You Can Take the Deli Out of Second Avenue

Jeremy LebewohlPhoto: Jeremy Liebman

For the unreconstructed Jewish-food fresser, the second coming of 2nd Avenue Deli—shuttered two years ago after a rent dispute, and reopening next week in Murray Hill—is a culinary event that trumps even the Manhattan debuts of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse. Into their vaunted ranks steps neophyte restaurateur Jeremy Lebewohl, the 25-year-old nephew of deli founder Abe Lebewohl and keeper of the kosher-deli flame.

It seemed like the whole city went into mourning when the deli closed. What made it so special?
You have other places in Manhattan that have good deli cases. But our kitchen—and I say this very confidently—nobody can touch. I won’t take away the counters from them, where you can get a good sandwich. But there aren’t that many places where you can get good soup. We have chicken fricassée, goulash, all these things that come from the kitchen. There’s not a single deli in Manhattan that can compare.

Have you changed the menu?
I did not subtract. I only added. Most importantly, I added a full line of appetizing. The people who eat smoked-fish appetizing eat deli meats. It’s the same client base.

Can you take the trans fats out of deli?
In the kosher world, it’s a problem because you use margarine, you don’t use butter. We never really cooked with them, so in-house it’s not a problem. But wholesalers have another six or nine months until the laws affect them. I buy from a wholesaler and he’s still using trans fats? I can’t sell his cake.

Considering all that, is this a good deli moment?
People have asked me, “Do you think opening up a deli filled with fatty foods is a smart thing to do in modern times, when people are on diets and eating tossed salads and all this type of stuff?” I happen to think that now is the perfect climate. If you go to a lot of in-vogue restaurants, you’re going to see pork belly, and barbecue is back in a big way. Food tastes move in cycles. When I was a kid, in my house, in all my friends’ houses, there were all kinds of cookies and Entenmann’s cake and bags of potato chips. That’s what you ate. Then all of a sudden, God forbid you eat anything but a Diet Coke and maybe a crouton if you’re lucky. That’s not the way to live.

What’s always in your fridge?
I love pickles. Anything pickled, anything salty, I love.

Sour or half-sour?
What kinda question is that? Sour!

Corned beef or pastrami?
Hands down, pastrami. Hands down. I’m not a big corned-beef fan. I enjoy it, but I love pastrami.

Are there are any other decent pastrami sandwiches out there?
I can’t say, because I only eat kosher, okay? But from what I hear, Katz’s has a very respectable sandwich. I’ve had staff members go in to taste it for me. On the other hand, I saw something today that nobody should ever see in a deli. I walked into a deli and I ordered a pastrami sandwich. The guy asked somebody to go downstairs. He comes up with something that’s all sliced—it’s, like, prewrapped in a package. The first thing you don’t want to do with pastrami is preslice it; when you do that, it loses all the juice and flavor. Then the guy takes it and puts it in the microwave!

Are there any foods you avoid?
There are two things that I love but my mother always told me not to eat. I love kishke, you know, derma. And I love gribenes. We always had it in the old store, but it was never really on the menu, it was never pushed, and I’m pushing it full force. I plan on giving it out on all the tables when people sit down. What’s there not to enjoy about deep-fried chicken skin with onions? There’s a restaurant not far from where we live, and on their bar menu they had—I think they were calling it “pig popcorn” or something like that. I said, “This is gribenes!” So instead of using chicken skin, they’re using pig rinds. Big deal!

Opens December 17 at 162 E. 33rd St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-689-9000.

You Can Take the Deli Out of Second Avenue