The New Butcher: Brooklyn Deli Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff

For a while there, it looked like the New York Jewish deli was sliding inexorably toward extinction. From the more than 5,000 that flourished during its heyday in the 1930’s, fewer than a dozen authentic delis operated in the early 2000’s, and those that remained served more as museum pieces than homey, affordable restaurants. Then, Noah Bernamoff opened Mile End in Brooklyn, at once reinvigorating the genre and adding a new, northern twist. Rather than copying existing New York delis and their kitchen sink approach to cuisine, Bernamoff modeled his Boerum Hill eatery in the style of the Jewish delis of his native Montreal, with a smaller menu and emphasis on in-house preparation. Chief among the year-old restaurant’s specialties is smoked meat, a specific type of pastrami popular in Montreal, which is prepared fresh every day, hand carved, and served with mustard on rye bread. Its singular flavor, along with a handful of other delicacies, recently helped Mile End surpass perennial favorite Barney Greengrass as Zagat’s favorite deli in the city. Here, Bernamoff talks about his influences, aggravations, and why people should quit asking for free pickles already.

What kind of background do you have in cooking?
I don’t really have any professional cooking background at all. In fact, I never worked in a restaurant prior to this. My interest is rooted in traditional family cooking. Homey, old style, nothing very fancy. My interest in deli is part of my experience of being Jewish. Also, in Montreal the deli culture is still pretty strong.

What brought you to New York, and how did you decide to open a deli?
I was in law school and fairly dissatisfied with what it looked like life was going to be as a lawyer. So I winged it … wung it. Is that a word? I thought, well, neither path is going to be easy, and this is more enjoyable, so I may as well do the thing that’s more enjoyable.

What do you think went wrong with Jewish delis in New York?
Jewish delis used to be much more specialized. As they started closing, those that remained began taking on all these products. Today’s Jewish delis have all the same stuff, every Jewish soup, every Jewish meat, every side dish, every type of pickle. In Montreal, the delis that remain are old school, and just carry a couple of things. And each has a specialty: one is known for hot dogs, another for salami, and another for chicken soup.

Is there a secret to doing Jewish deli right?
You have to stick to the authentic methods. Too much of what we find in most delis is generic and of low quality, with a lack of attention to detail. And you need a smaller menu. When you have so much on your menu, how can you be certain of the quality?

What are your specialties?
There’s smoked meat, a type of Montreal-style pastrami. And there’s the Ruth Wilensky sandwich, which is homemade beef salami fried up and put into an onion roll and pressed on the griddle. It’s crispy on the outside, hot, and a little greasy. It’s very garlicky and meaty on the inside. There’s nothing else in it except mustard because the salami’s very flavorful. And we serve poutine, which literally mean ‘hot mess’ in Quebecois French, which is what it’s meant to be. It’s an ode to Montreal, but then the whole restaurant is a nod to Montreal.

What’s the deal with the pickles? Why do people have to pay for pickles at Mile End when other delis give them away for free?
No, pickles aren’t free, they don’t automatically come on the table. It’s something that drives me nuts in New York. Everyone’s like ‘Would it kill you to put a bowl of pickles on the table?’ and I’m like, I don’t see why I should have to give them away. We make them ourselves, and if people understood the time, patience, and skill it takes to make these things, they wouldn’t complain that there’s no pickles on the table. They’d understand why we charge six or seven dollars for a plate of assorted pickles. We make them like what you would find on Delancey Street a hundred years ago.

And this makes some people angry?
There are some haters. You’d be surprised. Go on Yelp and you’ll hear people ranting about no free pickles.

That certainly sets you apart from existing Jewish delis in New York.
Still, it’s difficult to convince people that we do things differently. It’s just old school and bare bones. There’s no such thing as a $16 behemoth sandwich. In Montreal, it never went down the road of overstuffed sandwiches and all this free stuff on the table to justify the prices.

Do you have any advice for people who want to open up their own restaurant like you did?
Hard work is what it takes, and thinking out what you’re going to do. I thought some of the right things out ahead of time, but I dropped the ball on some of the more businessey stuff. Also, I don’t think people should be scared of making a statement. Find one niche and do it perfectly. Ask yourself, Can I be the only one doing this in this place? If you are, you’ll not only be the best doing that because you’re the only one, but you’ll set the standard. But you really need to work hard, because good ideas are worthless if you don’t throw yourself in.

[Photo by Alexander Wagner]

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