East Side story

New York is the home of the deli. And they don't come finer than the Aladdin's cave of delights that is Eli's. When Simon Hopkinson visited, he could barely contain his excitement. Photographs by James Rexroad
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Indy Lifestyle Online
hat an extraordinary man Eli Zabar is. He reminds me of a wrier Mel Brooks, partly because of his enthusiasm and excellent Jewishness, but also in his boundless energy and striving for perfection. I immediately warm to a man who I see pick up an empty milk carton off his neighbourhood sidewalk, discreetly chucking it into the garbage bin (a man after my own heart). He also seems permanently concerned over things working properly, embarrassed over the details which don't look right, constantly wishing that things might be better and truly pleased when they finally are.

On seeing some slightly tired imported clams on display in his store, Eli (pictured left) rejects them: "Why have a tired tourist clam when you can get a nice fresh one just up the coast?" I agree with gusto.

Eli Zabar is 57 going on 34. Previous diversions before food have included teaching and dabbling in real estate, but it was when he turned 30, in 1973, that Eli decided to open his own place at 1064 Madison Avenue, naming it E.A.T. Now, for those who know New York very well, the name Zabar may already be familiar to you as the sign above a celebrated food store on the Upper West Side. The connection is a sound one, as Eli is brother to Stanley and Saul Zabar, who now run their father's original store which he opened some time in the Forties.

So much for those on the Upper West Side, I guess Eli Zabar must have thought. And maybe it seemed only right that, when Eli decided to sever any tenuous ties he had with the family business, he should cross the park and set up business on the Upper East Side. As it had not necessarily been destined that his life was to be fully immersed in the finest lox, bagels, gefilte fish and chopped liver, Eli opened E.A.T., essentially a kitchen supply shop. But for someone who, it now transpires, possibly loved baking bread more than anything else, this initial plan might be seen as politic rather than passionate. It was not to be very long before the basement of E.A.T. became home to the ovens of "Eli's Bread". To coin a phrase, the rest is history.

At present, Eli Zabar's Upper East Side empire encompasses the original E.A.T., a smallish food store with a successful cafe/restaurant attached; Eli's Bread, which is wholesale only now; and Eli's Vinegar Factory, an enormous rustic and rambling food store with a weekend-only brunch joint upstairs and some kitchenalia on the side. Here, discarded old vinegar barrels have been rebuilt as display modules, continuing to imbue the place with an ancient - though pleasing - acetic pong.

Ironically, my initial introduction to Eli's Upper East Side dominion was via an Englishman (actually, a Yorkshireman to be brutally frank), one David Morgan, "resident manager" at the nearby, deeply swish and proper Carlyle Hotel (Madison and 76th, 001 212 744 1600). For David lives just around the corner from the year-old Eli's Manhattan, the most splendiferous and absurdly stocked food emporium you may ever see.

Don't stay in a hotel the next time you are in the Big Apple, instead rent a small, cosy apartment on Third, somewhere between 80th and 90th. Room service within a short stroll and the occasional stir of a wooden spoon.

Eli's Manhattan delicatessen, 1411 Third Avenue (001 212 717 8100); E.A.T., 1064 Madison Avenue (001 212 772 0022); Eli's Vinegar Factory, 431 East 91st Street (001 212 987 0885).

Customers at E.A.T.

It occurs to me that one of the main reasons why such establishments as Eli's are so very successful in New York City is because the people who shop there are such good eaters. Although an operation such as this would absolutely wow most of us in London, I promise you it would finally fail. The majority of Brits simply don't get enough of a kick out of buying exciting food, nor will they ever spend enough on it when it is, quite plainly, very good indeed.

A sample of the delicacies on offer at Eli's establishments: ready made fresh soups in sturdy see-through tubs, properly seasoned (Covent Garden Soups eat your heart out) - fava bean, mushroom, Tuscan bread, spinach, soupe au pistou, cream of tomato, chicken with matzo balls, borsch, French onion; pots and pots of superb fresh crab and shrimp in mayonnaise dressings, potato salads (peeled!), all ready to eat and enjoy; house salads - gorgeously dressed fresh leaves to go, proper Caesar salad with big fat croutons, French beans with cream dressings, fava beans glistening with olive oil.

From bagels to brioches

Around about 1992, the bakery moved from the basement of E.A.T. to a site next door, which eventually became Eli's Vinegar Factory. I can still smell those sourdough breads baking as I write, back home in damp South Kensington. Breads of so many kinds are baked here it is difficult to list them all. But they include the sourdoughs, the ficelles, the baguettes, the rye breads, the pumperknickels, the bagels, the poppy seed rolls, the sesame breads ... Then there are the croissants, brioches, Danish pastries, English muffins, blueberry muffins, crumpets and on and on and on ...

Eli with his staff

The astute shopkeeper who singularly understands his market, yet also urges his employees to have energetic delusions from time to time, is genuinely to be admired. Eli is pernickety in things such as the importance of a fine relationship with the folk who work for him. He knows them very well indeed, never forgetting the important handshake and "How are you today? ... I'm fine too! ... Bread looks terrific ... You OK? ... Happy? ... Great!" Here, he discusses with employees the finer points of his vegetable range, which includes seven varieties of potato, crisp Jerusalem artichokes, fist-sized celeriac, generously fronded green fennel, celery hearts, great big masochistic sticks of fresh horseradish for home grating and crying over the fumes as you wish you'd bought the ready-made stuff.

The vegetable shelves

Vegetables and "urbs" (that's "herbs" to you and me): freshly picked and proudly stacked, all a treat, neat and sweet - an overflowing cornucopia of roots, tubers, brassicas, leaves and all the rest. I noticed a great bank of leafy fresh basil, the like of which you want to run your fingers through as if they are someone's floppy blond locks, releasing a heady aroma. Then there is - joy oh joy! - an enormous basket of creamy white eggplants. It is impossible to miss the big red range of tomatoes, colourfully punctuated as they are by yellow and green varieties, too. The odour from these, even though within an air-conditioned basement in New York, transports one to southern Italy or Provence, clutching a handful of that basil as you drift off.

Relishes, steaks and stocks

The range of delights at Eli's seems to never end. Dips and relishes include guacamoles, salsas, cream cheese and spring onion, horseradish, pickled cucumber, creamy fresh slaws, all fresh, fresh, fresh. Then there is tray upon tray of prepared meat dishes: wonderful osso buco (embedded in a dark and jellied sauce, each serving sprinkled with a token shower of gremolata), rare sliced fillet of beef, braised lamb shanks, sliced pink roast leg of lamb, braised guinea hens, broiled chickens, meatballs. All manner of gravies and stocks - I saw turkey gravy and brisket gravy for the first time, and chicken stock, veal stock, beef stock and lamb stock were all fresh, all gelled, all clear, all good. Fat free. Fat chance on my local supermarket shelf, where the fat has conveniently been boiled in. Raw meat too is astonishing here: sirloin steaks of the most magnificent marbling, tremendously large lamb chops, expertly trimmed veal rib and loin chops - the like of which I have not even seen in Italy - just fabulous T-bone steaks, pound portions of extra-lean mince so winsomely extruded it resembles a heavy red chrysanthemum. Excuse all the hyperbole, but all is so especially well displayed and clearly of such good provenance that it begs to be appreciated. It all goes in the day. n

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