Cafe Society

Matzo Luck

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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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff