his unvarying routine. Q: What did Jesus say at the Last Supper? A: Separate checks. Q: How do I know? A: I was a busboy.

If pressed, Wener will quickly run down the facts of his life: Born in Canada, 1912, to a family in the rag trade. An able seaman on cargo ships and oil tankers. Two naval tours of duty in World War II and Korea. Moved to the galley, then to Dallas, where he waited tables. ("I didn't get seasick, but I got sick of the sea.") Thence to Denver, where he worked for a decade in the second-floor club at the Brown Palace. Then another fifteen years at the popular Golden Ox steak joint on East Colfax. Finally, when the Ox closed, to the Deli News, followed by a corps of regulars. To this day, he has too many faithful customers to seat in his section. Some call ahead to request him. "But I'm sorry," he says, "this arrangement is not possible."

After all this time, has he learned the most intimate details of the lives of the regulars, who, let's admit, are not exactly shy about sharing them over a matzo ball?

Certainly not. "It's not my business, unless they're showing pictures," Wener says. He does speak up in the unlikely event of a dissatisfied customer. "In eight years," he says, "I've had three. I talk them out of it. They may be dissatisfied people to begin with. I tell them, first thing: The food here is good. Very good."

How good?
"The pastrami. It is not King Soopers. The cheesecake. Will you try a piece?"

I would, if I had not just scarfed down a two-pound slab of carrot cake ($3.25), as moist and dense as I have ever had, and complete with a hypoglycemia-inducing coat of white icing. It took a full forty minutes to eat the whole thing, but who could resist? One of the first things you see when you walk through the front door at the Deli News is carrot cake revolving in a lovely stainless steel display case. But since Wener feels strongly about the cheesecake, I order some to go. And since you gotta eat (at some point in the future, after my body labors through the digestion of the carrot cake), I order a complete yiddishe feast to precede dessert.

The first reward is instantly apparent: My car now smells like pastrami air freshener. Mmmm. Beats "fresh pine scent" any day.

My table at home becomes completely covered with white foam clamshells full of food. Like a Jewish sultan, I begin picking through the delicacies. All portions are allegedly for one. All are giant. Many come garnished with excellent dill-pickle spears, never just one, usually five or six. A liberal hand has sprinkled in the packets of Gulden's mustard. When rye bread is required, why not throw in half a loaf or so?

I begin with a vat of chicken noodle soup with matzo ball ($3.75 per bowl). Not at all the soup of my youth, this version is clogged, as if by kelp, with long strands of curly egg noodles, chunks of carrot and one titanic matzo ball with the absorbent power of Bounty. Though I was expecting a more spartan dish, this one is a keeper. The broth is a lean, concentrated, golden nectar, and I do mean nectar, as it has a slightly sweet aftertaste. Taken as a whole, this chicken soup is probably what you need the next time you get the flu.

A vast scoop of chopped chicken liver ($5.95) is what you need if you can never eat too rich or too fat and you're not the foie gras type. In my experience, chopped liver can fall prey to many disasters, among them being Cuisinarted into paste, or sullied with a liver that doesn't come from a chicken, or augmented with a fat that isn't chicken fat, or experimentalized with some nouveau flavoring, like cilantro, God forbid. Luckily, none of this befalls the Deli News version, which is the genuine article, perfectly smooth, yet with a hint of tiny lumps.

Another old standby, gefilte fish ($3.25), is less successful. I know gefilte fish is not supposed to assault the palate with a riot of flavor, but this appetizer was so self-effacing as to be forgettable. Next time, I'll skip it and go directly to the whitefish platter ($10.95). Smothered with sliced red onion, cucumber, carrot, green pepper and radish bits, accented with an enormous chunk of freshly made cream cheese and served with not one but two bagels, this is a poor man's sturgeon substitute, and may be better than the real thing. A smooth, smoky fish with not a bone in sight, it melds into the cream cheese, seeming sophisticated yet earthy. The only sad news: Even though the bagels are plentiful and correct-looking, they are still not the Real Thing. But then, if the Deli News can't do it in the West, it may not be possible.

Now, on to one half a roasted chicken ($8.25), which I tried out of nostalgia for all the starving college students in Manhattan who subsist on them, purchased at tiny delis for tiny amounts of money. One of my dinner companions, a Columbia graduate who had eaten his share of half-chickens, pronounces the Deli News version authentic yet overcooked. I can't agree, even though the meat, both dark and light, is so done as to turn instantly to mush between the teeth. (But then, I have a horror of pink chicken flesh, and think all birds should be given an extra hour or so.) Besides, there is something so basic and beautiful about a half-chicken done this way, with golden skin that evokes potato chips and seasoning that seems to have penetrated to the bone.

Until now, our dinner has been nostalgic and predictable, as hoped. Enter the Stage sandwich ($10.95), and our evening suddenly climbs to a dizzying height of food lust. Named after the Stage Deli in New York, the sandwich consists of equal parts pastrami and corned beef served on two potato pancakes, drizzled with melted Swiss cheese and garnished with huge clumps of coleslaw, mustard packets and those ubiquitous pickles. Whether this is the kind of thing you can get at the original Stage I neither know nor care. First of all, the meats are so lean, sliced so thin and so perfectly seasoned that anything else that happens is mere lagniappe. The potato pancakes, though thick and deep-fried--more like hash browns than latkes--are to die for, especially with all that meat on top. Glued together with a quarter pound of cheese or so, and at least three packets of mustard, the Stage is a triumph. I will eat it again, and often, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or maybe cold out of the fridge as a midnight snack. It's my perfect right.

Finally, there is the matter of the cheesecake ($3.25) recommended by Arthur Wener. As could be expected, it brings me back down to earth, where I belong. I had almost forgotten about regular cheesecake without veins of amaretto, glops of blueberry topping or novelty crusts. But here it is, a simple wedge of solid dairy, rich and simple and perfect--and you'd better save room for it.

In fact, it makes more sense to enjoy this cheesecake by itself, perhaps with a cup of decaf, at 4 p.m., while viewing grandkid pictures. Try for Arthur Wener's section, and if he talks to you, listen. The man's no liar. First thing: The food here is good.

The New York Deli News, 7105 East Hampden Avenue, 759-4741. Hours: Sunday-Thursday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7 a.m.-11 p.m.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff