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By Eating Our Words
"What the fuck are you doing taking notes in my business?" seethes Jay Kornhaber, co-owner of New York Coffee Shop, as he grabs my notebook from its hiding place beneath the New York Times Magazine. I haven't actually taken any notes yet; I'm working on the crossword puzzle while I wait for my order of eggs with lox and onions. But seeing me with a pencil in my hand is enough to cause the veins in Kornhaber's neck to twitch with rage. The lean and muscular young New Yorker sports a mustache and chin patch à la Frank Zappa. He's got Zappa's absurdity down, but he's a little short on the humor this morning.
It is Sunday, the busiest day of the week at his popular coffee shop on Hillcroft near South Braeswood. There was a line when I walked in at ten-thirty, but Kornhaber's affable partner, Ed Gavrila, waved me to a stool at the counter. The wisecracking waitresses smoke cigarettes and tell jokes back here. But all the joking comes to a halt when Kornhaber flies across the restaurant and seizes my notes.
"Do you want to tell me what you're doing in here with this notebook all the time?" he says, leafing through the pages of my notebook looking for evidence. Luckily my handwriting is illegible even to me.
9720 Hillcroft St.
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"Sorry, I can't tell you," I respond.
"You will either tell me what you are doing, or you will be very sorry you didn't," says Kornhaber as he leans forward and gets in my face.
"The ethics of my profession prohibit me from explaining what I am doing," I say.
"What is your profession?" he asks. I figure anybody with a brain should have figured out I'm a restaurant reviewer by now, but Kornhaber is too angry to think. "You are opening your own restaurant and copying my place, aren't you?" he fumes.
Sometimes the hubris of successful restaurant owners is amazing. The interior of New York Coffee Shop is decorated with generic linoleum floors, awful 1970s wallpaper and Formica-covered booths and tables. And they prepare the same egg dishes, toasted bagels and deli-style sandwiches that hundreds of delis and coffee shops all over New York City serve. Even the name is generic. What trade secrets could I possibly be copying into my notebook?
I have been buying bagels here for more than a year now. In the coffee shop, I usually order the fish platter for two, which my daughters and I split three ways. It comes with lox or nova (short for Nova Scotia salmon), sable, whitefish chubs and kippers with bagels and plenty of tomatoes, onions, olives and all the other necessary condiments. The smoked fish is good, but it's the bagels that draw the crowds. If you think a bagel is a bagel, then try one here.
Whenever I'm in New York, I try to make a pilgrimage to H&H Bagels on the corner of 80th and Broadway. The yeasty aroma and chewy texture of H&H bagels is a breathtaking breakfast experience, but the secret is that H&H is so popular that your bagels are always hot out of the oven. That's why I ignore the sesame, poppy or onion dilemma at Kornhaber's New York bagel shop and instead order my bagels the way New Yorkers do: "Give me a dozen of whatever's hottest." And when I'm lucky enough to catch a batch coming right out of the oven, the aroma in the car on the drive home sends me into an Upper West Side reverie straight out of Seinfeld.
Come to think of it, Jay Kornhaber could have come straight out of Seinfeld himself. He continues to harangue me as my eggs and lox are delivered. I take a bite as he once again demands to know what I'm doing. The eggs are fluffy, and the caramelized onions are sweet and brown. Although I prefer the milder flavor of nova on a bagel, I like the salty lox with the eggs and onions. I get a toasted "everything" bagel with cream cheese with the omelet. The other patrons are staring, and my waitress is so freaked out by Kornhaber's ongoing tantrum that her hand shakes as she refills my cup.
New York Coffee Shop was recommended to me by former Houston Press staffer Bob Burtman, who grew up Jewish in Boston. He preferred this atmosphere to restaurants that ape the appearance of famous East Coast delis. "It's just a coffee shop, but it's right down the street from the Jewish Community Center and it's a great scene," Burtman told me. "A bunch of old Jewish guys hang out there -- you meet some real characters."
Kornhaber and I first met a week ago at about three in the afternoon. The coffee shop closes at three-thirty, so it's fairly empty at three. I thought it might be a good time to slip in, quietly eat a Reuben and jot down some notes. I had recently eaten a Reuben at the Carnegie Deli in New York and at Kenny & Ziggy's (2327 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-871-8883). My original intent was to write a review comparing Reubens at all three places. I was copying some info from the menu when Kornhaber descended on me and took it away.