“In 1931, there were 1,550 kosher delicatessens in the five boroughs of New York. Today 150 Jewish delis remain in the whole of North America.”
This disheartening statistic comes from the opening clip of “Deli Man,” a forthcoming documentary by independent filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou that explores the importance of food in the American Jewish culture.
David Sax also shines a light on the great deli decline in his book “Save the Deli,” which traces the history and cultural significance of these eateries. Sax cites the suburban exodus, changes in eating habits, and availability of cheap convenience foods as factors that undermine the economic viability of the traditional neighborhood delicatessen.
However, during the course of his research, Sax discovered newfound hope for the deli. He observed “an appetite for a new type of Jewish delicatessen, one that blended the traditions of the past with the ideals of the present.” He identified “a different generation of Deli Men … who possessed the fearlessness and creativity” that could bring the Jewish delicatessen into the 21st century, while staying faithful to the flavors of the 19th century.
Atlanta has the good fortune to be an incubator for this fresh breed of delicatessen. This new deli generation includes Ben and Jennifer Johnson, owners of West Egg Cafe, who partnered with well-known Bocado chef Todd Ginsberg and West Egg manager Shelley Sweet to open the General Muir at Emory Point.
The team is writing a new chapter in the history of the deli as they pay homage to its origins.
The General Muir takes its name from the refugee ship that transported Jennifer Johnson’s mother and grandparents, Holocaust survivors, to New York in 1949.
In an appealingly bright space with drop globe lighting, white subway-tiled walls and a black-and-white checkered floor, this next-gen delicatessen serves traditional deli-inspired fare at breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch. Using the Southern farm-to-table approach, it elevates humble deli comfort foods with Ginsberg’s careful attention to detail and experienced hand.
Ginsberg’s childhood was steeped in deli culture. He now leads his crew, including a sous chef who worked at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., in making these same deli specialties with chef-like touches. The thick-sliced rosy pink corned beef spills out of the reuben ($13) on toasty rye with just the right amount of drippage from the tangy Russian dressing, housemade sauerkraut and melted Gruyere.
Ginsberg branches out here with a vegetarian take on the reuben ($7.50). Beets, tender but with a meaty chew, replace the pickled beef and add a hint of musky sweetness.
For traditionalists, the General Muir offers several incarnations of the pastrami sandwich ($13) on steamy-soft rye, but I’ll take my pastrami on the poutine ($11). This dish of rich fries with a deluge of heart-warmingly rich gravy and melty cheese curds has become popular on Atlanta menus of late. Ginsberg distinguishes his with chunky cubes of salty pastrami. Order the refreshing, effervescent celery-flavored Dr. Brown soda Cel-Ray to accompany the reuben and poutine.
The deli’s comfort foods continue with Ginsberg’s version of items like the matzoh ball soup ($6), a deeply golden broth studded with a fine brunoise of carrot and celery and one fat matzoh ball, creamy in the way of a Southern cornbread dressing. And then there’s the schmaltz-laden chopped liver ($7), smooth with just enough texture to spread on fluffy onion-and-poppy-seed-studded pletzel bread.
The General Muir is both delicatessen and appetizing, seamlessly blending the offerings of each. In addition to deli favorites, you’ll find lovely platters of house-cured lox, sable, nova and baked salmon salad ($18-$21).
My morning story at the General Muir includes the Avenue A ($11), an open-faced, kettle-boiled bagel with just the right amount of chew and slathered in cream cheese. Piled on top are slick slices of nova with tiny bits of red onion, avocado, grapefruit and avocado. Pair that with a mug of the chocolately specialty blend of Batdorf & Bronson coffee ($2.50) and I’m golden.
The narrative changes as the day grows long. At dinner the restaurant morphs into more of a brasserie, complete with a full bar and cocktails like the Tony Montana ($10), a rum-and-Mexican Coke slushie of sorts.
Dinner affords Ginsberg the opportunity to flex his creative muscle, which he’s had to temper while he gains the trust of his clientele. Early dishes like prune-stuffed gnocchi with oxtail ragu and veal tongue no longer appear on the menu.
Instead, you’ll find items like a skirt steak ($21) with an herby board sauce, and a new take on the Ginsberg burger with crispy pastrami, Gruyere and caramelized onions ($14). This menu changes often and I hope that the community soon will support this fine chef’s attempts to inject his culinary craftiness into the dinner offerings.
The General Muir now offers fried chicken night on Fridays and soon may offer brisket night on Wednesdays. I didn’t make it for the fried chicken, but the well-marbled tender brisket I sampled will have me back on a Wednesday one day soon.
I’ll also stop in for one of pastry chef Lauren Raymond’s desserts. She’s brought the ice cream sandwiches she made famous at Miller Union, but I prefer her dense crustless New York cheesecake ($6) or the ice box cakes, like the one with lemon and pistachio cream layered between buttery layers of house-made graham crackers ($3.25). I’m also drawn to ogle the bakery case, with jars of chocolatey oatmeal cookies ($2.25), fudgy macaroons ($2.50) and crackled almond rochers ($1).
David Sax has hope for the deli with the new generation of Deli Men. The General Muir is the future of the deli, telling the stories of both the past and the present.