Walking into Brooklyn’s newest Jewish deli for the first time, Ken Goeringer sees two mothers chatting at a table, a pair of art students with a splay of sketchpads arranged around their plates and a man in a shirt and tie looking up from his library book to balance a few bites of brisket-covered poutine (a decadent marriage of frites, cheese curd and gravy) on a fork.
What the local business owner and deli aficionado doesn’t see as he finds a seat at the deli counter, made of wood salvaged from an old bowling alley, are knishes. Or Dr. Brown’s soda. Or those iconic overstuffed corned beef sandwiches.
Instead, the one-sided, bookmark-sized menu features a choice of three portion-controlled deli sandwiches; the signature item is smoked meat, which, in the Montreal style, is brisket first cured for 11 days, smoked for at least eight hours, steamed for four more, and then finally served on local Jewish rye. And the bagels are smaller: sweet Montreal bagels, driven in daily from Canada.
This is Mile End Delicatessen, which touts itself as a “Montreal Jewish delicatessen in Brooklyn.” Opened in January by young newlyweds Rae Cohen and Noah Bernamoff, the Boerum Hill establishment is fast gaining a following, with write-ups in New York Magazine and meat that sells out by 4 p.m. each day.
And while Cohen, 25, is the first to admit they are “Sunday-morning bacon Jews,” she and Bernamoff, 27, who met in a Judaic studies class at McGill University, see Mile End as a Jewish establishment.
During Passover, the kitchen offered all sandwiches on homemade matzah, which was prepared to code in under 18 minutes, but without rabbinic supervision.
The kitchen, just behind the partition in the small, black-and-white-toned dining room, is a symphony of Jewish deli food colors and smells. Red borscht with a white cream dollop. Lavender-hued coleslaw.
The food is not kosher, but the emphasis is on local meats, bread and produce as well as the in-house preparation of food including curing, smoking and steaming. The ultimate mission is sustainability, which Cohen and Bernamoff believe is a salient and progressive manifestation of Jewish values.
According to Cohen, even the bagels, which are driven in daily by two of Bernamoff’s childhood friends from Montreal, are still considered local because the source is less than 500 miles away.
Both raised in Conservative Jewish families, Bernamoff spent his childhood enjoying the deli fare of his native Montreal, while Manhattanite Cohen frequented her local delis.
But when the two moved to New York together two years ago, opening a Jewish deli was not on the agenda. Neither had any experience in the restaurant business or any formal culinary training. Bernamoff was enrolled at NYU Law School. While in school, Bernamoff spent a year tinkering with recipes and smoking meats on the roof of their Park Slope apartment. “It was a little bit of a home laboratory,” he says.
Last year, Bernamoff took a leave of absence from school and, with minimal financial backing from parents and a close friend/investor, the couple began scouting out restaurant space. They signed the lease in June and spent the next six months acquiring permits, building and retrofitting the tiny space with kitchen and deli equipment, designing the interior, pairing up with local food purveyors and developing the menus. They stopped briefly in October to get married.
While much ink has been devoted to the demise of the Jewish deli, a new model, represented by businesses like Mile End, as well as Saul’s in Berkeley, Calif., and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., speaks to a shift in the way a new generation of Jews is approaching traditional cuisine.
“I’m not religious in any way,” Bernamoff says, “But I believe in the ethical responsibility of tikkun olam very seriously and to me, that extends to environment and agriculture as well as animals and humans.”
Bernamoff bristles at traditional delis that emphasize mammoth portions. “Jewish delis have pressure on them to keep the prices the same as they were in 1953. They end up using cheap meat to make big sandwiches at low prices, with mass-produced vegetables, and they offer poor pay to illegal immigrants.” he explains.
At Mile End, you’ll pay between $7 and $8 for a sandwich; the portions are sizable but not overwhelming.
“I could cut corners and pay $1.20 per pound for brisket, but if the meat is the central focus, why not spend $3.99?” says Bernamoff.
While a few people have voiced passing dissent about the portion sizes or asked why the food is not kosher or even kosher-style (Canadian bacon can be found on the breakfast menu), Boerum Hill has seemed to embrace Mile End.
Brooklynites of all stripes can been seen inside at the tables or wrapped in the wait line outside. A window offering “to go” service frames a constant snapshot of hustling customers both young and old. Cohen views Mile End as part of a community not only in Brooklyn and with local businesses, but inside its doors as well.
“I’ve even made a few shidduchs at the counter,” she admits with a laugh.
As for Goeringer, his smoked meat sandwich arrives on a small plate with no sides. “I like to put the mustard on myself,” he frets before taking a Katz’s Deli-sized bite.
“It’s different,” he notes full-mouthed. “Different, but very good.”
Goeringer scans the room again.
“Can I get a pickle?” he asks.
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