Finding a deal of a deli in Louisville

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Herman’s Deli, Stevens & Stevens and an Omega My Oh quest for salmon)

Illustration by Gina Moeller

Here’s something I’ve never quite understood: The word delicatessen, from the German delikatessen, which the Teutons borrowed in turn from the Italian and French words delicatezza and delicatesse, means, well, delicacies or maybe delicate eats.

Delicate? What in the heck is delicate about fatty meats like pastrami, corned beef, tongue and chopped chicken liver, piled high on thick rye bread with mustard and onions and dill pickles? Or, depending on your ethnic preference, an antipasto on a bun, salami and capicola and sopressata and mortadella and maybe a little prosciut’ and some peperoncini peppers on a crusty hero loaf?

Let’s face it: Deli fare is European po’ folks’ comfort food, filling and fatty, designed to fill and fuel the inner person for a hard day’s work.

Stevens & Stevens
Photo by Robin Garr: Herman’s Deli aspires to a New York state of mind, but still has work to do.

When you hear people around Louisville moaning about the lack of a good deli, it’s safe to assume that they’re talking about New York-kosher-style deli, a culinary genre that’s enjoyed only brief local outings (most recently when Les Naiman took a second shot at it in a sadly short-lived Hurstbourne spot located on almost exactly the same ground as his 1980s venture).

Now New York deli is back for another round, and we hope this one will stick. Herman’s Delicatessen, in the quarters that formerly housed a branch of Tumbleweed (and way back when an Ollie’s Trolley) on Dutchman’s Lane, does a surprisingly good job of converting a bland suburban shop into something that looks a lot like a New York City deli (as long as you don’t look out the windows). The décor is spartan. There are rows of heavy wooden booths, poster-size black-and-white historic New York City photos and cafeteria-style service from a big, glass deli case up front, which separates the hungry hordes from a crowd of wisecracking chefs.

In NYC, kosher-style delis are notorious for elderly gentlemen waiters with a surly demeanor, who deliver insulting wisecracks with your sandwich, and you’re expected to like it. I have never understood this. Herman’s, to its credit, skips the insults, which probably wouldn’t play well in a state where concealed carry is legal; but it replaces them — at least in my brief encounter — with rather addled counter service instead. An example:

Me: “I’ll have a half pastrami sandwich on rye and a half beef tongue on rye.”
Server: “That’s beef tongue and what?”
Me: “Pastrami.”
Server: “Do you want it on rye?”
Me: “Yes.”
Chef: “The tongue is not ready.”
Me: “When will it be ready?”
Chef: [looks around, pauses] “Now.”
Me: [rolls eyes]

It went on, but that gives you the gist of it.

Herman’s brags that it gets most of its food from New York, New York, the city so nice that they named it twice, including (and I quote), “our meats … from Empire Meats in Brooklyn, our fish from ACME in Brooklyn, our pickles from United Pickle in the Bronx and our bagels from Bagel Talk in Manhattan.”

This may be, but for what it’s worth, we found our take-out deli lunch unremarkable at best. The aforementioned beef tongue ($6.12 for half of a sandwich) was bright pink and had been boiled beyond tenderness to a gummy, almost gelatinous texture. A schmear of chopped chicken liver and chopped red onions added flavor and a hint of crunch, but the overall effect was a bit greasy. The pastrami ($5.62 for a half-sandwich) was piled reasonably high, but it was served lukewarm, not hot, and had so little flavor that it didn’t even taste salty. The rye bread was soft, grocery-store quality stuff. Those pickles from United Pickle were a bit odd, more mushy than crisp, sour but not dill.

A poppyseed bagel with a schmear of cream cheese ($1.25) may have come from New York, but it lacked the unique chewy texture and crust that I associate with the real deal.

Herman’s offers more than a dozen cold sandwiches and about eight hot sandwiches, available in half or whole portions from $4.37 (for half of an egg-salad sandwich) to $12.45 (for a whole smoked-salmon lox sandwich). Full sandwiches are “HUGE,” the menu says. “We pile on a full half-pound of meat!” There is also a wide variety of soups, salads, hot plates and desserts, and non-alcoholic beverages including that classic New York deli brand, Dr. Brown’s sodas ($1.75).

A takeout lunch for two ($14.44 total tab) was filling, and it really wasn’t bad, but it takes more than a New York accent to ring my deli chimes.

Herman’s Delicatessen
3895 Dutchmans Lane
Rating: 74 points

Stevens & Stevens
Photo by Robin Garr: Stevens and Stevens is the city’s best deli. It shares space with Ditto’s but is a separate business.

