Stopsky's Sham on Rye

A hotly anticipated Mercer Island deli struggles to grasp a challenging cuisine.

Deli is the heavyweight title belt of cookery. Sometimes likened to Jewish barbecue, it requires an almost mystical command of spicing, curing, smoking, pickling, and timing. "When people come to me and say they want to get into the deli business, I always hesitate until I hear their background," corned-beef king Sy Ginsberg told David Sax, author of Save the Deli. "If they don't have a deli background, I shudder. The deli is the most difficult type of any food-service establishment to run." Ginsberg's summation likely wouldn't surprise anyone at Stopsky's, the Mercer Island restaurant whose opening was hailed as a blessed event by Seattle's perpetually dissatisfied deli fans. But after nearly two months in business, the restaurant is a vortex of discombobulation and disappointment. The persistent bewilderment that plagues Stopsky's was personified by a server on my third visit, who insisted a sandwich I'd autopsied was most definitely a Reuben. I tend to take a server at his word, but having already witnessed various servers deliver a turkey-pastrami sandwich to a table awaiting corned beef; an untoasted bagel to a customer who'd specified he'd wanted it toasted; a slice of bread dripping with butter to a guest who'd asked for dry toast; and nothing at all to a couple who'd ordered a supplementary side of matzoh brei, I again requested Reuben confirmation. Poking my fork through the pile of rosy-red corned beef, chopped fine as confetti and splattered with whole-grain mustard, I asked whether the deli doesn't typically include cheese, sauerkraut, or Russian dressing on its Reuben. After two or three avowals, the server finally recanted and filed an order for a replacement Robin's Reuben. The sandwich is named for opening chef Robin Leventhal, late of Top Chef and Capitol Hill's now-defunct Crave, who abruptly left Stopsky's after a few fractured weeks during which the restaurant had to shoo away customers because (a) eager first-day patrons ate all the food and (b) an espresso machine sparked a mildly destructive fire. Correctly made, her namesake sandwich was far better than the gimpy pseudo-Reuben that had preceded it. This time, thinly sliced corned beef, threaded with flavorful fat, was bedded down with the appropriate accoutrements between two freshly grilled slices of rye. Still, while I don't expect a deli staffer to be conversant in navel-brisket economics or pickling philosophies, a server plying the pastrami-and-rye trade who can't pick a Reuben out of a sandwich lineup is as useless as a master distiller who's sworn off alcohol. Sadly, our disoriented server isn't the only Stopsky's staffer with a tenuous grasp on deli basics, as the restaurant continues to struggle with many of its breads, meats, and soups. The kitchen recently decided to outsource the problem to Stopsky's customers: The restaurant is sponsoring a matzoh-ball contest later this month, and all future matzoh balls will be made according to the winner's recipe. The community-outreach solution is consistent with Stopsky's yearning to position itself as a renegade deli, where the cuisine is distinguished by local ingredients and artisanal techniques instead of massive sandwiches and wisecracking waitresses. A new crop of visionary delis, including Kenny & Zuke's in Portland, are busily advancing the theory that deli will fester if restaurant owners persist in serving cheap, fatty, industrial food that's long on nostalgia and short on innovation. The revolutionaries—who take their mission so seriously that they meet yearly for a deli summit—are making their case with organic egg salad-and-arugula sandwiches, pea-leaf kreplach, and griddled rye toast smeared with schmaltz and garnished with breakfast radishes. Stopsky's clearly wants to join this evolved deli club. "We want to adhere to making everything fresh and in-house, updating tradition where we can," says Stopsky's owner Jeff Sanderson. That's an awfully ambitious goal for a kitchen that hasn't yet mastered borscht. Much like the community-theater troupe that decides to mount an extraterrestrial version of Hamlet, Stopsky's might be better off sticking to the canon. As the cuisine's self-appointed saviors keep stressing, deli is extraordinarily conservative. What amounts to rabble-rousing at Stopsky's is the absence of chocolate phosphates, black-and-white cookies, chopped liver, and smoked sable. The menu lists chicken chorizo sausage and an Israeli-inspired golden beet salad, but otherwise hews closely to tradition. "We located on Mercer