This naturally raises a logical question: Why would a Southern-fried WASP from Louisiana think herself sufficiently knowledgeable to review a New York-style deli like Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant? I pondered this very question recently as I sat at a polished wooden table in K&Z's bright, attractive surroundings, looking over the menu's selections of kishke, kugel and kreplach in creeping confusion. I felt more like a Southern-fried schlemiel. A matzo moron. A
Okay, you get the picture. But like any good Southerner, I know how to meet people, and I know several New Yorkers, Lower East Side born and raised. Surely these friends, who have an opinion on everything, would be honored that somebody actually wanted to hear it. I decided there and then that I would recruit them for my next trip to Kenny & Ziggy's.
Relieved by this thought, I was able to relish the Reuben ($8.95) I had ordered -- I told you -- which arrived open-faced (New York-style, I was told later) and looked like a half-acre of food, draping over the side of the plate. My only complaint: The Russian dressing came on the side, and it was impossible to smear it between the bread and the corned beef without major surgery. So, I smeared it on top of the melted Swiss cheese.
Flash forward a week. I arrived with seven friends who, to varying degrees, spoke "New York" and had the attitudes to prove it. Agreeing that the matzo ball soup was the true standard by which a New York deli should be judged, two volunteered to get it, just in case their opinions differed. (I realized later this was a joke: The opinions of New Yorkers always differ.) With that out of the way, the group systematically staked out the available dishes, ordering a carefully selected assortment of items to ensure quality throughout the menu.
After placing our intricate order, we turned to the restaurant's south wall, decorated with the caricatures of dozens of former and current actors and comedians. When Ziggy Gruber opened his famous Ziggy G's New York-style deli on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, I'm told, he recruited an artist to hang out at his restaurant and draw the famous faces that frequented the place, paying the caricaturist in pastrami sandwiches. Judging from the sheer volume of drawings, Ziggy G's was a regular Brown Derby.
And that's not the only deli in the Gruber clan. Ziggy's grandfather Max Gruber reportedly opened the first deli on Broadway in New York in 1927. The family has been peddling pastrami in a dozen or so locations ever since. Kenny & Ziggy's is the Grubers' first foray this far south, the result of Houston restaurateur Kenny Friedman, who met Gruber through a mutual friend and convinced him to open a deli here.
My friends were duly impressed by the history lesson, but they were still reserving judgment. For them, the real test would be the matzo ball. Would it float or sink? They knew one thing for certain: It wouldn't be small. One friend tried ordering a cup of the soup, but the waiter said the matzo ball was too big for a cup. There are just two sizes, he said, a pint ($3.25) or a quart ($6.25).
While we were waiting, one of my friends, a part-time musician, told us the lyrics of Jewish country-and-western songs he was thinking about writing. "How about 'The second time she said "Shalom," I knew it meant good-bye'?"
Groans around the table.
" 'I've got my foot on the glass, now where are you?' "
Mercifully, the food arrived.
All spoons and forks immediately went to the two giant matzo balls on the table -- first just to pick at them to check for fluffiness, then to sample.
"Mine are never that fluffy -- that's why I let someone else make them."
"Doesn't sink to the bottom of your stomach like a schtein."
The soup itself had a delicious chicken flavor.
The potato knish ($3.25), a croissantlike pastry filled with silky mashed potatoes, was hot and scrumptious. It earned thumbs-up when bites were passed around the table. Pastrami can be ordered with extra marbling or extra lean; either way it arrives on a sandwich ($8.25) at least three inches thick, a definite New York tradition. The sandwich itself was flavorful, but when combined with the Hebrew National mustard flown in from New York, it was pungent and right on the money.
Rookie deligoers might want to pass on the kasha varnishkas ($3.50, or served as a side dish). The stuffinglike dish made from barley was a bit strong for this palate, definitely an acquired taste. The Acquired Tastes around the table loved it, though. And so it went for the kishke ($5.50, or served as a side), repeatedly referred to as Jewish boudin and just as likely to raise your cholesterol levels. Beef renderings, along with onion, celery and spices, are stuffed into a beef casing and sliced into thick, dark rounds that came swimming in brown gravy. Tasted ominous to me; everyone else raved.
The Hungarian goulash ($12.25) came in a lumberjack-size portion, giant chunks of beef and a sweet-tomato sauce poured over egg noodles. It's my understanding that the principle behind goulash is to take an inexpensive cut of meat and cook it, sometimes for hours, until it is tender enough to be cut with a fork. This meat did not pass the fork test and probably should have stayed in the pot a little longer to absorb the tomato flavor. The German faction at the table thought the sauce was too sweet. But the Hungarian faction, claiming sweet dishes are a tradition, thought it was just right.
Opinions were also divided along nationalistic lines with the Hungarian-style stuffed cabbage ($11.75). The Germans again judged it too sweet, while the Hungarians begged to differ: It was only slightly too sweet. All I knew was that the cabbage and meat stuffing were fork-tender and wonderfully spiced.
Only the noodle kugel ($2.50, or served as a side) left everyone puzzled. To me, the layers of noodles and custard were wonderful -- for dessert. But it was served as a side dish for entrées. The consensus: too sweet. One friend thought the noodle-custard ratio was a bit off, needing more noodles and less custard. I told her to put it aside, and I'd have it after my meal.
But that was not to be. I quickly forgot about the noodle kugel as I pondered desserts. We ordered the cheesecake ($6.50). Although it comes with blueberry or strawberry toppings, the New Yorkers wanted it plain. And it was plain fantastic, densely rich, slightly fluffy on the inside. The Russian chocolate bobka ($3.50), a coffee-cakelike treat made of dense egg bread with swirls of chocolate, was a bell-ringer. I was told it is brought in from Brooklyn weekly, like other items on the menu. (The smoked fish -- Nova Scotia lox, sturgeon, whitefish and sable -- is flown in three times weekly from the Lower East Side.)
When the bill was presented and discussed, and then discussed some more before we finally settled, the result was seven happy New Yorkers and one happy Southern-fried WASP. As we left to our separate cars, one called over his shoulder, "So, when are we reviewing this restaurant again?"
Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant, 2327 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)871-8883.