Reviving The Spirit And Schmaltz Of The Jewish Deli : The Salt Smoked salmon pastrami may sound heretical, but owners of a revisionist Jewish deli in Washington, D.C., say it's all part of a revival of traditional Jewish cuisine.
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Reviving The Spirit And Schmaltz Of The Jewish Deli

Hear David Greene's Story

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If you want to call yourself a Jewish delicatessen, there are certain staples that you've got to have: Pastrami piled high in a Reuben, kosher pickles with that perfect crunch and, of course, chopped liver. Yet in delis in places like San Francisco, Portland and now Washington, D.C., chefs are messing with these expectations. It's a bold move, maybe a little blasphemous, but the owners say they are staying true to their roots.

BARRY KOSLOW: If you come on in, it's a little cold.

GREENE: But this smells like a Jewish deli.

KOSLOW: This smells like a Jewish deli.


KOSLOW: So these are all briskets for the pastrami.

GREENE: This is Barry Koslow. He's the executive chef at one of these restaurants, DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. He's been hard at work serving the Passover holiday crowd, but he took a few minutes to show me his walk-in refrigerator in the basement.

KOSLOW: And if you look over here, we have a lot of our pickles - cauliflower pickles, these are jicama. We have carrot pickles...

GREENE: So pickled jicama that I'm looking at, is that a new spin on pickling, or...

KOSLOW: Absolutely, we'll pickle anything. We don't care.

GREENE: Koslow has worked at some fine restaurants, cooking mostly French cuisine. He was raised Jewish - never all that religious - but when the time came to open his own restaurant, that's the tradition he chose.

KOSLOW: I think everybody loves a bagel with lox and schmear, you know. And I started thinking to myself, like yeah. You know, this really rings true to me. This will really give me an opportunity to learn more about myself, my family, my heritage, my culture - and that was exciting to me.

GREENE: And exciting to put a new spin on traditional food, Koslow has taken some liberties: Pickled jicama. He sometimes uses Lebanese yogurt, or leben, in place of cream cheese. And brace yourself: He even serves up a grilled eggplant Reuben.

Yes, as you've probably guessed, the kitchen is not kosher. Koslow says he knows purists might not feel like this is their place.

KOSLOW: My dad put it best the other night when he was laughing at me, saying - he was like, How did you become the expert on all things Jewish in one year?


KOSLOW: And I laughed too, because growing up, let's just say I wasn't the best Jew.

GREENE: So, Koslow walked me into the kitchen. He had all these ingredients spread out - time to make matzo balls.

KOSLOW: You want to get dirty?


GREENE: Ah, sure.

KOSLOW: Don't want you to get matzo balls all over your shirt.

GREENE: Yeah, I don't want to get matzo balls all over the place. OK. I'll never refuse an apron.

Matzo ball soup is one of the central dishes on the Passover menu here.

KOSLOW: Traditionally, matzah balls are made with chicken fat or schmaltz, as we call it. So...

GREENE: Schmaltz is a great word. I love that.

KOSLOW: It's a great word and it has great flavor and you use that to flavor your matzah balls, but also to help keep them soft. So what we've done for the holiday is we've replaced the schmaltz with bone marrow.

GREENE: Bone marrow?

KOSLOW: So what we do is we roast it. And you can smell just how rich and decadent it is.

GREENE: Wow. That is decadent.

KOSLOW: So we're about ready to roll. Are you ready to get dirty?

GREENE: I am so ready to get dirty.

KOSLOW: OK. So, get a little bit in your hand. And what you want to do is roll it with the palms of your hand...

GREENE: OK, like a light roll?

KOSLOW: ...very gently. Yeah, like a light roll.

GREENE: Alright, love Play-Doh.

KOSLOW: Yeah, you know, like when you're making Play-Doh with your kids.

GREENE: Now, yours looks like a perfectly round golf ball-shaped thing. And mine looks like a blob.

KOSLOW: Well, this is probably my 400th matzo ball this week already.


GREENE: He is proud of all those matzo balls. But attention all Jewish grandmothers or bubbies: Koslow says your matzo balls will always be the best.

KOSLOW: You know, everybody says these are almost as good as my bubbie's - almost.

GREENE: Almost as good as...

KOSLOW: My bubbies.

GREENE: My bubbies, which is like?

KOSLOW: Which is the best.

GREENE: Which is the best of any family's you say it's as good as my bubbies. OK.

KOSLOW: Almost.

GREENE: Right, almost as good.

KOSLOW: Never as good.

GREENE: Right. Right, you don't want to offend anybody.


KOSLOW: Exactly.

GREENE: That's Barry Koslow. He's executive chef at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. He'll be rolling out his pickled jicama and those matzo balls tonight for Passover.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

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