When I was a little girl living in Brooklyn, my parents used to take me to Brighton Beach on the weekends. Aside from riding on the overheated subway, I don't remember much about those trips — except my lust for potato knishes, that is. Vendors walked up and down the beach hawking the golden dumplings that were filled with a rich mixture of mashed potatoes and onions. I couldn't get my toddler tongue around the word "knish," so I begged for "potato conditioners."
We moved from the Big Apple to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont when I was 6, so my youthful experience of Jewish delicacies was limited to what could be found in the grocery and made easily at home: cream cheese and lox on bagels, Mom's matzoh ball soup, Dad's chopped liver, kasha varnishkes and the occasional frozen cherry blintz. The only Vermont knishes I ever found were at City Market and Muddy Waters, and neither lived up to my expectations.
So when I heard about Sadie Katz Delicatessen, which opened last month in the old Oasis Diner on Burlington's Bank Street, I could hardly contain my excitement. Visions of chicken liver on toast, towering pastrami sandwiches and smoked sturgeon danced in my head.
Some of those cravings won't be satisfied right away. The deli is still running its limited, "pre-opening" menu; owner Glenn Walter of Three Needs, who named Sadie Katz after his grandmother-in-law, promises more items, such as tongue sandwiches, soon. But two visits proved that the eatery is shaping up to satisfy all of my "Jew food" desires.
On my first, lunchtime trip, I asked my father to come along. A Jew who converted to Catholicism, the guy knows Hebrew and has eaten plenty of gefilte fish. We started with a generous bowl of "Meredith Mann's Matzoh Ball" soup for $3.50. The translucent, golden-brown broth came with electric-orange carrots cut in half-moons, thick white chicken chunks, celery, onions and dill-studded matzoh balls the size of raquetballs. While sweet and redolent of chicken, it improved with a sprinkling of salt. The balls were the best part: light, fluffy and subtly herb-flavored.
But the crisp potato pancakes — at $2.50 per order — were a revelation. The thick rounds arrived at the table piping hot, perfectly cooked both inside and out — no mean feat, judging by how often latkes end up thin or mealy. They had just the right amount of onion and, of course, came with applesauce and sour cream on the side.
With the cakes, we munched on some complimentary pickles that appeared on our table soon after we arrived: a couple of bright green "half sours" and two duller-colored "full sours." The former, less pickled pickles offered a nice crunch, but I preferred the tongue-tingling full sours.
Next we shared a pastrami sandwich with mustard ($8.50) and a corned beef sandwich with Thousand Island dressing ($8.50). Generous but not huge, the sandwiches arrived warm on slices of soft, mild rye bread, sprinkled with occasional caraway seeds. Both meats were nicely fatty and lightly spiced, with thin coatings of condiments. Thanks to the cook's restraint, these were perfectly balanced sandwiches in which no one element outshone the others.
On the side, small scoops of coleslaw and potato salad provided piquant counterpoints to the rich meat. The potato salad had bits of onion and irregular chunks of potato in a mustard-flavored sauce. The slaw was fresh and crisp, with a definitive vinegar taste and not too much creamy filler.
With our repast we downed some Dr. Brown's Cel Ray soda — which, my dad assured me, is the only thing to drink with a pastrami sandwich. Though it gets its name from celery, the sweet, pale-green liquid, poured over lots of ice, didn't taste like something you'd grow in the garden.
We left full and happy. The service was snappy, the food was excellent, and our meal hadn't broken the bank.
After hearing from Walter that his joint would start breakfast service the following Saturday, I was eager to try the venue's morning offerings. But when my husband and I arrived, just after nine o'clock, people were being turned away at the door. Breakfast had been postponed until the next weekend.
We opted to hit up the take-out counter that same afternoon. I popped in to place an order between errands, then returned 20 minutes later to pick it up. That's when things got a tad confusing. Out came a long, skinny package containing our foot-long hot dog and a shorter one with my sandwich. But as one of the staffers stowed them in a paper bag, she added sour cream and applesauce "for the latkes." "I didn't order any latkes," I pointed out. She whisked the toppings away.
Next, I found a container of Thousand Island dressing in the bag with my salad instead of the "Glenn's Garlic Vinaigrette" I'd ordered. And I had to remind staffers about my side of pickles and a pair of Dr. Brown's sodas: cream and black cherry, this time. By the time my order was ready to go, four different people had participated in the process, though I was the only take-out customer in the place.
Every new establishment has its inevitable kinks to work out. But with to-go orders, it's especially important to get everything right — perhaps by checking each item against the bill as it goes in the package. By the time a customer gets home and figures out something is missing, it's usually too late to set it right.
In my case, a side of potato salad never made it. A generous chef salad that was described as "green salad with turkey corned beef and Swiss cheese" was topped with turkey and corned beef, but no Swiss.
Other than a stray French fry I discovered among the lettuce leaves, my salad was fine. It came with red peppers, shredded carrots, Greek olives, tomatoes, red onion and seeded cucumbers — a nice touch. The creamy "Glenn's Garlic Vinaigrette" had a spicy kick, while the Thousand Island, also homemade, was sweet and tangy, with bits of onion and pickle in its thick, orange base. The sliced meats were thick cut and amply proportioned.
Mushroom barley soup proved ideal for a snowy day: It came in a hearty broth chock- full of barley bits and snippets of carrots and celery. Like the matzoh ball soup, it needed just a bit more salt to reach perfection.
Our all-beef hot dog was too long for one bun, so it was served on two, which were toasted to a crisp gold. The surprisingly mild sauerkraut topping let the beefy flavor of the sausage dominate. When I added a schmear of mustard and popped open a soda, it was just like being at the ballpark — except I was sitting on my couch, in peace and quiet, and there wasn't a guy on 'roids in sight.
Despite the hitches in its take-out service, the Sadie Katz Deli is a restaurant to be reckoned with. The portions are liberal, the flavors are great, and the enticing, expanding menu could turn some white-bread Vermonters into vicarious Brooklynites. When the knishes show up, I'll be at the front of the line.