The Kishka Chronicles

Zaroff's Delicatessen

Restaurant

West Ridge Market

11300 Wayzata Blvd. (at corner of Hwy. 394 and the Hopkins Crossroad), Minnetonka; 545-9090

It was my sophomore year in college when I first came upon the word "kishka." It wasn't in my desktop dictionary, so I called my grandma--not normally my first instinct, but it was one of those words so guttural and succinct it simply had to be Yiddish. My grandma always stays up late watching TV; dunking her Sunshine cookies into her weak tea, watching New York City go all to hell on the late news. We chatted for a while, but when I finally got around to asking her what kishka was the conversation came to a dead halt. "Oh my god," she said in her gravelly voice. "Oh my god." I could see her shaking her fluffy red head over her tea. She sounded profoundly disappointed, slightly afraid. What? I asked. She didn't answer.

What was going on on the other end of the line? Was nuclear war being broadcast on the news? Finally she spoke: "You mean with all the money you're paying for school they can't afford to feed you decent food? Wait 'til I tell your father." Finally I dragged it out of her that kishka, in her poverty-wracked childhood, was a chicken skin stuffed with chicken fat, flour, salt, and pepper left to bake in a low oven all day while the family was at their various jobs. And she wouldn't eat it: "They said, 'Try it, just try it,'" said my grandma, adopting the wheedling voice of who? Her mother? Certainly someone I've never met. "But I tried it," she said. "Never again. Disgusting. Oh," she moaned, "Oh the taste of it." If my grandma had been a spitting woman she would have spit. Then she grew angry: "And they tried and they tried and they tried and I would never eat it! I spent my whole night at that table, I slept with my face right on that tablecloth, but they could never make me eat it!"

I really can't imagine my grandmother's early life: days spent sorting buttons, nights spent battling kishka. (Apparently there once was an industry built on using child labor to sort barrelfuls of mismatched buttons into smaller groups of matching buttons. My grandma has no idea why the buttons weren't sorted at their factories, but tells me this was a job best done by 8- to 11-year-olds, because of their nimble fingers.) I'm just as sure that my grandmother can't imagine my life--I tried explaining freelance journalism about half a dozen times until we agreed to agree that what I actually do is work in an office. Even though my grandma and I live in exceedingly different worlds, there's always been a number of things we see eye-to-eye on, and most of them involve delicatessens. We agree that a perfect hot pastrami sandwich is as rare and as valuable as the finest orchid; that half-sour pickles are as important to lunches as front doors are to houses; that there's always room for another potato pancake. In fact, I can't think of anything that my grandma and I experience in the same way that doesn't have to do with deli food. Which is one of the reasons it was so hard to move to Minnesota. If your unspoken congress with someone rests entirely on a sandwich available only 1,200 miles away it leads to a certain faint homelessness.

David Zaroff knows exactly how I feel. He moved out here after marrying his Minnesota-born college sweetheart Amy Schachtman, but "after being here for about two years I missed delicatessen food more than anything else in the world," he says. "I think it was just growing up in New York; I was surrounded by great food. Every Sunday my family would go out for Chinese, and every Saturday we were at the delicatessen--if we had family and friends over we'd bring deli platters in. I missed that when I came out here, I just couldn't find anything that was even close to it." So David returned to New York, and got a job at the deli chain Ben's, notable for its feather-light matzoh balls, its flashy modern decor, and its memorable slogan: "The longer it hangs the better it tastes"--which refers, of course, to lengthily cured hard salami. I tried explaining that to my grandma, who agreed, but added that if they hang too long they can get dried out.

While in New York, David also gathered together all of his mom's most traditional recipes, and then returned to Minnesota, and, after much planning, opened his restaurant. The planning paid off. When you walk into the restaurant you're greeted by a glittering deli case filled with a bounty of treats: knishes both square and round, big slabs of corned beef and pastrami, long, dangling salamis, all the right cold salads, and beguiling pyramids of rugelach (cookies made from a rolled triangle of dough, like a crescent roll, usually filled with nuts or chocolate). When you slide into one of the enormous booths you're offered wonderful tangy, sour, and crisp half-sour pickles (from New York) and a little bowl of fresh, crunchy coleslaw. The extensive menu is quite impressive--filled with everything a deli menu should have. The absolute highlights are the wonderfully rich, chicken-studded, vegetable-scented chicken soup ($2.95 big cup, $4.95 bowl), with choice of matzoh ball, homemade egg noodles, or kreplach (dumplings, here tender and meat-filled); and the extraordinary stuffed cabbage, which is spicy, aromatic, studded with plump raisins, and swimming in delightfully well-done sweet-and-sour sauce ($4.95 for one, $10.95 for two mango-sized cabbage rolls with side vegetable). Also don't miss the hot cabbage borscht, which is chock-full of tender cabbage and spoon-soft brisket in a rich broth; and the Reubens and Rachels (both $8.95, with choice of potato), which are slathered in a chunky, tasty Russian dressing.

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