97 Hoyt Street, Brooklyn NY 11217 (b/n Atlantic and Pacific; map); 718-852-7510; mileendbrooklyn.com
Service: Solicitous and well-paced
Setting: Storefront with an open kitchen, counter, and three picnic-style tables (expect to wait)
Must-Haves: Matzo ball soup, meat-less poutine, cholent, trout
Cost: $5-8 starters, $14-18 mains
Grade:A-/B+ for the dinner menu as a whole; B- for the smoked meat
The crew at Serious Eats has loved the idea of Mile End, a self-styled Montreal deli in New York, since it opened just about one year ago. We all love the Montreal-style smoked meat we've eaten at Schwartz's, and of course our love of pastrami and smoked meat knows no bounds. We never doubted owner Noah Bermanoff's good intentions and his obvious love for his native Montreal's delis.
It's just that every time we have tried Mile End's smoked meat, it hasn't been quite right. Bermanoff gave us a taste before he opened; we went back for take-out sandwiches a couple of months in; we purchased quite a bit for a taste-off with smuggled meat from Schwartz's this June. So no one can say we haven't given it a chance. But if you've never noticed it written up on Serious Eats, it's because we've never had smoked meat that wowed us.
Yet hope springs eternal, so when we heard that Bermanoff had brought in chef Aaron Israel (armed with an impressive Torrisi and A Voce pedigree) to jointly develop a dinner menu—one that went way beyond smoked meat—we were excited. We finally had an excuse to come back to New York's only Montreal-style deli, and give the food, not just the idea, another chance.
And guess what? Mile End won us over. Bermanoff and Israel's dinner menu is filled with Eastern European soul food staples that, in Israel's words, have been updated, modernized, and transformed—with a lot of love, reverence, good ingredients, and more than a little technique. The smoked meat is still problematic, but we don't want to dwell on that. (We'll get to why in a moment.)
Any good deli has to serve an array of pickled vegetables, and the Pickle Plate ($6) is a solid entry. Spicy pickled peppers, half and full sour cucumbers, vinegary button mushrooms, and crunchy fennel (the best of the various pickles) are all solid, but the Coleslaw ($3), strongly flavored with caraway seed, is even better. Crunchy and tangy, it's really much more similar to sauerkraut than any coleslaw we've ever tried.
Despite claims of reinterpreted and lightened traditional Jewish fare, it's hard to see any updates in classic soups like the Matzo Ball Soup ($6.50) and Hot Borscht ($6), though they hardly need improving—both are really good. The former comes with an intensely chicken-y broth with a single large, schmaltz-laden matzo ball, while the latter is well balanced with a pronounced spiciness provided by cabbage, kale, and plenty of black pepper.
Continuing the trend of well-executed-if-not-too-updated dishes was an excellent plate of Chopped Liver ($7). It's chunky and rustic and comes with a sweet onion relish and crumbled boiled eggs to be slathered onto the soft poppy seed Pletzel (you can order an extra side for $2.50), baked in their off-site commissary.
A simple dish of Shmaltzed Radish ([sic], $5.50) readily demonstrates the powers of chicken fat. It's only got three ingredients—warm, crisp watermelon radish, chicken fat, and crisp chicken crackilngs—but that's often all you need. We preferred them to the candy-sweet Brussels sprouts ($6.50), a dish so honey-laden that it started to resemble charoset, the traditional Passover sweet-and-sour honey, fruit, and nut dish.
Tongue Polonaise ($8) resembles a Sicilian caponata in flavor: sweet, sour, and savory, though the tongue adds some welcome richness to the mix. It's braised just this side of tender, so it retains a slight chew that's not unpleasant.
Poutine ($8) is really the first strong sense of anything Montreal that we get out of the menu; and without the smoked meat, it's fantastic. Crisp, fluffy fries, large chunks of just-starting-to-melt cheese curds, and an appropriately gloppy home-style gravy are seriously comforting. It's when you add the smoked meat (an extra $3) that you start to run into some problems.
It's not that the smoked beef brisket is badly cooked, per se. Indeed, it's supremely tender, perfectly moist, really fatty, and well-seasoned. The problem is with the smoking itself. The meat ends up tasting sooty and sour with an acrid, almost resinous undertone, as if the wood were either burning too hot or too dry. It's bearable in the poutine, but not so much in the Smoked Meat Sandwich ($9 for 7 ounces, $17 for 14 ounces) where it becomes nearly overwhelming.
It's not an isolated case, either—the same problem bothered us with their smoked brisket last year; it's an ongoing issue. The meat has improved texturally since Mile End's opening, but every few months we've tried it, that same acrid undertone has marred our experience. So the question is: how does a deli become famous for the one product it serves that is actually not good? It's tough to understand.
Poor smoking ended up affecting a third dish that night, a special of Duck Prosciutto ($7) with a Cara-cara orange salad and wedges of smoked shallot. The prosciutto was fine (if a little sparing), and the greens were well-dressed, but the smoked shallots overwhelmed every bite with the same acrid aroma—even more so than with the smoked meat.
Ironically, the brand-new main course dishes that weren't responsible for putting Mile End on the map were significantly better than the brisket. Trout ($16) was thankfully not smoked, instead served with a mildly spicy horseradish sour cream and cubes of crunchy pickled beets. Crisp, well-seasoned, and moist, it demonstrated fish cookery at its finest.
Ed claims that his mother's Kasha Varnishkes ($8/14) consisted of overcooked bow-tie pasta and overcooked kasha—Eastern European comfort food at its most mediocre. Mile End's version is enlivened by confit duck gizzards, crispy fried onions (not from a can), and plenty of chicken fat. It was literally and figuratively souped up kasha varnishkes. Our apologies to Ed's Mom: She's not around to defend her kasha varnishkes, but Mile End's is way better.
Cholent ($18) was perhaps the most filling and comforting dish on the menu. Veal has a reputation for lightness and mild flavor—not so with their short ribs. Sticky, tender, and fatty enough that it's tough to finish a full single-rib portion, though toasted breadcrumbs add a nice textural contrast to the equally rich barley and beans. The sweetbread-stuffed kishke could have used more texture and bite.
There are no regular desserts on the menu, but we tried a slice of the Red Velvet Cake ($6) off the specials board. It resembled a Red Velvet cake in appearance only, with a texture more similar to angel food and a coconut frosting. Tasty, just not exactly what we were expecting.
Now, on its first anniversary, we finally have a reason to come back to Mile End. Even though it made its reputation with its less-than-perfect smoked meat, it is Israel's and Bermanoff's dinner menu that, for us, enables Mile End to realize its promise and good intentions.