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Those with an appetite for viciousness should ignore the latest episode of "Dance Moms" and spend a few hair-curling moments trolling the online commenters' spare-no-expletives takedowns on Rye, the new deli that materialized late last fall on Lowry Hill in Minneapolis.
Or don't. After making the mistake of doing just that -- and then taking a shower -- my first thought was, never open a delicatessen. Not that my slacker self would ever dip so much as a big toe into the demanding restaurant business. But there's something about the deli genre that really bundles the undies of a vocal segment of Twin Cities diners. You know, scratch a deli fanatic, find the One True Way to Prepare Corned Beef, and heaven help the operator who doesn't adhere to the party line. Thanks, but no thanks.
As for Rye, I like it. So sue me. And this diner is grateful that owner and first-time restaurateur David Weinstein has entered the landmine-strewn deli territory. Weinstein hired longtime chef and consultant Tobie Nidetz -- he's opened more than 40 restaurants, an astonishing track record -- to get the kitchen on its feet. One of the many characteristics I appreciate about Nidetz's work at Rye is his sense of editing; he's not trying to cover all the bases, but instead focuses on an abbreviated Deli Greatest Hits.
And he often nails it. The menu's nucleus is a quartet of carved meats, and the star of the show is a close proximity to pastrami that Montreal delis simply refer to as "smoked meat." It starts with a near-the-brisket cut that's brined for four days, dry-rubbed for three, then smoked three hours before being steamed for three. The pink-rose color is gorgeous, it's got just the right amount of fat and it's so tender that it fairly collapses in your mouth. "We take it as far as we can without shredding," said Nidetz, and that's a pretty accurate description.
It lands in a straight-up, stacked-high sandwich, swiped with a feisty house-made mustard, or laced with punchy sauerkraut in an open-faced Reuben that is, justifiably, the menu's No. 1 seller. It's the same formula for the other meats, especially the whole-roasted turkeys, where thick slices of juicy, flavorful dark and white meat become the centerpiece of a satisfying hot sandwich with creamy mashed potatoes and a potent, handled-with-care gravy. Count me a fan of the brined-for-a-week corned beef, although I seldom found its uncured cousin, the brisket, to rise above the so-so level.
Plenty to enjoy
Along with reasonable portions at equally reasonable prices, Rye really gets a lot of details right. The chicken soup is obviously carefully nurtured, with an intensely chicken-ey broth (the secret: free-range, Amish-raised birds) and all the right accoutrements, including wonderfully tender, baking powder-powered matzo balls, flecked with parsley. Lemon and sugar add just the right sweet-sour notes to the short ribs-packed borscht. Turns out it's an old Nidetz family recipe, as is the formula for the fine chopped liver, a smooth chicken-beef combination that has an enviable Jewish-grandmother quality.
The Reuben burger -- an exercise in excess -- is a blend of brisket and chuck that's topped with slabs of smoked meat, tangy sauerkraut and a generous splash of Russian dressing. That's all stacked inside a buttered and toasted onion bialy, and the result is a heart attack waiting to happen. Nidetz's sense of humor is evident in another Reuben variation, fashioned with plus-sized potato pancakes (which get crispy, thanks to a quick finishing spin in the deep fryer), a cholesterol fest that could have come from Paula Deen, were she a card-carrying Hadassah member.
On the lighter side, tabbouleh pops with fresh mint and parsley, and the light, irresistible coleslaw has a cool cider-vinegar bite. The hand-cut fries are tops in their class. For all the baking that's going on, the bagels aren't quite there yet -- although the bialys are terrific. Ditto the blintzes, especially the a.m. versions, lavished with a not-too-sweet strawberry jam.
For the sweet tooth
The modest, tradition-focused dessert selection is headlined by an agreeably cakey and not-too-sweet black-and-white cookie and an unadulterated cheesecake. The long, tender eclairs, generously filled with a gooey, vanilla-infused custard and topped with a thick coating of dark chocolate, are marvelous. Skip the dull, dry chocolate babka.
Nidetz and chef Ted Jude have a knack for selecting the few items that aren't produced in-house. The ultra-smoky whitefish from Superior, Wis., is fantastic; too bad it's served on a sad-looking plate of greens. I could devour the silky Canadian-sourced lox on a daily basis. Mainstreet Bakery in Edina is responsible for the chewy-crusted caraway rye, which doesn't get mushy under the strain of the meats' juices. The divine challah hails from Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis.
At dinner, a first-rate chicken pot pie stands out over conventional roast chicken and brisket dinners. It's a shame to see that the more esoteric -- well, for Minnesota, anyway -- dishes, including kishke and tzimmes, have disappeared.
The restaurant's quick-casual format suits the former Auriga space. The building's overhaul, designed by Shea Inc. of Minneapolis, has sensibly reorganized the awkward space, placing the counter front and center and chiseling out several distinct seating areas, most notably a cozy bar. It's comfortable and accessible, the walls peppered with art for sale (my favorites are the dog portraits by painter Kat Corrigan) and heavy library oak chairs. One winter note: Prepare for drafts.
Breakfast is particularly pleasant. Sunlight pours in through large east-facing windows, and the kitchen cranks out several memorable dishes, including what might be the Twin Cities' most awesome French toast, a custard-soaked challah embellished with Minnesota-made butter and maple syrup. After swearing to limit myself to a single slice, I very nearly polished off the whole plate, which speaks more to food quality vs. any pathetic sense of self-discipline.
Speaking of unnecessary carbs, I can't imagine not indulging in the cinnamon-enriched, caramel sauce-topped golden spiral that is the bakleke, or the aforementioned poppyseed- and onion-crusted bialys, smeared with an unhealthy amount of tangy cream cheese. Naturally, there's corned beef hash, but the smoked meat version is even better. If only the smoked meat Benedict, a don't-miss weekend brunch item, were available daily, because its intrinsic appeal might stop the haters. Remember, people, it's a deli, not the presidential election. Relax, and enjoy.