It seemed not inappropriate to me that the recent opening of Jerry's Famous Deli, in the sleek South Beach space long occupied by the nightclub Warsaw, was accompanied by the kind of media brouhaha normally reserved for the premiere of exclusive restaurant/lounges co-owned by celebrities. The prospect of great hot pastrami, 24/7, is at least as exciting as Cameron Diaz.
And the pastrami is indeed great, as I discovered on my first visit. So great, in fact, that I cannot tell you how good the corned beef is, because when I returned for a second visit with full intent to order some new and different sort of sandwich, "pastrami" somehow just came involuntarily from my mouth again. The pastrami was somewhat different the second time, just as well spiced as before (unlike many overspiced pastramis, Jerry's relatively mild spicing allows the meat's natural succulence through) but less fatty. That would have pleased my first visit's fat-phobic dining companion, but it isn't my preference; fat carries flavor, so I like a good amount of it on pastrami, as well as corned beef, prosciutto, and similar cold cuts that American delis generally trim to faux health-food levels.
Anyway, I'm certain that had I asked instead of taking potluck, I could have gotten any pastrami preference from Jerry's servers, who, contrary to rumors I'd heard, were all most accommodating on all three visits I made. (In fact on the first visit, our server was so anxious to please that after he'd shown up three times during the course of one anecdote my companion had been trying to relate, she finally said, "You -- again?" "Just checking," he blushed.)
Jerry's Famous Deli
1450 Collins Ave, Miami Beach
305-532-8030. Open daily, 24 hours.
To deal with another rumor, the unavailability of some of Jerry's advertised 700 menu items: I didn't run into it. But frankly, the count is also misleading because many main ingredients merely reappear a half-dozen to a dozen times on the menu, rearranged and garnished -- like pastrami served on a sandwich or on a sliced meat plate with the bread on the side. Or on the huge Number 10 triple decker I had on the first visit, featuring pastrami, good roast turkey, not-so-good Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and not enough Russian dressing (really, ask for extra on the side unless you favor dry sandwiches). The construction was expensive, almost $13, but unlike the regular three-to-four inch pastrami sandwich, this was a good six to seven inches high -- two or three normal sandwiches' worth of food.
All three soups I tried were terrific, with special kudos to the chicken soup, an intensely chicken broth that comes five different ways: with noodles, rice, kasha, kreplach, or, our choice, light yet full-flavored matzo balls ... and noodles, too. But also very good was delicately tart translucent cold beet borscht, served with sour cream, and hearty hot cabbage soup. We had the latter with short-rib flanken, an inspired combination; the meat's gelatinous richness was perfectly cut by the soup's tomatoey sweet/sour tang and the cabbage's crunch. This formidable item was only available by the overstuffed bowl (it looked like at least a half-rack of ribs projecting from the container), but most bowls of soup are priced at just a dollar more than cups -- and are a full meal.
Generously fried-onion-garnished kreplach were also overstuffed, with beautifully spiced meat filling, but the pastry casing was too thick. Blintzes, described as home-style, also suffered from overthick, rather leaden wrappings. The ricotta cheese filling was good, though, not the oversweet stuffing that so often turns blintzes from entrée to dessert.
Herring in cream sauce was nicely firm, a surprise since herring that is precut, like Jerry's (rather than custom-cut on the spot from the whole fillet when ordered), is most often mushy from overexposure to pickling marinade. The herring could've used more cream sauce, though, and lots more than the few sparse slivers of pickled onion.
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Nova lox was a mixed success, as the mixed name suggests. The terms nova and lox represent two different treatments of salmon; both are smoked, but lox is additionally brined (a preserving process left over from the days before refrigeration), which makes it salty. Jerry's nova lox was far too salty to please any normal nova fans. Additionally it lacked almost any of the plentiful fat striations visible in the most seductive smoked salmon. The stuff's firm texture, though, did mean it held up well in the old deli breakfast standard -- lox, eggs, and onions. With just a bagel (a mediocre one, its soft crust typical of breads wrapped in cellophane) and some rather wimpily whipped cream cheese, the salmon was unpleasantly strong-tasting.
Potato pancakes were served with both sour cream and applesauce -- a relief. It's so embarrassing when waitrons ask, as they usually do, which you want and you have to say, "Is this a Jewish deli or a health-food restaurant? Bring both, naturally." That said, the pancakes should have been thinner and were lacking the rough-cut crispness of homemade latkes. At over $6 for two potato cakes, the price was exorbitant.
Jerry's also serves a number of items that aren't typical Jewish deli fare, some of which work surprisingly well -- like a garlic pizza topped with major pieces of fresh garlic and a tomato sauce much more characterful than in many pizzerias. But a tomato, basil, and mozzarella focaccia sandwich was mediocre, due to unripe tomato slices and pathetic cheese with none of quality mozzarella's characteristic string-cheese texture or milky freshness. And a cobb salad, something one would expect an L.A.-born eatery to get right (Hollywood restaurateur Bob Cobb from the legendary Brown Derby, in the grip of midnight munchies, invented the dish back in 1937), was especially disappointing: The greens were boring iceberg rather than mixed, and mediocre cheddar and Swiss cheeses were substituted for an authentic cobb salad's Roquefort.
The cheesecake didn't have the right cream cheese-smooth richness, but wasn't bad either. For a better meal-ending sweet, though, I'd recommend Jerry's chocolate egg cream, freshly and properly made with the requisite one-fourth-inch layer of whipped egg whitelike (actually egg-free, of course) foam on top. Though not all Jerry's fare wins in the authentic-deli-taste sweepstakes (personally I'd rate the same owners' Rascal House higher), location, hours, and décor are all done right, as is much of the food, and there's no better egg cream in town.