There isn't really a word in the culinary lexicon for the restaurant genre exemplified by Goldbergs' Famous Delicatessen. But if the Goldbergs' crew was swapping licks instead of slinging pastrami, music writers wouldn't have any trouble classifying the deli as a tribute act.
GOLDBERGS' FAMOUS DELICATESSEN
3924 Factoria Blvd. S.E., Bellevue, 425-641-6622, goldbergsdeli.com. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
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Tribute bands have probably been running around since troubadours strummed lutes, but the current craze flowered first in Australia, a country perpetually deleted from concert-tour schedules by cash-strapped performers. Since the Pretenders' tour bus wasn't suitable for amphibious travel, Aussies settled for the Pretend Pretenders—along with Pink Fraud and Clouded House.
Around the same time, across the ocean in Seattle, attorney Bill Goldberg was also grappling with frustrations rooted in remoteness. Goldberg had grown up eating in Jewish delis around Detroit, including the famed Stage, vintage 1962. Described by deli scholar David Sax as "the ultimate Jewish rec room," the Stage is the SUV of domestic corned-beef culture—huge, inefficient, and thoroughly suburban. Since Goldberg's taste for pickles and sable hadn't subsided when he moved west, he pestered the Stage's founding family to establish a Pacific Northwest outpost.
"I am a desperate man in search of the same delicious foods from the Stage Deli," he told owner Steve Goldberg (no relation). "Please come to Seattle."
And Steve did. In 2005, Bill and Steve opened Goldbergs' in Bellevue, tailoring every aspect of the operation to the specifications of Bill Goldberg's memories and Steve Goldberg's expertise. With a model-train builder's dedication to precise replication, the partners stocked their new restaurant with lox from New York, chocolate sauce from Detroit, and corned beef from the Bronx. When customers fussed that the deli reminded them of the East Coast only enough to make them miss it, the Goldbergs upped the ante by importing a chef/manager from Second Avenue Deli in the East Village, which is akin to Hell's Belles coaxing Angus Young into joining them for a gig at the Rocksport.
That chef, Khaled Attia, installed a barrel bobbing with half-sours in Goldbergs' brightly lit retail section, added rugelach and black-and-white cookies to the baked-goods list, and obsessively chatted with customers. Attia last month said he felt he was "very, very close" to bringing the restaurant in line with New York standards.
But what's the measure of a tribute restaurant? So many of the qualities which matter at most restaurants—creativity, vision, style, and moxie—are meaningless in a restaurant that's doing its best to imitate something else. Grading a restaurant on its fidelity to a borrowed concept feels bizarrely pedantic, like faulting a guitarist in a Rolling Stones tribute band for not having fingers as nimble as Keith Richards'. Tribute bands aren't trying to outclass or compete with their musical heroes; they're squarely focused on what makes their favorite music fun.
Fun is not on the menu at Goldbergs'. I wish the restaurant would find a way to goof on matzoh balls or lovingly tweak kreplach. Instead, its steady allegiance to the Stage way of doing things—and its location in the Factoria Square Mall—makes the venue feel lifeless and constrained. Walls plastered with random New York memorabilia and cribbed attempts at humor, such as a poster of the "Jewish Zodiac," thicken the already-stale air. It's too bad, because the kitchen isn't unskilled. While the flaccid, seedless rye bread is tragic, many of the housemade deli classics are so close to the best versions of the same that nostalgic eaters can fill in the flavor blanks. The critical items which arrive via delivery truck are smartly sourced: The bagels are baked by Blazing Bagels, and Nation's Best cures the corned beef.
Some of the blame for the enervated ambience may belong to Goldbergs' guests. As Attia discovered when he went cruising for a pointless argument about, say, the relative virtues of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray and black cherry sodas, the restaurant's clientele isn't entirely fluent in deli. Here I'm thinking of the guy at the table next to mine who brought a takeout container of teriyaki to a family meal, since he apparently wouldn't have liked any of the more than 200 items on the menu. There is plenty of room in a deli for eaters who weren't weaned on borscht, but deli is a highly participatory, interactive cuisine. A tribute band can only succeed if its audience knows all the lyrics too.
That doesn't mean Goldbergs' isn't making any mistakes. I would never again order the bland, limp patty that anchors every burger preparation, or a scruffy sliced brisket that would have benefited from oodles of ketchup and two slices of bread.
Furthermore, service is a mess. While I don't know whether every table on a moderately busy night eventually received their orders, I can vouch that every table within earshot was the recipient of an apology precipitated by misdirected soups, forgotten side dishes, and food-temperature complaints. "Gosh darn it," a stooped server told a nearby table after being informed of yet another oversight. On another night, with far fewer tables occupied, we abandoned dessert plans after our emptied entrée plates had sat unnoticed for more than 20 minutes.
But if you're craving deli, there's much here that will do the trick. A lox platter showcases a satisfyingly fatty slab of Nova, beautifully arranged on a palette of pitted kalamata olives, carrot sticks, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and a halved hard-boiled egg. The breakfast menu, served all day, also includes a salty corned-beef hash, italicized with crispy bits of grill residue. It's served with a slice of toast the size of a woman's size-6 shoe and a clump of hash browns which foreshadow Goldbergs' oil-rich latkes, made from coarsely grated potatoes.
The menu claims the knishes are made daily, although my attempt to order one was rebuffed by a server who told me the kitchen had sold out its supply a few days ago. When I finally got to try the knish, I wasn't sure what made it sell-out material: The dumpling was crisscrossed by too much dough and baked until it was dry as a desert riverbed. Fortunately, it was served with a boat of lumpy, gelatinous brown gravy stirring with ruddy beef flavors.
I liked the gravy every time it showed up, but was especially fond of it when pressed into mounds of kishke, a dish traditionally made by cramming flour, fat, and spices into cow intestines. Most cooks now forgo the casing, instead molding the stuffing mix into a cylindrical shape. Kishke has a pumpkin pie–like texture and the earthy flavors of a rained-on hay bale, neither of which is likely to make it attractive to neophytes, but Goldbergs' does a terrific job with it. The granular chopped liver is an equally good place to start.
Sweet, tomato-drenched cabbage rolls, bloated with ground beef, were excellent. And yet I'm in no rush to return to Goldbergs'. Guardians of the deli tradition have lately assailed the mid-century deli for its emphasis on quantity over quality and unapologetic frump, and dining at the broken model's knockoff is doubly depressing.
Lox platter $16.99
Chopped liver $5.99
Cabbage rolls $13.99