And behind deli number two …

Now, if you want to talk deli, geddadaheah with that Noo Yawk stuff: What’s the matter with Louisville deli? Some of us old-timers can remember as far back as Imorde’s, a lovable spot on South Fourth near Ormsby, which in spite of its Italian name was really more of a multi-national Louisville-German deli with Italian flourishes. And of course, it doesn’t get much better than Lotsa Pasta for deli meats and cheeses, Italian and more. But Lotsa Pasta, even with its small but attractive new sit-down section, still strikes me more as the region’s best food-specialty grocery than a dine-in deli.

For real deli quality in a deli setting, Stevens & Stevens was, and remains, Louisville’s deli to beat. It’s located within the same Bardstown Road building as Ditto’s, shares sign space out front and a common entrance, but is a separate business under its own management.

It’s not particularly New Yorkish, although it incorporates similar elements: Walk in the side entrance, turn left into a high, narrow exposed-red-brick room (a right turn takes you into Ditto’s) and you’re funneled along a cafeteria-style deli case where, somewhat confusingly, you must walk past what appears to be a cashier’s station to get to the goodies. And goodies they are. To facilitate a direct comparison, I risked a deli overdose by hitting Stevens & Stevens for dinner the same day I had enjoyed Herman’s for lunch, and picked up a couple of similar items — and more.

They didn’t have beef tongue, but the pastrami ($5.35 for a whole sandwich, dubbed “The Woody Allen”) was truly worthy. Pastrami, by the way, is beef brisket, brined and smoked, bringing beef as close as it can get to acting like ham. This version was sliced thick and piled high, perfectly textured and flavorful. It was built on good, hefty slices of seeded rye and accented with an eye-watering dab of hot mustard. A poppyseed bagel rated a little higher on my bagel-meter than Herman’s, thanks to a more open crumb and chewier crust, but I think maybe you’ve simply got to go to NYC to get the real thing.

Sampling Stevens & Stevens’ wide range of traditional deli and non-traditional non-deli items, we also took home half of a roast chicken (served at room temperature) with sides of crisp green beans and garlic roast potatoes that were deliciously garlicky indeed. The tab came to pennies under $15, plus a couple of bucks for the tip jar.

Overall, Stevens & Stevens earns my 90-plus rating for doing the deli deal about as well as it can be done. So it’s not New York? Fahgeddaboutit!

Stevens & Stevens Delicatessen
1114 Bardstown Road
Rating: 91

Omega My Oh!

Copper River salmon is back in season, and despite the lofty prices that this rare and succulent treat commands, Louisville diners are lining up to get their share of this and other species of wild salmon while the getting is good.

Salmon is a rare treat, reports Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent KIM MASSEY, because it’s not only good, it’s good for you. We sent Massey out to find some of the best salmon dishes that the city’s top tables have to offer, and she came back with this report:

A rare phenomenon has occurred over the last few years: Nutritionists, health gurus and physicians alike have found a point on which they agree. They have all jumped on a dietary soapbox hell-bent on getting us to eat more fish. Wild salmon in particular has become a poster child for the movement, primarily because of its high content of Omega-3 fatty acids, an essential, heart-healthy ingredient of which we all apparently suffer a collective deficiency.

Maybe it’s the undoubted health benefits, or possibly it’s simply because salmon is such a versatile and popular culinary ingredient, but Louisville chefs are doing some truly wonderful things with the wild little beasts. In addition to offering very palatable options for ingesting those essential fatty acids, the range of salmon dishes available locally presents a rare opportunity for a global tasting tour. Whatever your food mood or flavor crave, you’re just about certain to find a salmon dish to tickle your fancy.

Diners who favor rich cuisine featuring elegant sauces will delight in the options available at Jack Fry’s and Azalea. The almond- and pistachio-encrusted, pan-seared salmon fillet served at Jack Fry’s ($23) is a culinary tour de force. A ground-nut puree forms a silky topping which, with the aid of an unexpectedly light chive beurre blanc, melts into the perfectly cooked fillet. Perched atop a bed of sautéed spinach garnished with tomato and pearl onions, the dish marked a watershed in my personal salmon tasting career. Never before have I attempted to order an entrée again for dessert. My fellow diner talked me back from the precipice, insisting that such behavior would surely lead to next-day regrets. Frankly, I’m not so sure about that.