Island because, frankly, there was a large Jewish community looking for what we're doing," Sanderson says. He found a quintessentially Jewish location: The restaurant is bundled between a bookstore and a Chinese restaurant. The focal point of the light-filled storefront—divided by a wooden partition into a dining area and a counter handling to-go orders—is a wall hung end-to-end with black-and-white photographs of American Jews in various stages of assimilation. Sanderson first limited the gallery to pictures of his extended family, including his wedding portrait, but has since invited local Jewish families to contribute images of their simchas. Hence, the wall is crowded with bar mitzvah boys and families gathered around wedding-banquet tables. If some of the sour-faced women in the photo gallery have eaten at Stopsky's, I imagine Sanderson has heard his share of complaints about the powerful air-conditioning, the too-low wooden bench which lines the back wall, the perpetual line for the bathroom, and the crowds that cluster around the deli case. The situation was reportedly worse before recently promoted executive chef Shane Robinson, who Sanderson says originally served as the restaurant's "smoked-meat guy," ordered additional equipment to facilitate quicker takeout service. Sanderson credits Robinson with helping make the restaurant "run smoothly." Robinson, a graduate of the Seattle Culinary Academy, previously ran a Belgian-fry stand at Fremont Market. Unlike Leventhal—a native Californian who grew up eating at Nate 'n Al and presumably encountered Sy Ginsberg's cured meats while studying art at the University of Michigan—Robinson spent much of his childhood on military bases in England and Germany. "I think Robin is sort of a birther of places," Sanderson says. "Running a restaurant requires a different set of skills." Leventhal recently told SW's Voracious blog that legal concerns prevent her from sharing her version of events. "Helping to jump-start that business was a beautiful process, and I want to only leave beauty behind from that experience," was all she would offer. Sanderson admits that inculcating staff members in deli culture has been a "process," and servers still have a strange tendency to exoticize the food they serve. "Well, you're feeling adventurous today!" a server twice told me when I ordered chicken-liver mousse. He was equally astonished when I asked for noodle kugel. "Kugel?" he parried. "Have you ever had kugel?" Perhaps the server was cuing me to retract my order. The sweet kugel, studded with pistachios and golden raisins for a Sephardic flair, was reminiscent of eating a packaged fruitcake without first removing it from the cardboard box. I didn't have much better luck with the airy liver mousse, mounded in a pair of tough buttercup-yellow pickled-egg halves. Before Stopsky's opened, Leventhal described the dish to a blogger as "paté piped in pretty swirls," but my mousse was sloppily scooped into the eggs. There's a fair amount of prettiness at Stopsky's, where the best dishes would be appropriate for a bridal shower. A mild whitefish salad scattered with tarragon was pleasant, and while sagging blintzes lacked the distinctive pressed curd and golden finish that usually lend texture to the soft crepes, a dainty stuffing of lemon-perfumed ricotta had an appealingly subtle sweetness. The blintzes are served with a tart applesauce, which reappears on a few other decent dishes. A firm, onion-rich latke is free of the grease that's often a hallmark of homemade Hanukkah treats, and the matzoh brei—which could use a shot of syrup—has a fine eggy flavor. But if dishes that don't call for aggressive seasoning come across as classy, their characteristically bolder counterparts just seem bland. The murky broth that surrounds the pasty, pudding-like matzoh balls tastes only of onion, and the lox—which should be a standout at a deli hoping to forge a Northwest identity—has an odd cellophane sheen and a waxy flavor to match. What's more, Stopsky's pickles are limp and plain, without any of the expected oomph. Pastrami is the dish by which many deli lovers judge a deli. The best pastramis are briny and peppery, ringed with a melting crust of fat and scented with smoke and spice. Stopsky's pastrami is leathery, and its only discernible flavor is that of defeat. The meat recalls Sy Ginsberg's spiel—deli is rough on rookies. And so far, Stopsky's is taking a beating. Price Guide Robin's Reuben $8.75 Smoked whitefish salad $10.75 Matzoh ball soup $7 Matzoh brei $7.25 Blintzes $7.50 Pastrami sandwich $7.95

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