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.

Side dishes, which often come with entrées but can also be ordered independently, are likewise very good. I love square knishes ($3.25) and these are yummy and fresh from Brooklyn. Potato pancakes ($1.95 for three, $3.95 for six) are eggier and cakier than I'm used to, but still good. The carrot tzimmes ($1.95)--buttery, honey-glazed, raisin-studded carrot slices--are sweet and fine; and kasha varniskas ($1.95)--one of the simplest things in the world to make; just toss toasted buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta--were simply very good. Oh, and as for Zaroff's kishka ($4.95), it's a vegetable-studded patty slathered in tasty homemade gravy, and bears no resemblance to the gruel of my grandma's nightmares.

I do have a few quibbles with the food, which all seem to stem from a lack of strict attention to plates before they leave the kitchen: On two occasions the matzoh balls hid "raw" centers (middles of dry crumbs of matzoh meal); the pastrami arrived twice too freshly cut and not hot--it should be simmering in its steam pan long enough for the fat to get soft and for the meat to look wet; once a knish arrived rock-hard from over-long baking; and I had no luck with the vegetables that are offered as an alternative to the carrot tzimmes. It seemed like there were frequent breakdowns in post-chef issues, but please note that every problem I encountered was fixed in the blink of an eye by the friendly, helpful wait-kids. (It's hard not to think of them as kids, because in New York your pastrami seems invariably to be presented by a woman with high-penciled eyebrows, locked knees, and a crispy hairdo who eyes you suspiciously over the top of her glasses.)

Of course it's preposterous to expect Wolff's or the 2nd Ave. Deli to be transplanted whole to the innocent fields of Minnesota, and it's to David Zaroff's credit that he has managed to fuse Minnesota-friendly so seamlessly to his rather authentic New York deli. The Minnesota comforts include an extensive kids menu (soda, fries, sandwich, and homemade cookie for $4.95) and adult gringo options like lo-cal salads, grilled chicken breasts, and an excellent grilled cheese ($6.95).

When I mentioned the schism between New York deli-rude and Minnesota deli-nice to David he grimaced. "They've been around for god knows how long, how can you actually compete with the Carnegie or the Stage? Its so hectic, so crowded, so crazy there--but that's what you go to New York for. I don't know how long that would last here--but I'm betting it wouldn't fly." I'm betting he's right, but he deserves kudos for having the drive and the eye for detail to so effectively transform our culinary landscape to conform with his psychic one, and to offer all us transplanted New Yorkers a little oasis of home. "I still miss New York," says David, considering his accomplishments, "but I don't miss it as much now. I love it here. Except it is still really cold."

TABLEHOPPING

YOU'LL GO BLIND IF YOU KEEP THAT UP: According to Dr. Steven Pratt, a senior staff ophthalmologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, some eye diseases, like age-related macular degeneration (a type of vision loss that affects 13 million people), can be prevented by eating foods rich in the carotenoid lutein. The best sources for lutein? Dark leafy greens like spinach, collard greens, swiss chard, and kale; plus other veggies like broccoli, celery, green beans, romaine lettuce, green peas, and pumpkin. Pratt says you should also get foods high in the carotenoid lycopene, like tomatoes, watermelon, and ruby-red grapefruit.

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