Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Would you like schmaltz with that?

by BCD Dad

This is a story of a visit to Sammy's Steak House, aka Sammy's Roumanian aka Sammy K’s. 157 Chrystie Street, the Bowery, Manhattan, NY.

In the early 1970’s, BCD Dad and Mom were taken by BCD Mom’s parents to Sammy K’s restaurant in the Bowery. That one encounter has become legendary for the family. On many occasions, as Xani and Erin will attest, BCD Mom and I would wax about the tableside bowls of sours, the antique seltzer bottles, the cholesterol-packed dishes, and the eye-opening dispensers of liquid chicken fat (schmaltz). Now comes an opportunity to see if the reality lives up to the legend.

My work has taken me to NYC on multiple occasions in the past year but usually dining out at any place really special doesn’t fit with the busy schedule. This time though, the planets aligned and as our Amtrak Acela train rolled through the tunnel to Penn Station, my two colleagues finally conceded to my suggestion to go to Sammy K’s. It was the dinner hour and the restaurant was on the way to our hotel in Brooklyn.

“You want to stop here?” our incredulous taxi driver comments as we pull up in front of the somewhat dilapidated storefront in the lower East Side that houses the restaurant. We walked down three steps to a smallish room (no more than 50 persons) whose tired walls were covered with photographs and business cards, and for no explicable reason, happy birthday balloons tied to the ceiling and most of the tables.

The wait staff was all male, and all wearing Sammy K tee shirts. But friendly and very patient as we sporadically examined the menu – not lengthy but very different. At the next table, the guests had a bottle of Ketel One Vodka, encased in ice. We bought one of those. And not to give the story away -- we finished it. So, working our way through neat, slightly thickened vodka, we examined the menu. It was wonderful. It was the essence of Jewish Eastern European peasant food. One revelation after another: kreplach, borscht, chicken soup with knaidlach, luction, AND unborn chicken eggs, chopped eggs and onions, chicken fricassee, gribenes (chicken skin cracklings) on everything, kishke, kasha varnishes, stuffed cabbage, grilled sweet breads, mashed potatoes with gribenes and schmaltz, latkes. It was dizzying.

And we kept getting distracted from the menu -- out came the plate of sour pickles and sour tomatoes – out came the freshly baked and heavily crusted rye bread – out came the whole roasted peppers marinated in garlic and oil – out came the seltzer (do you remember Clarabell?) in authentic old-timey spritzer bottles – and (drum roll) --- the syrup dispenser of schmaltz. So, while pouring chicken fat on pieces of crusty bread, we ordered.

Seltzer bottle


Everything is a la carte. We elected two appetizers, one main each, and a couple of side dishes to share. Chopped Chicken Livers started the parade. But this was no ice cream scoop on a lettuce leaf. Our waiter brought a sizeable bowl of chopped livers, and along side were plates of shredded white radish, gribenes and, believe it or not, more chicken fat. All this was mixed tableside, to order as it were, and in the best tradition of a Caesar salad presentation. Perfect. My apologies to my wife, my beloved mother and mother in law.

The eggplant salad we picked as a second appetizer was ok. It was expecting the eggplant salad that we make at home (roasted eggplant cold chopped with boiled eggs and onions, served with olive oil, salt, pepper and beer!) but this was a sort of an unimaginative mish mosh. The waiter had discouraged us from the karnetzlach (ground meat, seasoned and grilled on a skewer), and we wanted something a little lighter anyway.

The main courses were principally grilled meats: several cuts of chicken, beef, lamb, veal, and one of my favorites, sweetbreads. We order sweetbreads almost every time they appear on a menu, and because we frequent restaurants that pride themselves on original and often complex presentations, we’ve become used to a little tiny piece of sweetbread with a sauce and various other layers of flavoring. Not Sammy K’s. A dinner plate-sized portion, perfectly grilled and completely unadorned. Not a hint of parsley, no grilled tomato, no nothing. It was very good. I also sampled my colleague’s stuffed cabbage that was tasty but I thought the flavor was timid. Our other partner ordered a rib-steak. I have never seen a rib-steak served with the entire rib-bone attached. Normally the end is cut off and (I think) becomes part of the short-rib. This presentation was about a foot long and hung off the plate. My preference for steak is not the kosher-style. This beef was flavorful but a little tough and overdone for my taste. As you have seen from other BCD posts – steak and roast beef are not trifles for us and we spend a lot of time and effort buying, aging, butchering and cooking beef in a very precise way.

While my colleague’s main dishes didn’t do much for me, the side dishes were precious. Kishke and kasha varnishkes. Kishke is a sort of roasted sausage made with a casing (like sausage) but filled with a highly flavored bread stuffing somewhat like what goes into a roast chicken. The stuffing is a much finer grind and there is a lot of moisture due to the (dare I say it) the chicken fat. Our second side dish was kasha varnishkes. KV consists of cooked buckwheat groats (a grain), combined with bow-tie egg noodles then mixed with salt, pepper and (I am embarrassed to say) chicken fat.

There may have been something green other than pickles on the menu, but I don’t recall seeing it. No salads, no vegetables. (I am exaggerating. I did see a couple of salads and garlic broccoli.)

All during the meal, we were entertained by a fellow with a frightful hairdo, a great synthesizer set up, a great voice (Sinatra, Satchmo, and a collection of Bar Mitzvah and Jewish wedding tunes) and a wonderful sense of humor. A very positive addition to the ambiance.

The vodka is now gone. The plates are clean (we ate everything). And we are content. Just a little Turkish coffee (the kind that’s half mud), tea in a glass, and an on-the-house plate of warm chocolate rugelach pastries and we headed off to the hotel in Brooklyn. Dinner ran about $100/pp including tax and tip in large part due to the vodka. (Did I mention we had a round before we bought the bottle?).

So as far as reminiscences are concerned – we hit the mark on most of the things. Of course my first visit was so long ago that my frame of reference is changed, too. Definitely worth another visit. For both the food and the nostalgia.


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