The Strong Buzz

“Delicatessen, By Guest Reviewer Julie Besonen”

September 12, 2008

Like a magnetic force, Reuben fritters drew me to Delicatessen, a sleek Nolita boîte that opened earlier this summer. When I read about these fried globes of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, my brain repeated a mantra: must have Reuben fritters.But first, we had to wait 15 minutes for a table, not bad since the place was packed. We claimed stools at the ultramodern walnut bar and smiled expectantly at the bartender, a lovely creature wearing a white wifebeater.

She did not return the smile and was so harried with drink orders we were ignored for five minutes even though we sat right across from her. Charmless as she was, she did make an excellent absinthe Sazerac ($14) when she got around to it. My husband, Jim, ordered a simple vodka tonic, which turned out to be made with that awful, flattish tonic from a gun instead of one of the new, wonderful bottled tonics on the market, like Fever-Tree or Q Tonic. There's less of a profit-margin for bars that use it, of course, but the taste and bubbles make a superior drink, and don't make me feel gouged at being charged $12.

Our fellow bar patrons were of the freshly showered, untucked-shirt variety, one of whom leaned over to two girls in short shorts and said, "If I beg you, will you stay here and let me buy you a drink?" They blanched and left.

So did we, but because our table was ready, next to stainless steel garage doors that opened onto Prince Street. Given that Nolita is a bigtime shopping neighborhood, there seem to be more Armani A/X and Sigerson Morrison bags than handbags tucked under tables.

Buffa's Luncheonette used to inhabit this corner, catering to local firefighters and office workers. Although I got a kick out of its old school atmosphere and not-getting-any-younger waitresses, the food was, at best, grade school cafeteria quality. I can't say I wept, or was surprised, when it closed.

Locals seem less fond of Delicatessen than Buffa's. In fact, the day after our dinner the Post ran a disconcerting story about a neighbor who lives above the restaurant and expresses his anger at the noise it generates by urinating on the glass-topped lounge area. We did not witness any precipitation. And I didn't think it was that loud. The speaker system is a good one and the house music was kept at a decibel level that did not hinder conversation.

Skeptical locals should know that the prices aren't bad, not that much higher than Buffa's. In a nod to the past, there is chopped liver ($8), matzo ball chicken soup ($7), and pastrami on rye ($11) -- less than what it costs at Katz's. I suspect the owners, Mark Thomas Amadei and Andrew Glassberg, of Cafeteria in Chelsea, make their profits on drinks. Every customer at every table seemed to have a cocktail at hand. The wine list concentrates on bottles in the $50-$70 range, but I was perfectly satisfied with the cheapest bottle I could find, a plummy, round Norton Malbec for $28.

Our waiter, a friendly fellow with a bull's ring through his nose, brought the wine in a timely fashion but somehow forgot to bring us tap water, or delegate the job, for an hour. I was unsuccessful at catching the eye of other staff members, including a guy with a mohawk who looked like a grown-up Maddox Jolie-Pitt, and a busboy with such cute thick-framed glasses I wanted to ask where he bought them.

No matter, I was really more concerned about the delivery of the Reuben fritters. "There's a lack of alacrity," observed Jim.

Eventually, the Reuben fritters ($9) made their appearance. They were browned and beautiful, piled in a bucket and accompanied by Thousand Island dipping sauce. I bit one in half, ready to savor something utterly delicious. Instead of shreds of corned beef there were threads. No discernible tang of sauerkraut. Melted Swiss cheese, yes. Lots of batter. In short, they were taste-free, I'm sad to say. Really sad to say.

Another kitschy appetizer, cheeseburger spring rolls ($10), fared better. The food runner fumbled and dumped the bucket of them onto our table. They were searing to the touch when I plucked them up and onto our plates. After they'd cooled, I could appreciate the liberal amount of ground beef and cheese inside the crisp packets, brightened by housemade red pepper tomato sauce. Things were looking up.

In addition to the spring rolls, other Asian-style dishes on the menu include a large vegetable salad ($11) and yellowfin tuna with soba noodles ($20). Since the executive chef, Doron Wong, honed his cooking skills in Hong Kong and Singapore, they are here legitimately.

"International comfort food" is Wong's theme. So, apparently, are buckets. The nothing-special bread is in a bucket, the too-heavily battered onion rings ($6) are in a bucket, and so is chicken in a bucket ($14). Our table was littered with buckets.

The chicken in a bucket turned out to be the best dish of the night. Marinated in buttermilk, the legs and thighs were encased in a bronze crust, the meat juicy, the portion generous. I didn't like the strangely spiced cole slaw it came with, but a chunk of jalapeno corn bread was as good as it gets, moist and studded with fiery, flavorful bits of pepper.

The caesar salad ($10) was the runner-up, the romaine fresh and crunchy, topped with white anchovies, capers, shaved parmesan and big croutons. Halibut tacos ($11), laced with guacamole and kimchee sour cream, were innocuous, but not anywhere near as dull as those Reuben fritters.

The Ovaltine pudding parfait ($8), a layering of milk chocolate and malt pudding and delectable chocolate pearls, was plenty for two to share and satisfying, especially with the brittle bite of the pearls.

We ended up spending nearly three hours at Delicatessen, and not because we were trying to stretch out the evening. Don't go when you're trying to make a movie. Think of it as a place to nosh and lounge pre or post-shopping (open for breakfast, lunch, brunch and late into the night), but not as a destination in itself.

Delicatessen is located at 54 Prince Street, at Lafayette Street, (212) 226-0211,

—Julie Besonen 

Andrea Strong