Dawn of the new deli
Now that Jewish classic cuisine has been embraced by modern diners, chefs are trying to popularize trickier Ashkenazi dishes
"We're working on baby beef."
With these words, chef Anthony Rose triggered a chorus of whispers, which rippled through the auditorium at Toronto's Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue: "Baby beef? Remember, baby beef?"
Rose was speaking at Heymish & Hip, an October panel about Jewish food in Toronto, and playing to an audience filled with gray-haired gourmands. As memories of this forgotten staple of Toronto Jewish delis were stirred, the crowd had a hard time staying quiet.
"I've talked to 80-year-old butchers and 80-year-old deli guys about baby beef," said Rose, the chef and owner of a slew of Toronto restaurants including Rose & Sons, Fat Pasha and Schmaltz Appetizing, in an interview. "No one really knows what it was."
They know the basics, of course: Baby beef was a deli item like corned beef or pastrami but made with veal brisket instead of beef, and notorious for its mysterious red exterior.
Most agree that it was particular to Toronto, though some experts claim it arrived via New York. It appeared in the 1940s and became a staple of Jewish delis across the city. Then, in recent decades, it slowly vanished as veal prices spiked.
But baby beef – and other Jewish dishes, most notably Ashkenazi specialties (the food of Jews hailing from Central and Eastern Europe) – are increasingly appearing on restaurant menus, as chefs reach beyond matzo ball soup and corned beef to introduce a new generation of diners to old-school dishes that evoke homey – or "heymish" in Yiddish – feelings. Think chopped liver, gefilte fish, kishke and p'tcha, each somewhere between grey and brown on the colour spectrum, and more unappetizing to the eye and ear than the last.
Examples of this new face of Ashkenazi cuisine abound, from the more traditional explorations of deli at Wise Sons in San Francisco, Mile End in New York, and Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg, to cheffier interpretations at Abe Fisher in Philadelphia and Mishiguene in Buenos Aires.
"I think it's cyclical – once it becomes something that you can no longer get, people suddenly notice they're missing it," David Sax says, reflecting on the resurgence of Jewish cuisine in the years following the release of his book, Save the Deli, in 2009. "But there are also bigger food trend forces at play. You had the growth of other chefs going back to their own roots, so Jewish chefs who were cooking in various different types of restaurants were like 'Hey, why aren't I cooking my family stuff?'"
And as Jewish chefs look more deeply into their culture, they're rediscovering more than just the easy classics. "Jewish food was a much broader thing when this great wave of immigration happened 130 odd years ago," Sax explains. "All these other interesting foods existed that didn't really last as the cuisine assimilated. So I think there's an interest from a culinary perspective of digging in and bringing those back."
Today, imaginations have turned to more esoteric, less easily assimilated ingredients and dishes.
When Rose first embarked on this path prior to opening his first restaurant, Rose & Sons, putting Jewish items on the menu was "a cheeky throwback," he says, as he served items such as matzo ball soup alongside diner classics larded with bacon.
Over time though, Rose's cooking has hewed closer and closer to his Jewish roots as he opened Fat Pasha, focusing there mostly on Middle Eastern Jewish cooking, and Schmaltz Appetizing, where he celebrates the Ashkenazi traditions of all manner of smoked fish and other bagel toppers – not just lox, but also lesser-known options like herring, whitefish and carp.
Lately, he's been pushing Rose & Sons in a more overtly Jewish direction as well, experimenting heavily with deli, including that Toronto curiosity, baby beef. "It's great, but people don't really know baby beef unless you're of a certain generation, so it's not a huge seller like pastrami or corned beef," Rose says. His customers tend to skew younger than those at the Heymish & Hip event, no doubt.
The same goes for a tongue sandwich Rose points to as one of his favourites, as well as options like herring and carp at Schmaltz. "There's definitely some stubbornness to keeping them around," he says. "But it's just amazing stuff and we want more people to try it."
