Rye Delicatessen & Bar overcomes early missteps
Zimmern absolutely shredded it, reviewers on Chowhound pulled no punches, and everyone with a bubbe was quick to give their detailed, comparative report. In the weeks following Rye Deli's opening, it was rare, perhaps unfairly rare, to hear it cast in anything resembling a positive light, and the hype that initially seemed like it would keep Rye afloat ended up nearly drowning it. Complaints swirled that the kitchen was out of knishes, corned beef, and whitefish before the lunch rush even began, and the people in aprons standing behind the counter couldn't even pronounce "rugelach" correctly. Still, the beautifully refinished space that once housed the much-lauded Auriga, with its appealing modern branding, and the prospect of an Uptown bar that would serve an expertly mixed cocktail in a relatively pretense-free environment, piqued the interest of those who wanted to experience a Montreal-style deli for themselves, myself included. Rye was not without its minor flaws, but haters beware: You will probably be as disappointed with this review as you claimed you were with the amount of egg in Rye's chopped liver.
Maybe our timing was just right, when the pace of business became a little more steady but not at all hectic and the temperatures we expect from a Minnesota winter actually started to set in, but the simple, homespun, made-from-scratch food that Rye was sending out of its kitchen hit all the right notes. The Reuben—with a thick-cut slab of toothsome, nicely salted, and fairly juicy corned beef on rye bread, with the faintest layer of Russian dressing, a scant amount of sauerkraut, and broiled-till-bubbly Swiss—is a "fork and knife" sandwich because it's open-faced, not because it's too sloppy or slippery to eat with your hands. People always seem to praise a Reuben that is loaded to the gills, but Rye's version was a little more elegant, akin to eating an oversized, assertively flavored canape. The little cup of coleslaw that accompanied the Reuben and several other sandwiches was unexpectedly light, with sweet flavor, good crunch, and a nice amount of vinegar. You can get it to go from the deli case along with dilly mustard potato salad, creamy hummus, and mint-flecked tabbouleh.
We also enjoyed plunging our knives and forks into the hot turkey sandwich, with mashed potatoes, gravy, and richly flavored dark-meat turkey on toasted challah, and a soothing potpie that replaced the traditional puff pastry topping with a cross-hatched diamond of rich, eggy knish dough, with plenty of light gravy and very tender chunks of chicken inside. A distinctive herb coming out in the gravy, or the addition of a non-pea-or-carrot vegetable, would have helped carry it to the same territory as Lucia's, which is still the best, freshest, and most refined potpie in town, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless. The hand-carved turkey, smoked meat, and awesome grilled salami sandwiches come with house-made pickles that keep all the green crispness of a young cucumber but with a warm, almost mulled spice to them. A couple of these with Rye's chopped liver, however "incorrectly" proportioned with schmaltz or egg or any of the ingredients you remember from that real Jewish deli back east, is a fantastic lowbrow answer to a plate of pâté and cornichon.
On the sweeter side, the springy square of carrot kugel is one of those dishes that keeps getting better as you eat it, with Willy Wonka-like waves of flavor from carrot cake and pumpkin pie revealing themselves. The cabbage and beef borscht, with its "sweet and sour" title, leaned decidedly toward the former. There was plenty of meat in the mix, but this soup seemed to derive much of its sweetness from carrots rather than the candy-dirt flavor you expect from beets. The decadent challah French toast, though perhaps not the most representative of traditional Jewish fare, is quite a delight at breakfast. Gorgeously thick slices of rich challah are doused in fragrant egg wash and then grilled until crisp. As if it needed improvement, Rye serves this treat with plenty of local butter from Hope Creamery. A huge, well-executed black-and-white cookie, with a crunchy layer of chocolate and vanilla glazes and a densely cakey center, was a perfect take-home dessert.
Not everything was clear skies and smooth sailing, but most of the disappointments came from items that felt as if they should give you more bang for your buck. For example, the midnight turkey sandwich is stacked so tall with hand-carved, herb-roasted turkey you practically have to unhinge your jaw to dig into it. The meat was tender, and the lemon aioli was tart and cheerful, but without a side of chips or accoutrement aside from salt, pepper, and iceberg lettuce, many customers will have a hard time with the $12 price. Similarly, Rye's chicken soup had a clear and golden broth with the kind of flavor that only comes from simmering bones for hours with bouquet garni. Rye offers the option of adding kasha (buckwheat cereal that is texturally similar to couscous), egg noodles, kreplach (filled dumplings), or matzoh balls. The matzoh balls were fluffy without sacrificing character, but they could have used more salt, and no matter how time-consuming the preparation of the add-in ingredients, $6 for a cup of soup is a little hard to swallow.
At breakfast, the smoked-meat Benedict was heavier than it was hearty and sloppily presented. The peppery, pastrami-like smoked meat was cut very thick and toasted till crisp, but it was unfortunately dry and slathered in an acid-leaning hollandaise that showed telltale signs of improper emulsification. My eggs were poached a little harder than I usually like, but the toasted bialy (like a bagel's unboiled, left-whole cousin) was a nice changeup from an English muffin. The caramel babkele looked like it would be more decadent than it was. Our server told us it was "like a little pastry that got drowned in caramel sauce." There was, indeed, a lot of sauce, but it was a bit grainy and didn't improve the dry interior.
With more apparent good than bad, one wonders whether Rye's earlier issues stemmed from trumpeting onto the scene with such a strong concept that it encouraged skeptics to accept nothing less than the delis of their youth. Nostalgia can be a powerful adversary to a new restaurant, and not to get too Carrie Bradshaw about it, but if naysayers would stop trying to make Rye something it's not, they might be happy with what it is: a neighborhood deli that isn't trying to completely reinvent the wheel but is succeeding in reviving a beloved space and bringing something new to Lowry Hill. Whatever the case, you can't argue with that house-made spicy mustard, and if you drink in the relaxed atmosphere and a few rye-heavy whiskey Manhattans, you might have a hard time arguing about anything at all.
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