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Deli lovers have had their noses pressed against the glass at Times Square Deli since late spring, awaiting its planned August opening. Inevitable delays resulted in a November 1 debut, and an even greater anticipation for what was described as a restaurant ambiance straight out of New York City.
The ambiance didn't happen. This cozy little cafe in the former Nosh-a-Rye space is pretty plain. Polished burnt-orange concrete floors glisten under pale blue chairs and tables, a ring of booths lines the walls and a coffee-shop-style counter beckons with swivel stools. Decor is limited to a collection of early 1900s streetscapes of Manhattan, a clever blowup of a street map, ceiling-mounted TV sets and two large American flags displayed in the front windows. The servers offer the most excitement, snappily dressed in striking ensembles of black logo tee shirts and baseball caps over blue jeans.
But folks are here to eat, not to be bowled over by interior design. And for that, Times Square Deli startles, delivering full Big Apple appeal. The restaurant is owned by cousins Neil and Joyce Zelinsky. But the kitchen is guided by Ken Rieder, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. A former instructor at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Rieder spent many years with Continental Catering and has served as personal chef for the Winston West NASCAR team.
Meatloaf sandwich: $8.25
Pastrami & chopped liver combo: $10.95
Brisket au jus: $10.50
Egg salad: $6.75
His approach is straightforward, offering classic deli fare such as it's-the-real-thing gefilte fish, creamed and pickled herring, LEO (Nova lox, eggs and onions), matzo Brie, knockwurst with sauerkraut, Reubens, stuffed cabbage, and noodle kugel. Most items are homemade; bagels arrive each morning from Scottsdale's esteemed New York Bagels 'n' Bialys.
Soups are irresistible, including a lusty sweet-and-sour cabbage, beef barley and borscht. Chicken broth celebrates the cold weather, in a healing helping of carrots, celery, white-meat bird plus a choice of noodles, big matzo balls or kreplach and wonderful ravioli bursting with ground beef.
There's no stinting on the "sky high" sandwiches, bringing soaring mounds of corned beef, pastrami, roast turkey, roast beef or brisket. Deli sandwiches aren't dainty either, packed with a minimum half-pound of meats, luncheon meats, tongue and such. And the kitchen turns out a terrific patty melt, the sirloin burger topped with onion and lots of gooey American cheese on buttery grilled rye. A veggie melt doesn't even pretend to be healthy, bloated with American cheese and avocado over ripe tomato, crunchy cucumber and onion on whole wheat.
Rieder goes all out with the salads, sending out generous scoops of white-meat tuna, slightly sweet chicken breast and creamy egg salad. These are old-fashioned dishes, the tuna and chicken tossed with celery in mayonnaise, the egg salad pure, with none of the complicated extras so many restaurants like to throw in these days. Even the coleslaw is noteworthy, thanks to a light hand with the dressing and crunchy, garden-fresh cabbage.
Better chopped liver is needed for a combo sandwich of liver and pastrami, though. The model here is dry and crumbly, with nothing to spark it up besides bare bread. And where's the gravy on an otherwise quality meatloaf sandwich? The hefty slices have an odd, vaguely vinegary aftertaste, but with a little ketchup the entree makes for fine eating.
It's the gravy that sinks the brisket. This liquid is not the menu-described jus, but tomato sauce ladled over thick-carved meat soaking into slices of soft white bread. A side of potato latke is nothing more than unseasoned hash browns, with a side of steamed broccoli as an afterthought.
In true New York Deli style, meals begin with a complimentary plate of relishes. Sauerkraut is crisp and just this edge of sour, pickled tomatoes remain firm and dill pickles snap.
Start spreading the word: Times Square Deli took a while to get here, but it's been well worth the wait.