May 6, 2008

LEO Eats: Deli belly — Louisville does the deli phenom right

Jason’s Deli: a relatively new arrival, is attracting big crowds to the East End suburbs.Let’s start right out by admitting that I’ve lived in New York City off and on, had plenty of exposure to the NYC deli phenomenon, and don’t really get it.In a metropolis known as one of the world’s great cities for fine dining, how exactly did such a genre evolve? Heavy, fatty, overpriced food, served by rude waiters whose shtick seems to be insulting the customers ... and the customers love it?It’s no surprise to me that authentic New York deli has never gained much traction in Louisville.But make a few small changes to accommodate to the local culture, and deli can thrive in the Derby City. As evidence I cite Stevens & Stevens, a lovable eatery that certainly qualifies as a deli ... but a deli with a difference. Yes, the food is hearty. Pastrami, corned beef and roast beef do not qualify as diet fare. But you’ll never hear a rude word from the smiling counter staff, and you can get a full lunch for the price you’d pay for a bagel with cream cheese at New York’s finest.Located in the back section of popular Ditto’s Grill on Bardstown Road, Stevens & Stevens — like Ditto’s, now that I think about it — has built a loyal following the old-fashioned way, providing quality fare at reasonable prices. Much of the deli’s business is take-out, but those who prefer to stay and dine in will find a comfortable environment in its long, narrow room with its exposed red brick and gray stucco walls decorated with poster-size collages with New York City and celebrity themes. Booths and tables sport a classy dark-gray granite look, with room to seat maybe 50 or 60 diners in closely spaced quarters.Order at the counter and receive your goodies on the spot; if you’re eating in, you take your own to the table of your choice.We filled up on a hearty lunch. A roast beef sandwich ($5.95) consisted of excellent, juicy roast beef, rosy pink and tender, sliced thin, piled high on light, seeded rye bread.Broccoli-cheddar soup, the soup of the day ($3.50), was a disappointment: A thick, gloppy mass, it resembled day-old potato soup with al dente broccoli florets and no perceptible evidence of cheddar. Fortunately, that was the only sour note in an otherwise splendid meal.Mark’s Special ($8.95) offered a more than generous portion of thin-sliced, juicy and very flavorful corned beef and pastrami brisket, served hot, with a schmear of hot mustard on soft homemade rye. It was every bit as good as the best New York City deli meat, without the rude remarks. Stevens & Stevens: Located in the back of Ditto’s Grill on Bardstown Road, Stevens & Stevens has built a loyal following the old-fashioned way, providing quality fare at reasonable prices.It came with a choice of two sides. I chose Shirley’s potato salad and “celeryseed” cole slaw, both 99 cents if ordered a la carte. They came in small plastic cups, packed so full that it was hard to eat them without spilling some of the goodies over the edge. The potato salad was dense and hearty, chunks of creamy potato and a thick, spicy yellow mustard dressing. The slaw was coarsely shredded red and green cabbage with a tangy dressing.We finished up with a slice of excellent cheesecake ($2.95). Rich, textured and cheesy, it tasted homemade.A filling deli lunch for two came to $25.28, and we left a few bucks for the bussers.Stevens & Stevens Deli1114 Bardstown Road584-3354www.stevensandstevensdeli.comRobin Garr’s rating: 89 pointsDeli in the ’burbsIf Stevens & Stevens is the ultimate Louisville urban deli, a relatively new arrival, Jason’s Deli, is attracting big crowds to the East End suburbs. This 20-year-old national chain originated in Tucson, Ariz., a mighty long way from the Big Apple, but they’re obviously doing something right: There’s almost always a crowd, but the lines move fast, and I’ve never had a problem finding a table.Its sizable Hurstbourne venue boasts lots of room and an open, airy look with high ceilings and walls of windows on two sides. It’s a colorful place with walls the colors of mustard, ketchup and iceberg lettuce. Pictures of food adorn the walls behind the serving counter. In the dining area, it’s old-time photos of random places. A shakoed guard at Buckingham Palace caught my eye ... the Palace is a long way from Gotham, too.Walk in and you’re shunted down a chute to the processing station, where you present your order at the counter, take a number on a stick, pay your tab, grab your drink, choose a table and wait. Someone will bring out your lunch, usually with admirable efficiency.The salad bar is described as “famous,” and at $6.99 for all you can eat, it’s quite a deal. (Add a side of tuna salad, turkey, smoked turkey, ham or chicken breast for $1.49; a side of soup is 99 cents for a cup, $1.99 for a bowl.)The New York Yankee sandwich ($7.29) is a mix of corned beef and pastrami. It was billed as “hot corned beef” but came out at cool room temperature. An impressive pile of thin-sliced deli meat was joined by two puny slices of “swiss” cheese and a dab of spicy mustard on light, seeded rye. It was good enough but seemed somehow “industrial,” cold cuts stacked high on grocery bread, the deli equivalent of mass-market beer: made to standard specifications but without much evidence of soul. It was joined on its white oval plate by a small ration of crisp ripple chips and a very good, oversize dill pickle spear.The “Manager’s half-sandwich deal” ($6.99) offers your choice of half of any sandwich on the menu with a cup of soup.The French onion soup ($2.59 for a cup, $3.59 for a bowl a la carte) was a dark brown broth with a humongous piece of bread floating on top, with mild white cheese on top of that. The soup wasn’t bad, although it tastes a bit like it was made with a bouillon cube. The cheese was melted, but a little browning time under the broiler would have been welcome. The “Roast Slimwich” sandwich ($5.79 if you order it whole) achieves its low-cal status mostly on the basis of its small size. It was a decent sandwich, though: grocery rye and deli roast beef topped with shredded lettuce and a passable tomato slice.A slice of “classic” cheesecake ($2.99) was rich, creamy and not too sweet, in the traditional New York style. With self-serve diet cola and good, fruity and unsweet iced blackcurrant tea, a hearty lunch for two came to $25.28, and we left a couple of bucks for the friendly folks who bussed the table.Jason’s Deli410 N. Hurstbourne Pkwy Ste. 100412-4101www.jasonsdeli.comRobin Garr’s rating: 78 pointsAdult beverages at Red Pepper ChineseRed Pepper Chinese Cuisine (2901 Brownsboro Road, 891-8868) has become my go-to spot for Chinese even when I’m not reviewing. Outstanding fare prepared by a top Sichuanese chef and an authentic Chinese menu that’s cheerfully provided to Westerners make it a favorite.Thanks to the slowly turning wheels of bureaucracy, Red Pepper just got even more appealing: With the belated arrival of its beer and wine license, this lovable eatery now offers short lists of wine and beer, making adult beverages an option to its Chinese teas and American soft drinks. Tsing-Tao beer from China, Sapporo from Japan, Corona, Heineken or Kentucky Ale are all $3.50 and, if you must, Miller Lite is $2.95. Sho Chiku Bai sake is $3.50 for a small serving, $7 large, and Kin Sen plum wine is $4.50 for a glass, $16 for a bottle. A short wine list features a dozen items, mostly from mass-market producers, but affordably priced, ranging from $4 to $7 for a glass, $15 to $27 for a bottle. The adventurous may wish to try Dragon’s Hollow unoaked chardonnay ($4.50 a glass, $18 a bottle), which may be the first wine from China to turn up on a wine list in Louisville. I’ll have to try it one of these days. Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com