As a seasoned restaurateur, Rose has the luxury of keeping a couple less popular items on his menus but for newer business owners like Raegan Steinberg and Alex Cohen, the married couple behind Montreal's year-old Arthurs, the calculus is a little different. When the pair first decided to open a restaurant, Steinberg's old boss at Joe Beef, Fred Morin, advised her to serve what she knew best and keep it simple, so she did just that, drawing on her Ashkenazi roots for inspiration.
"We had things like pickled salmon and smoked whitefish and people were just not as receptive to those super-classic dishes as we anticipated," Steinberg says. Similarly, their chopped liver – actually somewhat non-traditional in that it was always more of a smooth French-style chicken liver mousse rather than the rough-chopped original – didn't sell when it was plated as a classic deli scoop with pickles and onions.
Instead of giving up on liver, Cohen – who serves as head chef – recently decided to update the dish even further to better fit their young lunch and brunch audience. So, chopped liver at Arthurs now means an on-trend toast featuring that same smooth liver, topped with a prune and strawberry jam, fried onions, radish and a touch of malt vinegar. Sales are on the rise.
The refined liver toast was a product of Steinberg and Cohen's training in kitchens such as Joe Beef, but other dishes at Arthurs have gotten a twist thanks to Cohen's Moroccan Jewish upbringing. "Raegan took the Jewish food she grew up with," Cohen says, "and then I made it the Jewish food I wanted it to be."
Within that framework, the stodgy Ashkenazi sweet-and-sour cabbage soup – typical Eastern European "grandma cooking," as Cohen says – is reimagined through the lens of Moroccan harira, borrowing its warm spice mix that includes turmeric, cumin and ginger.
One classic Steinberg and Cohen admit they have yet to find a way to make their own is gefilte fish. "Maybe a terrine," Steinberg proposes. "People in Quebec love terrines." But across town at Espace Culinaire Fletchers in the Museum of Jewish Montreal, director of food programming Kat Romanow has found success with a slightly different approach to this much-maligned fish forcemeat concoction.
" Gefilte fish has such a bad reputation because it became this thing where everyone just saw fish balls floating in a jar," Romanow says. "It's not the most appealing thing." Nevertheless, two of the most popular dishes at Fletchers are centred around their homemade version: gefilte fish tacos and a club sandwich.
Gefilte fish is typically served cold with prepared horseradish, so Romanow wanted to play off those traditional flavours in the sandwich. The key, she says, is that the gefilte fish – prepared essentially like a fish meatloaf – is served warm on challah with a lemon-horseradish mayo, along with romaine lettuce and tomatoes. "When Jews come in they're always very surprised and sometimes really skeptical until they try it," she says. "I think other people don't have the same reaction because they're just like 'Oh, it's a fish sandwich.'"
Romanow has a keen understanding of this distinction because she actually grew up Catholic and is now in the final stages of converting. "I came to Judaism through academia," says Romanow, who earned a master's degree in Judaic studies with a focus on Jewish food from Concordia University. "Food was really the way I learned."
So it's no surprise that inspiration for the gefilte fish tacos at Fletchers came from research Romanow conducted into Mexican-Jewish cuisine. "They don't do gefilte fish tacos, but they do a gefilte fish a la Veracruzana," she explains. "It's a dish that came out of a fusion of Mexican and Ashkenazi cooking. So from having been exposed to that, the idea of tacos came up."
Rose, too, genuinely enjoys the process of researching the dishes of his youth, saying it has actually caused him to move closer to serving classic versions rather than focusing on reimagined takes. "We don't want to think outside the box," he explains. "We kind of want to think 'lost art' – things that people aren't doing any more."
And so he's now exploring some of the even more forgotten dishes of the Ashkenazi cooking canon. There's the baby beef, of course, but also things such as p'tcha, a calves-foot jelly, and kishke, essentially a sausage of matzo meal, vegetables, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and seasoning stuffed into beef intestine that Rose intends to serve griddled rather than steamed in gravy as is typical. "It's one million times better," he says.
As a business owner rather than a historian though, there's ultimately the question of whether it's possible to sell griddled kishke – a brown on brown dish that can't be saved by any Instagram filter – to today's diners. "It lands in that same area with baby beef or tongue where people are like, 'Why would I order that?'" Rose says.
"But we'll keep trying. You have to try."