"There are some things, Craig, that you will never understand."
My good friend Eric had a point. I really did not comprehend how the old Famous 4th Street Delicatessen could retain such a devoted clientele when it served mediocre food on Styrofoam plates in a historic but crusty room that had gone to seed. OK, the cookies were pretty good. And David Auspitz, the affable former owner, was a masterful host to the deli's politico power-brunch crowd. But even Eric affectionately referred to his favorite breakfast haunt as "the dirty deli."
So I was not surprised when he returned with a skeptical verdict after visiting a new, improved and suddenly clean Famous: "Too institutional."
After my own visits, Eric and I will have to continue to disagree. But I also now think I have an inkling of what h ce means.
On the most obvious levels, the new Famous is a vast improvement over the old one. It's been completely rehabbed by Russ Cowan, who has brought along the fragrant towers of hot corned beef, superb smoked fish, and giant bowls brimming with chicken-in-the-pot that have made him the region's undisputed king of deli. It's a reputation he's rightfully earned by opening (then selling) three delis called Kibitz (in Center City, Cherry Hill, and down the Shore); Pastrami & Things; and the Bread & Bagel.
Whether Cowan will end his string of corned-beef carpetbagging and settle at Fourth and Bainbridge remains uncertain. But the Famous presents Cowan with a number of different challenges that guarantee he'll be there for a while. And that would be nice, since his delis inevitably decline after he departs.
He's taken great care to respect the historic feel of the Famous, refurbishing the paned window atrium, replacing the floors with vintage 1930s tile, installing art-deco lights and a wall of memorabilia from his family's own four-generation legacy of Radin's delis in Brooklyn.
Even so, there is an awkward aura of unfinished newness to the space. Maybe it just needs time to gather the patina that makes any good neighborhood deli fit like a comfy old shoe. But why, for example, would Cowan install a classic antique soda fountain only to use it as an open storage bin for bottles of window cleaner and paper towels?
Even the waitstaff, many of whom are holdovers from the old place, occasionally seem nervously unable to cope with the high volume and sheer gravity of a Cowan-style deli, groaning "Oh my God!" under their heaping trays as they teeter toward a table.
The portions here are that big. My friend Dave claims he sprained his jaw biting into his corned-beef reuben. And that was a "regular." The "zaftig" sandwiches are so overloaded (with about 15 ounces of meat, says Cowan) they seem built more to evoke "shock and oy!" than to feed a person.
I'm all for generous portions, but Cowan risks painting Famous as the deli equivalent of Buca di Beppo, a caricature of ethnic gluttony, when, in fact, it is the pure quality and consistency of the food that sets his places apart. And Famous is no exception.
I loved the little pre-dinner touches that let you know a true deli man is behind the counter: the complimentary carafes of seltzer water, the sour pickle plates and baskets of house-baked rolls lined with sweet onions and poppy seeds, and those cute ramekins of tiny matzo balls in broth.
But it is the hot corned beef here, of course, that is king, sublimely tender and perfumed with pickling spice, and packed with such care between two slices of crusty grilled Brooklyn rye that I need to stop myself from eating too fast. The pastrami is better than at Cowan's former delis, slightly leaner and made especially for Famous with an extra whiff of smoke and mustardy pepper spice. And the hard salamis that hang in the window like shriveling torpedoes of mahoganied beef are a rare indulgence that I like to savor plain, each chewy slice haunted with aged garlic and smoke. Turkey was the only ordinary sandwich meat to be had.
The smoked fish case here is also superb, from the standard lox and nova to the pepper-crusted pastrami salmon and the luxuriously meaty white sturgeon. The smoked whitefish salad was particularly memorable, with a chunky consistency that I prefer to the usual fine puree.
Other standouts were Famous' homemade blintzes, which wrapped a filling of perfectly sweetened creamy cheese inside the most delicately crisped crepes. And, as if Cowan's chopped liver actually needed extra oomph, the "special liver" (modeled after the Sammy's Roumanian version) was an instant classic, infused with extra fried onions, chopped eggs and greeven - the spark of freshly ground horseradish.
Soups are a crucial part of any deli's canon, and the Famous did well, with one important exception. I embraced the hearty mushroom barley and the split pea filled with smoky sausage rounds. But the elephantine matzo ball had such an unwieldy girth of bland dumpling that it suffocated the delicate flavor of its wholesome chicken broth. The tiny pre-meal freebie soup was more satisfying.
With the addition of dinner hours that the old Famous didn't keep, Cowan has been exploring the oft-neglected realm of old deli entrees. I devoured the wonderful beef brisket, which was slathered in a garlicky dark gravy over a bed of moist challah stuffing. The stuffed cabbage, showing the perfect balance of meat and rice, was also a delight beneath classic sweet and sour gravy.
I was intrigued by some rarely seen Eastern European specialties, but the oily, goopy chicken paprikash and chewy beef goulash were among Famous' weakest efforts. The Roumanian tenderloin, however, was undeniably delicious, a gargantuan flank steak covered in fried onions, mushrooms, and an intensely beefy gravy jus that was hearty enough to feed four.
After such a meal, it's unlikely I'd have enough appetite left to attempt, say, a chocolate eclair as big as a clown shoe. But this sweet case has other treats worth sharing - the buttery rugelach, the intensely chocolatey "black-out" cake, or the checkerboard, whose moist squares of chocolate and vanilla cake are joined with mocha cream. With so many flavors in a single slice, it's a dessert at least that everyone can agree on.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.