Delicatessen renaissance mavericks on panel in Berkeley

Last year, Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley hosted a discussion on the future of the Jewish deli.

At issue: Could (and should) the world of the gristle-laden, overstuffed corned beef sandwich be brought into a modern milieu marked by rambunctious foodies and sustainability concerns?

Saul’s seems to be answering that question in the affirmative with a May 19 event it is hosting called “Deli Summit: The Renaissance.” It will be held at the JCC of the East Bay — a knish’s throw from Saul’s and Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

The panel will be composed of young superstars from the emerging new Jewish deli movement, which seeks to match old-world deli tastes with new food-world twists. For example, sandwiches are hand-carved from high-end brisket that has been cured and smoked in-house; and that meat is placed on homemade or locally baked bread; and served with organic and locally sourced produce; and perhaps topped with artisan ingredients such as thinly sliced black radishes, onion-herb salad or sea salt.

Peter Levitt, one of Saul’s co-owners, pointed out that while “nobody could open up the doors tomorrow on a new Katz’s [of New York] or another iconic, old-school type of deli with tons of space and many tables … with this new generation, the future of deli is in fine hands.”

Levitt will be one of the panelists May 19, along with Noah Bernamoff of the highly touted Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, Ore., and Evan Bloom of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, a new San Francisco pop-up restaurant.

Many of these new-generation delis were featured in the 2010 New York Times piece “Can the Jewish Deli be Reformed?” — which noted that “new delis, with small menus, passionate owners and excellent pickles and pastrami, are rising up and rewriting the menu of the traditional Jewish deli.”

With Jewish cookbook doyenne Joan Nathan serving as moderator, the summit will explore this “reformation.” Is it an actual movement? Are these “new delis” really better than the old ones?

“Talking deli is kind of like a political conversation: Everybody wants to talk about it, everyone has an opinion,” said Levitt, who owns Saul’s with Karen Adelman. “These young guys are the mavericks, the liberals. They are fresh on the scene and they have new ideas and new interpretations.”

These “mavericks” often talk among themselves, trading tips and pointers, and they often guide others around the country who are interested in launching similar ventures. For example, Bloom and his business partner, Leo Beckerman, made educational pilgrimages to Mile End and Kenny & Zuke’s before launching their own one-day-a-week Mission District venture earlier this year.

The Deli Summit will bring some of those conversations to the public. Topics will include whether old-school Jewish delis are the measuring stick by which to judge new Jewish delis, what it takes to blaze this new path, and what this new path looks (and tastes) like.

Last year’s panel, “A Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu,” was such a hot ticket it was moved from the restaurant to the JCC around the corner. A capacity crowd of 250 showed up, and the discussion was streamed live on the big screen at Saul’s for additional viewers.

A similar setup will be employed this year, Levitt said, and if this year’s event is as successful as last year’s, look for Saul’s to start doing such panels on an annual basis.

“Deli Summit: The Renaissance,” 7 p.m. May 19 at JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Noshes from Wise Sons available for purchase. Information: www.saulsdeli.com or (510) 848-3354.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.