Azalea’s potato-crusted smoked salmon fillet, served with a chardonnay and shiitake sauce ($17.95), is a visual and sensory delight. The pan-seared potato crust provides a firm, crisp casing that offers a perfect contrast to the tender, lightly smoked fillet within. The fish is encircled by a pool of beautifully hued, luscious sauce with subtle hints of shiitake and is garnished with lightly steamed, artfully arranged asparagus spears. It seems almost too pretty to eat — until common sense and hunger pangs dictate otherwise.

In a Mediterranean mood? The salmon entrée at Bourbons Bistro ($18) might just have you murmuring “Viva Italia!” The vibrant green pesto-encrusted fillet, served with creamy risotto and roasted tomato jus, reflects the colors of the Italian flag with the region’s most popular ingredients. This is a dish where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts: The slightly acidic tomato jus provides a perfect foil for the rich, creamy risotto, and the aromatic pesto is a worthy partner for the naturally sweet salmon.

Diners with a taste for the Orient will appreciate salmon’s affinity for Asian ingredients and cooking techniques. Asiatique‘s noteworthy wok-seared salmon ($22) offers a vivid illustration. Searing the fish over high heat produces a crisp, browned crust that retains a moist, tender interior. The fish is served with a medley of crisp stir-fried vegetables, a soy-based sauce and tomato concassé. The sauce brings together the sweet and savory elements common to Asian cuisine, in a fine foil to the oiliness of the salmon. The deft addition of Sichuan hot oil imparts a subtle spicy aftertaste. These bold flavors could easily pair with meat or fowl, and it perfects a memorable dish likely to appeal to meat and fish lovers alike.

When the craving for something closer to home strikes, the salmon entrée at Club Grotto ($18) will hit a home run. You will be hard-pressed to find a dish that incorporates more regional favorites on a single plate (with the possible exception of country ham). A generous fillet of Maker’s Mark-smoked salmon is served with a Dijon-molasses glaze and a sprinkling of spiced pecans. The dark, molasses-sweetened glaze offers a wonderful counterbalance to the saltiness of the house-smoked fish, and the pecans add an intriguing crunch. Accompanied by sautéed spinach and the creamiest grits outside of your mother’s kitchen, this dish defines the concept of gourmet comfort cooking. Hell, give me another order to go!


What dedicated foodie hasn’t dreamed of putting on a chef’s jacket, stepping into a restaurant kitchen and turning out culinary delights that earn the people’s ovation and fame forever, as the Iron Chef guy says? This weekend LEO Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent NED WEATHERBY will live out that dream as Guest Chef of the Month on Saturday, June 24, at Norma Jean’s Trackside, 119 W. Main St. in La Grange, with seatings at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Weatherby is an accomplished cook but says he’s never tried doing it for 85 diners before. He’ll present several of his personal specialties including Black Bean Cakes, Crisp Romaine salad, choice of White Chicken Lasagna Alfredo or Pork Loin covered in a sherry shiraz reduction, and Granny Weatherby’s Homemade Cheesecake. Dinner is $19.95. For reservations call Norma Jean’s, 222-8044.

Pizza is one of several confections that I unhesitatingly declare to be one of nature’s most perfect foods — good for the body, mind and spirit. (Some of the others are barbecue and beer, but I digress.) Now, the good folks out at Tony Boombozz are trying to kick their specialty up another nutritional notch, declaring that their new whole-grain wheat-dough model is the first whole-wheat pizza crust available from a local pizza delivery outfit. “We are deeply committed to providing consumers with healthy alternatives,” wrote Tony “Boombozz” Palombino, founder and CEO of the award-winning local mini-chain. Palombino says the new “health-enhanced” crust qualifies as a low-fat food, a saturated fat-free food and a cholesterol-free food with zero grams of trans fat per serving. None of this should be taken to imply that the traditional white-flour crust is bad for you, mind you.

If you’ve been meaning to get down to Holly Hill Inn in bucolic Midway, next Wednesday might be a particularly good time to do it. You can combine a pleasant road trip with a gourmet-style lunch and an informative lecture about buying antiques without getting ripped off. It’s the final session in the four-part At Home with Holly Hill Inn lunch series, with antique dealer Zeff Maloney of Lexington offering a one-hour lecture followed by a three-course Kentucky Heritage lunch. Morgan will seek to answer the imponderable questions “Do you often wonder if you are buying a reproduction or the real thing when in an antique store?” and “How do you know that what you are buying is worth the price?” The lecture begins at 11 a.m. on June 28. Lunch is at noon, and admission is $25, which covers lunch, non-alcoholic beverage, gratuity and tax. Wine and cocktails are extra. Reservations are required; call (859) 846-4732.