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When chef Barry Koslow and Nick Wiseman began testing recipes for their new Jewish deli DGS Delicatessen, they sought feedback from a master.
Joan Nathan has written ten cookbooks and countless articles on Jewish cuisine, in addition to TV and radio appearances. She is, as you might put it in Yiddish, a maven of noshing. If they were going to appeal to anyone, they were going to have to pass muster with Nathan first.
Among the dishes Koslow and Wiseman prepared for Nathan in her home were holishkes, a stuffed cabbage dish with a sweet and sour sauce Koslow had never even had before. Trying to put their own twist on it, they decided to stuff the cabbage with meatballs filled with cheese and lots of garlic.
“You wouldn’t put parmesan cheese in meat in stuffed cabbage. Clearly, they didn’t know what stuffed cabbage was,” Nathan recalls. To her, the ingredient was out of place. (That’s probably because the combination of dairy and meat would make the dish non-kosher, so it traditionally has no cheese.) “I really gave it to them. I told them you’ve got to learn what Jewish food is before you try to put your spin on it.”
They took her advice. They began their research with Nathan’s books, family recipes, and recipes handed over from friends’ families. They also visited Jewish delis in New York and around the country.
But there weren’t a lot of places to look for inspiration in D.C. The lack of pastrami and white fish here has provided endless kvetching for Jewish deli fans. While several places in the District have come and gone over the years, and the Maryland suburbs still have some go-to lox spots, the city lacks the iconic delis of other major metropolitan areas on the East Coast. For many people, the closest source for comparison is New York, or if you’re Jewish, your mother or your grandmother’s cooking.
“It’s tough battling nostalgia,” Koslow says. “Your grandmother’s matzo balls are always going to be better than ours, no matter how good ours are. We knew that coming into it.”
But DGS is not your bubbie’s delicatessen. Koslow, Wiseman, and fellow co-owner (and cousin) David Wiseman want to create a Jewish deli that is hip, not just retro. For starters, it’s located in the bustle of Dupont Circle with a sleek minimalist decor and a cocktail bar in the back. And in keeping with the trend of all things artisan, Koslow brines, pickles, cures, and smokes everything in-house. They’re also going lighter than your average heartburn-inducing deli fare with more vegetables as well as more North African spices found in Sephardic Jewish food.
They’re banking on the modernized formula to help them succeed where other D.C. Jewish delis have failed. “There’s been a dearth of Jewish food in this city,” Nathan says of her 38 years here. “Nobody has made their own pastrami or corned beef for years here.” She recalls one restaurant even using frozen matzo balls.
Truth be told, the stuff that comes out of Jewish deli kitchens hasn’t always been the most exciting. “Delicatessens altogether in D.C. and beyond have lost their way,” Wiseman says of the mass-produced food that many put out. While other European cuisines evolved over the past century, Jewish food stagnated. “It became a diner deli, and the menus were too long, and the tables were Formica, and everything was mediocre.”
DGS wants to bring back the craftsmanship of the delicatessens of the 1920s to the 1940s, before the industrialized food movement took over the way small vendors do business. DGS’ pastrami alone takes about eight days: Koslow brines it for a week, smokes it for six hours, steams it for four hours, then slices it all by hand (making for thicker slices than you might find in establishments that use a machine slicer).
The name DGS stands for District Grocery Stores, a co-op of Jewish-owned mom-and-pop shops around D.C. that started in the 1920s. David Wiseman’s grandparents ran a DGS in Adams Morgan. At DGS’ peak, there were around 300 stores in the area; the last one closed in the early 1970s. While they all sold groceries, some butchered, some baked bread, and some smoked fish. “Each one had a personality and a craft, and it’s that same spirit we want to bring here,” Nick Wiseman says.
DGS isn’t the only deli on a quest for an artisan revival. There’s now a movement around the country to “take back” the delicatessen by making dishes from scratch again and sourcing high-quality ingredients. A few forward-thinking delicatessen owners from places like Wise Sons in San Francisco, Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Ore., and Mile End in New York have begun meeting annually for a “Deli Summit” to talk about what they want to do with the cuisine and how they can support each other, whether it’s exchanging recipes or kibbitzing on where to buy brisket. Wiseman attended one such meeting of the minds in San Francisco in June 2011.
“There’s an authenticity about cooking Jewish food that we immediately felt connected to,” Wiseman says. “It was understanding ourselves, our past, D.C. It felt very authentic and soulful for us immediately.”
Nathan believes the deli “renaissance” is part of a larger trend of young people going back to their roots to find out who they are and where they’re from. “The Italians are doing it, everybody’s doing it. So why shouldn’t the Jewish kids do it?” Nathan says. “I’ve seen it in Brooklyn. I’ve seen it in San Francisco. And now, I’m seeing it in D.C.”
One tradition the DGS guys are not adopting: keeping kosher. Instead, they’re branding the deli as “kosher-style,” which according to Koslow means no pork and no shellfish.
“I’m not sure I want to take that on right now,” says Wiseman when I first ask about the restaurant not being kosher. Apparently, it’s a touchy subject for the deli owners.
“Kosher Jews have felt let down that we’re not doing kosher food,” he says. Wiseman has received more than 50 emails asking if the restaurant is kosher, and he’s responding individually to every one to explain why it’s not.
“None of us grew up kosher, and this is still distinctly Jewish food for us,” Wiseman says. “What felt authentic for us was cooking the food we grew up with, the food that we know.”
In terms of the business, the DGS team felt hewing to the strict rules required for kosher food didn’t make sense. “We wanted it to feel like a place where everyone was welcome,” Koslow says. “And I think there’s a little bit of a stigma on kosher where people see that and they kind of feel like ‘Oh, I’m not Jewish, I’m not sure I should go in there.’”
It’s also expensive to be certified kosher, and Koslow felt it wouldn’t do anything for the quality of the food. He points out that the rules of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) are believed to stem from a concern for a sanitary way of eating, but DGS has gone to great lengths to source quality foods, meeting with their salmon fisherman and even visiting the Kansas farm that raises their beef. (None of that careful sourcing will help diners who keep kosher, though.)
Ultimately, the menu is a compromise between traditional and the modern. You won’t find any gefilte fish foam, but Koslow is taking some liberties. The super tender beef short ribs, for example, are flavored with Tunisian spices with figs, spinach, and mint—it was one of the best dishes I tried, but they’re not the flanken of yore. In other areas, Koslow has decided not to mess too much with the classics. The matzo ball soup is based on of a recipe from his grandmother, and the pastrami and mustard on rye doesn’t mess with any extraneous ingredients.
As for that stuffed cabbage dish? Koslow has nixed the cheese, but he’s not exactly making a textbook version. Instead of the traditional beef and rice stuffing, Koslow makes a panade of rye bread soaked in milk to incorporate the rich flavor of the caraway seeds into the meat (an Italian technique used to tenderize meatballs). And rather than topping the dish with a sweet and sour sauce made of ketchup and pineapple juice—the deli shortcut—Koslow makes a gastrique base with red wine vinegar and sugar, then simmers it with whole tomatoes for several hours.
Nathan has already made multiple visits to DGS in its first two weeks. This time, she says they’re on the right track.
“It’s filling a new niche,” Nathan says. “These guys are young. They’re assimilated Americans, but they want to reach back to their past to come up with something…They’ve done their homework, and I think the food is good. What more do you want?”
DGS Delicatessen, 1317 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 293-4400; dgsdelicatessen.com
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery