Monday, December 22, 2008

Latke Vs. Latke

To celebrate the so-called Festival of Lights, I took a trip to Stamford, CT, where my aunt promised Jewish vittles. For the sake of our respective places in heaven, I'll ignore the fact that she served shrimp cocktail (gasp!) alongside a giant cheese board (double gasp!) and latkes with sour cream alongside brisket and turkey. You can't win them all.

This year, my aunt embarked on project "no frying pan," meaning she was going to attempt to replicate the crispiness of the traditional holiday latke without using a skillet. Instead, she took baking sheets and covered them with vegetable oil, cooked those lovely pankakes on one side at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, flipped them, gave them another 10 in the oven, and served them hot.

The key to good latkes, I learned from my father, is the squeezing. The potatoes and onions, which are grated together in one unruly mess before the egg-ing/seasoning/frying begins, must be as dry as is humanly possible. The drier the latke batter, the browner the latke, or so I've been told. My aunt's experiment proved successful; our latkes were brown and crispy on the outside and pliant within.

Today, I found myself in midtown for lunch. I'll skip the brutal details, including the many tourists I dodged through homicidal thoughts, the mayhem that is Rockefeller Center, and the congestion of Fifth Avenue.

I will mention, however, that I was taken to Carnegie Deli to eat, a stunt I haven't attempted since my childhood, when my grandmother took me whenever we came into the City to see a show. Pickles still get an enthusiastic thumbs-up (I prefer the half-sours), and the chicken soup was good, if undersalted and a disquieting shade of yellow. Matzo balls were fluffy but ill-flavored; they didn't hit me over the head with schmalz (for all the non-Jews out there, that means rendered chicken fat) and they weren't particularly well-seasoned. Then again, they didn't stick in my throat like some matzo balls do. I will not name names.

But my main point of comparison dining was the latkes, which arrived a little too light and a little too large. They were breakfast pancake-sized and when it comes to latkes I am a purist. Give me tiny pancakes that I can eat six or seven of, not one giant potato pancake that dominates my plate. These latkes, which Carnegie calls famous, were under-crisped and under squeezed. Enthusiastic thumbs-down.

Here's a few other things about Carnegie that drove me absolutely insane: they don't accept credit cards; they require a $12.50 per person minimum and only allow you to share their enormous sandwiches for an additional fee of $3; they sell latkes for $15 a plate; their servers are rude and angry; the food arrives whenever they feel like sending it out. In times of economic crisis, I understand minimums. I understand wanting a guest to spend at least enough money so that the gratuity covers the server's subway ride to work. I do not, however, understand why I would want to pay so much for so much excess. The food is indulgent enough. I don't need more of it. And gruff service doesn't get you anywhere these days. For the same amount of calories, I could have been sitting at Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien having a much better--and cheaper--meal.

I'm done with the New York deli scene. Sorry, Grandma. I hope you can forgive me but on Jew food, my aunt takes the cake. And while Carnegie Deli may be a "New York institution," it really needs to clean up its act.

Carnegie Deli
854 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10019

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