Sunday, October 16, 2005

Speak, Memory New York City Entry #25

Memory challenges a food critic. Does the dish consumed today compare with that of yesterday, last year, a decade ago, or in childhood. Is our world growing better in every way or is it forever in decay?

New Yorkers of my acquaintance tend to accept the latter. Since arriving in Manhattan there has been a litany of complaint: Restaurant X (fill in the blank) is going downhill. The reverse diagnosis is rare.

Early in my visit I was told that Katz's Delicatessen was not what it was. Could it be true? And how could I tell, despite the many times I visited its location on the corner of Houston and Ludlow?

Katz's is something of the archetypal Jewish New York Deli (and is there any other kind?). Rows of common tables are set apart from a long counter at which work numerous busy countermen. On the walls are a who's who of the famous and less-so. One receives a ticket upon entering, and the countermen (and some table servers, too) mark one's purchases.

This Sunday morning my friend and I shared a hot pastrami sandwich on rye, an order of potato pancakes, and an egg cream. The good news was that the pastrami was better than any pastrami outside of the confines of the Lower East Side (starting with the ritualistic taste that I was offered before purchasing). Katz's serves their pastrami sandwich much as the archetypal Philly Cheesesteak vendors (Pat's and Geno's) serve their steaks. The meat is not so much sliced as chopped, although in New York there is no Italian roll to cup the mess. The pastrami was very flavorful and juicy. Excellent. Was it fattier than I recall? Perhaps a bit, but I was in no mood to complain. Memory did not permit a judgement on whether it remained at the same perch on Mount Olympus, but it was well above competitors (I haven't tried the Second Avenue Deli this visit).

The potato pancake was less satisfying: it was not as airy as some I recall. The dish was rich with potato, but rather solid. I'm not sure if onions used to be mixed in, but these pancakes were pure spud, lacking a kick. I enjoyed them, but was not in love. I have had better.

The egg cream was a canonical New York version, not too sweet and with the chocolate syrup added at the end. When we reminisce in heaven about egg creams, this could be one of which we speak.

Did Katz's measure up to my last visit some years back? I can't quite say. However, if Katz's is no longer a New York classic (and that is not MY claim), most other city's would roll out a carpet of pink smoked meats.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 East Houston Street (at Ludlow Street)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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