It’s hard not to compare a West Coast Jewish deli to New York City versions. It isn’t fair, of course. There are so many in that city and so preciously few here.
But that’s what I found myself doing when I walked into the new Kitzel’s Crazy Delicious Delicatessen in downtown Olympia.
I didn’t find Harry meeting Sally, but what I did find was an establishment with equally good food in twice the space and with half the attitude of a New York deli.
Make that no attitude – unless you count a chipper, helpful and patient staff willing to hand out tastes and explain the food to wary customers. For a food niche that has its closest competitors in King County and Portland, Kitzel’s could probably just phone it in and still get customers.
Instead, there’s a focused devotion to quality.
Kitzel’s opened in December, the brainchild of co-owners Hava Aviv and Irina Gendelman. Aviv is of Hungarian Jewish descent and Gendelman is a Russian immigrant Jew.
“We might not always agree on politics, but we always agree on Jewish culture,” Aviv said during a phone interview.
The pair had long talked about opening an authentic Jewish deli but they were prompted to finally take action by Aviv’s job loss and the Olympia Food Co-op’s ban on Israeli products in 2010. They were worried about anti-Israeli sentiment in the community and the lack of interaction between Jewish and non-Jewish populations. “Up until then, there wasn’t a Jewish spot to hang out,” she said.
The pair prepared food for sampling parties mainly using Gendelman’s mother’s recipes. But Gendelman was skeptical. “She didn’t think Olympia had the palate for it,” Aviv said.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “The herring plate was the first thing we sold out of.”
If your only foray into Jewish foods is the occasional bagel and lox, don’t fear a trip to Kitzel’s. The fare here is user friendly and, like the name says, delicious. The open space has high ceilings, private and communal tables and a coffee house vibe. Menorahs line the walls near Bar Mitzvah photo albums.
Market research showed less than one percent of their potential clientele was interested in kosher food, Aviv said. The pair decided to forgo the complicated and costly processes involved in kosher food preparation.
Though Aviv and Gendelman strive for authenticity (“When you say ‘authentic,’ every Jew in the house is going to argue with you about it”) they use a contemporary style on sandwiches.
They were out of corned beef sandwiches on my two anonymous visits (Aviv says they are working on better anticipating demand), but I was able to try the pastrami sandwich ($9.50), which comes with a side of potato salad or coleslaw. Though they now buy the meat from a vendor, Aviv said they eventually will brine and smoke their own brisket. The meat, not quite as tender or juicy as you can find in NYC, came on Jewish rye made by Mark Feigen of Bagel Brothers. A smear of spicy mustard was the only accompaniment.
Don’t come to Kitzel’s looking for blueberry, jalapeño or pizza bagels. Using a recipe from Nancy Koppleman, a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, they only make one kind of bagel here (beginning with a sourdough starter) and season them (plain, poppy, sesame, salt) later.
The process of feeding the starter, forming, boiling and baking the bagels takes three days. And unlike Americanized bagels with their almost non-existent holes, Kitzel’s are so big you could fly a plane through them. Despite irregularities, Aviv says, each is weighed at four ounces.
Just don’t ask to have it toasted. “Bagels are supposed to be chewy. As soon as you toast it, it’s like baking it again,” Aviv said. But the deli will grill them upon request.
The bagels I sampled came with whipped cream cheese. They were indeed chewy with a substantial mouth feel. The shiny exteriors confirmed their boiling and were miles from soft grocery store rolls that masquerade as bagels.
Bagels at Kitzel’s are $1.25 each, $3.50 with plain cream cheese and $4 with flavored cream cheese (smoked mackerel, garlic-chive).
I was able to try Kitzel’s corned beef in their knish, a fist-size ball of pastry dough filled with meat ($5). Aviv said the process of making the corned beef involves brining for 10 days and slow boiling for three days. Cuts not used for sandwiches are ground with sauteed onions and paprika to make the filling.
I’m a sucker for knish (and any other meat-filled pastry) and this has to be the best I’ve had. Meat that looked dry burst with broth and flavor in my mouth. The strong but thin pastry shell gave it a high meat to dough ratio. My only quibble: a bit too much salt.
A perfectly seasoned potato-filled version also is offered ($4). Aviv said it’s basically mashed potatoes minus the butter and cream. You won’t miss either, or the meat, if you try one. I could become a vegetarian based on these alone. Coming soon, Aviv said, is a kasha (grains) and mushroom version.
Kitzel’s also offers latkes – thin potato, egg and matzo meal pancakes. Mine were over done but flavorful. The two latkes came with a pool of apple sauce and a pillow of sour cream.
A lox plate ($10) comes with a bagel, cream cheese, locally caught cold smoked and cured salmon, tomato, onion, capers and a pickle. Lox, cream cheese and bagel only are $8. The lox straddled that balance between soft and hard, salty and plain. Aviv said the plate is the perfect combination of her and Gendelman’s styles. “I’m the baker and she’s the fish person. We’re both very hard-headed, stubborn Jews, but when we do agree, that’s what it tastes like.”
The deli also offers herring. The salty and oily fish is not for beginners, but it’s bright and fresh and everything the fish should be. More fish offerings are in the works.
Kitzel’s has an extensive salad menu. The salads are $3.50 each with a challah roll – or $5 for two, $7.50 for three. I found them ranging from good to excellent. The potato salad had vinegary undertones without the typical mayonnaise base. There’s a reason for that: Aviv can’t abide mayo. “I might buy a toaster but I will not buy mayonnaise.”
A beet salad was fresh but the least flavorful of what I tried. Also teeming with freshness was an egg salad. One of the most simple salads was my favorite: a cucumber made with house-pickled red onions, salt, oil and lemon juice.
The most unusual salad selection, ikra, was another winner. Aviv said the name translates as “vegetable caviar.” To be clear, this has nothing to do with fish. Its medley of flavors comes from roasted eggplant and zucchini, carrots, tomato, garlic and oil, all mashed together.
If you are a tomato lover, don’t leave Kitzel’s without trying the pickled tomatoes. Though they only go through a marinade before pickling, the tomatoes burst with complex flavors that taste fresh, dried and preserved all at once. Tomatoes are sold by the 92-ounce jar ($10) or on a pickle plate ($3.50).
A bowl of borscht came lukewarm ($6) with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of rye bread. The vegan soup wasn’t overly beety and had interesting herbal flavors. The recipe includes tomatoes, carrots and cabbage.
Kitzel’s challah bread ($7), made only on Fridays, is from a recipe that is thousands of years old, Aviv said.
A generous portion of challah bread pudding ($5/$3) was infused with raisins and cinnamon and topped with farmer’s cheese. I appreciated its toned down sugar but missed the typical sauce that accompanies bread pudding.
Aviv said the deli is still expanding its menu. Coming soon: More than a dozen sandwiches (tongue, salami, cheese, chicken salad, tuna salad and a Reuben renamed the Tibor). They also plan to add matzo ball soup; kreplach (a meat-filled dumpling in soup); a bagel, egg and cheese sandwich; and chopped liver and onions.
Brunch is served from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. weekends with a menu that ranges from blintzes to omelets to corned beef hash. Challah French toast is offered every Saturday.
Baked items include rugelach, a crescent-shaped cookie ($1) and chewy, to-die-for macaroons ($1). Desserts that are coming soon include babka, a chocolate swirl cake.
The deli also offers a selection of Russian soda pop in unusual flavors, including a tarragon version ($2).
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kitzel’s Crazy Delicious Delicatessen
Where: 514 S. Capitol Way, Olympia
Contact: 360-357-7747, Facebook
Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily