Bagels Rip My Flesh
"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.
"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.
"I am the owner of this place, and I am not going to allow you to sit here and copy my menu," he said.
"I am not allowed to look at the menu?" I asked.
"No, you can't look at the menu, and if you don't like it, get out! Go write your notes in somebody else's restaurant," the belligerent bagel man roared.
Of course my first reaction was anger. But on the way home, I started to reflect about the last time I was thrown out of a restaurant. It was in New York, of course -- three of us were eighty-sixed from McSorley's Old Ale House for bringing in a Stromboli's pizza. The waiter screamed at the top of his lungs while he put us out in the rain. The memory made me laugh, and after a while I started laughing about Kornhaber's tirade too.
And suddenly it dawned on me. At New York Coffee Shop I had encountered the authentic detail that is missing from the other New York-style restaurants in Houston: rudeness. The owner of a New York restaurant should be passionately irrational. He should berate deliverymen. He should swear into the telephone. And he should insult his customers. Everything about him should say: "You want New York ambience, my friend? I got your fucking New York ambience right here!"
New York Coffee Shop has it all: ambience, bagels and a dainty little Reuben, too. Unlike the open-faced monstrosities served at Carnegie Deli in New York and Kenny & Ziggy's on Post Oak, both of which are eaten with a knife and fork, you can actually pick up New York Coffee Shop's Reuben and eat it with your hands. The Carnegie Reuben costs $18.95 and consists of twin three-inch-high mounds of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese completely obscuring a couple of slices of rye bread. Two people can't finish it. (They charge $21.95 if you split it.) The Kenny & Ziggy's version is almost exactly half the size and price, but its undersalted corned beef is not nearly as good as the Carnegie's.
New York Coffee Shop puts a nice solid inch of good corned beef, kraut and Swiss on a griddle-toasted sandwich for $5.85 and calls it a day. I, for one, applaud this common-sense approach to the Reuben. I'm tired of having to choose between throwing away a pound and a half of corned beef or schlepping around a doggie bag that smells like sauerkraut and Swiss all day.
But my favorite New York Coffee Shop lunch is something the menu calls a luncheon plate. Under this heading the restaurant serves a scoop of tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad or chopped liver along with tomatoes, onions and lettuce with a toasted bagel. I had the chopped liver last time, and it was terrific.
On that visit, I was sitting by myself with the aforementioned notebook when Ed Gavrila walked by. "Hey, guy," he said, noticing that I was sitting alone. "Would you like a newspaper to look at?" What a sweet guy, I thought, as I thanked him for asking. He made his way through the place kissing women on the cheeks and bantering with little kids.
"Ed's the sweetheart and Jay's the tough guy?" I asked the waitress as she refilled my tea.
"Ed's the PR guy and Jay's the businessman," she replied. "Everybody would rather work with Jay. If something breaks, he can fix it. If a customer tries to send back half a hamburger for a refund, Jay says, 'Forget it.' Ed lets customers walk all over him."
Kornhaber is definitely not letting me walk all over him. In fact, he is now threatening me with permanent exile. If I don't tell him what I'm doing with this notebook, I won't be allowed in the restaurant anymore. So that's what he meant when he said I would be very sorry. No more fresh bagels! What a horrible price to pay. I'm getting a little tired of Kornhaber's face in my breakfast by now.
"Who are you to tell me I can't write in a notebook in a restaurant?" I ask him. "Who are you to read my notebook? That's a pretty serious invasion of privacy, don't you think? And how are you going to stop me from looking at your menu when you've got it pasted on the wall?"
"It's my restaurant, and that's how I'm going to stop you," Kornhaber bellows militantly. I am sure he is deeply committed to civil rights, the First Amendment and other such abstractions under other circumstances -- or then again, maybe not.
"So stop me," I challenge him. "Throw me out! Go ahead!" He stands there shaking in fury, but he doesn't do anything. "Look, either throw me out now, or go away and let me eat my eggs in peace," I say.
"I'll see you in the parking lot," he threatens as he stomps off.
I finish my eggs, pay the bill, tip the poor waitress and go outside. There I square off with the bellicose bagel brawler, but he backs down.
"I'll settle this my own way," he says. "You just go get in your car." He follows me and copies down my license number. Maybe he'll trace my address and I'll find a horse's head in my bed some morning, or my cat in a pot on the stove. You gotta love the guy. How many restaurant owners are this obsessed with what they do? I admire his passion, even if he does act like a putz.
I probably won't be allowed in anymore, but I still highly recommend New York Coffee Shop for great bagels with a little something on them. And if you're in the mood for a side of good old-fashioned Gotham rudeness, just bring along your notebook.
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