I'm a sucker for gossip, which is the sole reason I maintain a subscription to the West Essex Tribune, my hometown paper. These past weeks I've gotten a good eyeful -- letters to the editor and editorials about Don's, the landmark eatery in Livingston, New Jersey. Seems that after a long and painful decline, the once-popular spot, which opened in 1954 as a drive-in and went through various subsequent incarnations, has finally been put out of our misery. My favorite piece so far is the one written by a former employee now living in Kansas who reminisced fondly about the restaurant's roller-skating carhops, its purported invention of the pizza burger, and its radio station WDON, which broadcast the jukebox and which you could tune in on your Studebaker's AM radio.
I worked at Don's for four years in the Eighties, after it had morphed into an eat-in restaurant with a gourmet market attached. It was a destination for families with small children, for lunching ladies who wore fur coats over sweatpants, for the elderly who wanted to split a hamburger for dinner. Big and diverse, it also provided great employment opportunities, hiring everyone from newly arrived (and probably illegal) Haitian immigrants to high school and college kids to professionally trained bakers with Holocaust numbers tattooed on their arms. But I have an extremely different view of the place.
Don's was the setting for my loss of innocence, figuratively speaking -- the place where I learned to party. The cooks handed out joints with pastrami sandwiches; the deli guys cut lines of coke on the stainless steel counters. In the bakery every Saturday night, we stole milk from the dairy case and made white Russians, ringing up sales on the register in a fragrant haze of vodka and Kahlua. I also got a classic education in cheating and lying from a fellow waiter who was six years or so older than I (and therefore devastatingly sexy) and who seduced me and my friend Carol in rapid succession. If the demise of Don's didn't fill me with nostalgia, exactly, it did have some therapeutic value, allowing me to drag several skeletons out of my closet and throw them away.
But while my past may be a book I just closed, hunger is the page to which I always open. And reading about Don's week after week inspired a terrific craving for a Reuben. Which is what led me and my in-laws to Toojay's, a gourmet deli restaurant in Aventura that opened last year.
People seem to favor some of Toojay's thirteen locations over others. My husband's folks don't like the one in Boca or the one in Lake Worth; another customer we talked to dislikes the branch in Hollywood. We all agreed, though, that the Toojay's in Aventura, a contemporary longer-than-it-is-wider dining room done in cool shades of green and pink, has comfortable booths, an extremely pleasant, solicitous waitstaff, a sparkling interior, and the requisite number of families with small children, ladies lunching (this being Florida, fur coats were noticeably absent), and a number of blue rinses splitting burgers. In other words, it's a deli, and we all felt right at home.
Plus they make a great Reuben -- tender corned beef layered with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and homemade Russian dressing, served on grilled, buttered house-baked rye bread. The sandwich came with crisp steak fries and wonderful cole slaw made with green and red cabbage, which actually retained the flavor of the vegetable rather than being dominated by mayonnaise.
Toojay's menu is extensive, featuring platters and salads galore. A hummus appetizer -- the nutty, garlicky chickpea dip accompanied by (slightly stale) pita triangles, romaine lettuce, red onions, and black olives -- was actually enough for a light meal. A chopped salad, on the other hand, though not exactly the traditional carrot, celery, and green pepper combo I remember serving daily at Don's, was an enormous bowl of romaine lettuce, updated like a cobb salad with artichoke hearts, cucumber, bacon, Gorgonzola, and black olives all cut into manageable bite-size pieces. A side of the Russian dressing, creamy with mayo, united the ingredients.
A fish platter provided another good way to get greens. Generous chunks of smoked whitefish and three slices of baked smoked salmon posed on a bed of leafy romaine, cucumbers, black olives, red onion, and slices of tomato. The fish was tender and mellow, neither noticeably oily nor bony, a real treat at any price, but also a bargain at $10.50. A toasted bagel with a small plastic container of cream cheese rounded out the dish.
Cheese blintzes, three browned eggy crepes wrapped around sweetened cheese, were delicious. Sour cream was a nice tangy complement, though we thought a side of gooey cherry sauce tasted too much like canned pie filling. Sour cream and apple sauce were appropriate, if expected, garnishes for crunchy potato pancakes, large, fluffy rounds aromatic with minced onions and perfectly browned. Stuffed cabbage was better still, a recipe to rival your grandma's: soft boiled cabbage leaves folded around meatballs made of beef and rice. A mildly sweet-and-sour sauce rife with raisins permeated the stuffed cabbage enough to flavor it but not enough to make it fall apart. All of these entrees can be ordered as smaller portions for starters.
Dinners include a choice of soup; we chose the matzoh ball over chicken noodle. Airy matzoh balls soaked up a deliciously rich chicken broth (to me it tasted more like turkey) stocked with carrots, celery, and chunks of white and dark poultry. It made somewhat of an odd pairing with shepherd's pie, however, a special that evening that lacked the polish of the other dishes. This British standard, a casserole dish filled with sauteed ground beef, corn, peas, and chopped carrots, lacked defining flavor, and the mashed-potato top, flecked with paprika, could have been crustier. A side dish of corn and red pepper completed the mediocre picture.
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Desserts, visible in the restaurant's glass bakery cases, beckoned to my two-year-old nephew, so we indulged him with four. "Coconut Mounds," a layer cake stuffed with coconut and frosted with chocolate, was his least favorite, if only because it didn't have enough of the gooey icing. (The rest of us enjoyed it.) Banana dream cake -- layers of chocolate chip-studded banana cake with custard filling and chocolate butter cream frosting -- came closer to his ideal sweet, as did the mini black-and-white frosted cookies. He vastly preferred the "Killer Volcano," a wedge of flourless chocolate cake topped with a rich walnut-dotted brownie. His opinion became clear when he picked up the entire thing and commenced nibbling.
A kid after my own heart in a deli seemingly patterned after my past -- which continues, by the way, to follow me to Florida like a migratory turkey vulture. Not only did Don of Don's recently retire here, my friend Carol called not long ago to inform me that our mutual ex has been living in Sunrise (where my husband grew up) all the time I've been in Miami. One Don's might not have been big enough today to hold us, complete with our individual sets of impressions, reminiscences, and insights. Fortunately there are enough Toojay's to go around.
3585 NE 207th Street (in the Waterways Shoppes), Aventura; 936-9555.
Open 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily.
Potato pancakes (appetizer)