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6.24.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Catch in the Rye: The pastrami sandwich at the Kitchen Table is a true classic.

New Deli In Town

Mountain View's Kitchen Table evokes traditional Jewish delis of New York

By Stett Holbrook


THE JEWISH delis of New York City have been on the decline for more than 50 years, and the world is a smaller place for it. Although there are still places where one can get a properly made pastrami sandwich, pickled tongue, chopped liver and matzo ball soup, these Formica temples of kosher comfort food are slowly fading away.

New York City was where the Jewish deli was born and thrived, but World War II, the rise of supermarket delis, expensive rents and the suburbanization of the city's Jewish population all contributed to their decline.

So says David Sax, author of the forthcoming Save the Deli (October; Houghton Mifflin), a history and loving ode to the Jewish deli. But the book is not an obituary. There are still some celebrated delis in New York, such as Katz's, the Carnegie Deli and Essex on Coney, but like the Jewish diaspora, Jewish delis have spread out from New York across the United States.

The Bay Area has a few Jewish delis (Saul's in Berkeley and Moishe's Pippic in San Francisco are standouts), but alas, Silicon Valley has not been so blessed. Mexican, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Indian food we've got in spades. Jewish food? Not so much.

But that's changed with the opening, two months ago, of the Kitchen Table, a glatt kosher restaurant in Mountain View. Glatt kosher means the food adheres to a stricter set of kosher guidelines. But it's not a deli. Not at all. It's a hip-looking modern restaurant that at first glance you might think was a Cal-Med bistro or tapas bar. Except for the many diners wearing yarmulkes and the statement of kosher compliance on the front window, you would never guess it was a Jewish restaurant.

There is appealing outdoor dining out front and an attractive dining room decorated with family photos, shabby-chic chandeliers and tables covered with brown butcher paper that give the place a casual yet refined vibe.

Of course, the menu is the giveaway. There are several standards of Jewish cooking, like chicken and matzo ball soup, knishes, corned beef and pastrami, but the menu also ranges into more contemporary territory as well with grilled steaks, fresh fish and lamb kebabs. I'd call it California kosher because of its reliance on fresh, seasonal produce and a slow-cooked sensibility. It's a wonder someone hadn't come up with the concept before.

The Kitchen Table's chef is Chaim Davids, a Baltimore native who has experience in a variety of restaurants, butcher shops and wineries. The restaurant also employs a kosher supervisor, or mashgiach, to see that the food meets Jewish dietary laws.  

While I appreciate the restaurant's inclusion of nontraditional Jewish foods, I think the classic dishes are best. My favorite is the pastrami sandwich ($12). It was my longing for a real Jewish deli that led me to order this on my first visit. A pastrami sandwich, served on rye bread with a generous schmear of mustard, should be the flagship of any Jewish deli, and the Kitchen Table's version is a more than worthy example.

Pastrami, like corned beef, is made by curing beef brisket. Traditionally, the method was devised to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration. But the technique is still used today because it's so damn good.

Pastrami is traditionally made from the navel end of the brisket, a cut of meat that you could describe as the cow's chest. The meat is brined and then coated with spices such as garlic, pepper, coriander and clove. The result is a lightly salty, wonderfully rich meat that borders and sometimes crosses over into fatty.

The Kitchen Table makes its own pastrami, and it's fantastic, especially when piled high between two slices of house-made sourdough rye bread with a generous application of creamy Russian dressing. If your only experience with pastrami is the prepackaged, waterlogged dreck from supermarkets, the Kitchen Table will be a revelation.

As good as the pastrami sandwich is, the pastrami knish might be even better. A knish is a fried or baked pastry filled with meat and vegetables. The Kitchen Table serves a changing selection of knishes each day, and I had the good fortune to be there when they were serving pastrami knish. The little meat pie ($5) is baked and loaded with bits of pastrami and mashed potatoes and served with sweet brown mustard. If at all possible order both the pastrami sandwich and pastrami knish for an experience in pure pastrami pleasure.

The corned beef sandwich is another Jewish staple, and the Kitchen Table makes its own. While I loved the flavor of the tangy brined meat loaded into my sandwich ($12), it was a bit dry and had me missing the fatty goodness of the pastrami.

The Kitchen Table serves an eclectic list of starters and appetizers that it calls "small bites." The curry-brined eggplant with creamy tahini sauce ($4) is good, as is the spicy, red mole-cloaked turkey ($5). My favorite was the lamb BLT ($7): tomatoes, lettuce and lamb bacon. That's right, lamb bacon. The crispy slices of lamb belly had the right ratio of salty to fatty and made it easy to forget I wasn't eating pork.

The chicken and matzo ball soup ($5) arrives with a dark broth studded with carrots, celery and bits of chicken and is far more rich and flavorful than other versions I've had, but I found the matzo ball itself cried out for a healthy sprinkle of salt.

For dinner, fresh focaccia is served with two dips: olive oil and caramelized garlic and spicy chopped olives. Both are good. And free.

It was only when I strayed away from the more traditional items that I ran into disappointment. The boneless rib eye ($28) napped with red-wine glace and marrow butter suffered from the opposite problem as the matzo ball. It was aggressively salty and the chard served with it even more so.

The fish of the day on one of my visits was halibut ($24), pan-roasted and served with a pesto risotto and fried artichokes. The fish was moist and fresh but otherwise unremarkable. Coupled with the lackluster risotto, it added up to a mediocre dish.

Desserts were a mixed bag, too. While the black-cherry frozen custard was too grainy, the pecan and chocolate flourless cake served with it ($7) was superb. The seven-layer walnut fudge cake with orange "fluff" ($7) was excellent, but the banana cream tart ($7) was too sweet and more cream than bananas.

The Kitchen Table serves more than two dozen selections of kosher wine, and we're not talking Manischewitz. The wine list draws on premium wines from Napa Valley, the Russian River, Chile, New Zealand and Israel. But for me the drink of choice here is Dr. Brown's soda ($4), the classic Jewish deli beverage.

Jewish food and Jewish delis may be scarce in these parts, but the Kitchen Table does a generally delicious job of filling the void.

The Kitchen Table
Address; 142 Castro St., Mountain View.
Phone: 650.390.9388.
Hours: 11:30am-9pm Mon-Thu, 11:30am-2:30pm Fri
and 10am-3pm and 5-9pm Sun.
Cuisine: Contemporary kosher.
Price Range: Entrees $14-$28.
Web: thekichentablerestaurant.com


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