Eenie, Meenie, Minie...
One of these days, I'd like to walk into Leibman's deli and ask for one of everything. That'd cause a stir. Imagine the genteel gasps of horror from all those well-dressed ladies-who-lunch waiting patiently in line at the counter. It'd be embarrassing, sure, but it would relieve me of the terrible anxiety of choosing what in the world I want to eat here.
I know, for example, that I really should start with the deli's signature chicken salad Afrique ($5.99), a madras-yellow curried blend that's slightly sweet and dynamite on a croissant.
"You know, when I first made that some 20 years ago, I didn't know diddly squat about chicken salad," confesses owner Ettienne Leibman. "We simply didn't have chicken salad in South Africa where I grew up." Leibman's first saffron-tinted attempt with its distinctive South African seasoning wowed her customers, and has been the mainstay of the deli ever since. "Even in the worst times of the recession, that chicken salad kept us going," Leibman says fondly.
I could hedge my bet by combining half that legendary sandwich with a cup of the soup de jour (also $5.99). On my last visit, the soup was corn chowder in a smart matching shade of sunny yellow, creamy, thick and chock-full of pretty veggies (kernels of corn, of course, but also chunks of carrot, red pepper, potato and celery) gently tinted with turmeric. "You know, this is exactly what corn chowder should be," sighed my lunch companion, clattering her spoon happily around the bottom of the dish.
Or, some would argue, I should go for Burton's Beef Blast ($6.99), a fat, domed kaiser roll stuffed full of razor-thin slices of rare roast beef topped with a "three pepper blast," a pickly-pepper marinated blend of red and green bells with just a pinch of hot chili for punch. This sandwich seems to be the number one choice for the big boys who lunch at Leibman's.
Even if I ignore all Leibman's standard deli sandwiches, the Reubens and poor boys and muffulettas that I could arguably get somewhere else, the decision is difficult. Andree's avocado and artichoke sandwich ($5.99), for example, is another of this deli's unique creations, a real eye-opener.
"You realize this isn't going to be just avocado slices and artichoke hearts, don't you?" asked the no-nonsense lady from Ohio behind the counter. "I want you to know what you're getting," she added, fixing me with a frank stare.
No, I didn't know that. This vegetarian sandwich spread turned out to be a rich, buttery guacamole with handfuls of artichoke hearts mashed into it, layered with an outstanding aged Swiss cheese, shreds of lettuce and thick slices of tomato. The unexpected juxtaposition of avocado and artichoke was so perfect, so suave, that I'm rethinking my own guacamole recipe.
Other lessons I've learned at Leibman's involve blue cheese. Eeeooh, you may be thinking, as I generally do. I am not fond of blue cheese, particularly those antique, crumbly, veined versions that cheese snobs worship; first of all, there's that trademark blue cheese stench, and second of all, those haughty blues have a Napoleonic bent, nastily overwhelming all the dishes they meet. My schooling started with the sandwich called the International Bounty ($5.99). Here, blue cheese meets its waterloo in the form of salty hard salami and a honey-brown house mustard. The alliance is explosive, complex; it's difficult to declare a winner, but at least it's not the blue cheese. I like this one best on the standard French bread, but you can request any bread you want. Can you picture all that on rye? It'd probably blow your head off.
Then there's the spread or dip called the Triple-B ($9.99 per pound), which stands for blue cheese, black olives and -- here's the genius -- brandy. In this concoction, the blue cheese, stink and all, is firmly under the brandy's thumb, and the minced olives lend a salty, nutty flavor and a purplish-black tint. It goes well with those plain white crackers convection-baked in-house that are intended to accompany the impressive selection of caviars; you can also scoop it unceremoniously by the fingerful after you're home, grazing straight from the refrigerator shelves.
So my usual approach at Leibman's is to settle, more or less randomly, for a sandwich to eat right there at one of the small glass-topped tables ranged along the bustling deli counter. From this ringside seat I can study the contents of the glass cases and the chalkboard menus, spy on what everyone else is getting and plot my own strategy for takeout. I sit with my back firmly turned on all the tempting wines, coffees, teas and other gourmet goodies covering the shelves of the store area. I can eat at Leibman's, or I can shop at Leibman's, but there isn't enough daylight for me to accomplish both on the same trip.
I've learned a great deal about cheeses and caviars and pâtés simply by eavesdropping here: the finer points of choosing between beluga and sevruga, say, or the right red wine to go with that impressive Gorgonzola pistachio torta. My favorite pâté, at least for the moment, is the rosy Forestier blend of chicken liver, pork and cèpes ($11.99 per pound). Covert surveillance is also how I happened upon the biltong ($22.99 per pound), Leibman's own version of South African-style beef jerky that is often tucked away behind the pâté selection.
"Will I like that stuff?" I asked the Ohioan. "I don't know. Are you a jerky sort of person?" she quipped back. My girlfriend collapsed in giggles. Okay, so I am a jerky sort of person, also in the sense that I make regular pilgrimages to La Grange to get my beef jerky fixes. Don't even talk to me about Slim Jims; I'm dead serious about the real Texas-style smoked stuff: dry, tough, leathery and riddled with black pepper. One bite of biltong, though, and I was transfixed. It's thick and moist and tender, more like dense medium-rare roast beef; for a jerky junkie like me, a religious experience.
"Oh, Texans think they know everything about beef jerky," Leibman told me with a merry laugh. "In South Africa, a man never goes to a sporting event or on a trip without his pocketknife and a stick of biltong." Call me a defector, but I may never go back to La Grange.
While I was still raving about the biltong, the counter lady slyly offered me another South African treat, a dried sausage called boerewors, or farmer's sausage ($16.99). This had a loose, crackly sort of skin, the meat inside fibrous and exotically scented with roasted coriander and cloves. "I really shouldn't tell you what's in it," the woman said warningly. I stopped chewing. "It's made of kangaroos and ostriches," she chortled.
"Oh, my goodness, did she really tell you that?" Leibman asked me later, half amused and half horrified. "Did she really? Those girls are terrible teases, aren't they? No, of course it's not made of kangaroos and ostriches. What on earth would the USDA say about that? Why, it's made of beef, of course."
I judged the time right to confess to Leibman that I still haven't managed to try her other signature dish, the English bread pudding ($2.50). "Oh, but you must!" she exclaimed. "It's like a thick flan, served cold. It's incomparable; everyone says so." But it was way too late this trip. I'd already eaten a chocolate almond treasure ($1.25), a wrinkly phyllo pastry tube of baklavalike sweetness drizzled with chocolate, and a carmelita ($1.25), which is a blond chocolate-chip brownie iced with thick, chewy caramel and chopped pecans. Oh, okay, I also ate a seven-layer Hello Dolly ($1.25) and a bite of lemon cheesecake ($1.25), another blond bombshell brownie, with a tart lemon filling. I guess I'll save the bread pudding for my next journey outside the Loop the moment I run out of biltong.
Leibman's Wine & Fine Foods, 14010-A Memorial Drive, (281)493-3663.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.