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Present and Pastrami

by David Hagedorn | Photo: Greg Powers | DC magazine | April 2, 2013

It’s 6:30pm on a Thursday in the back of a buzzy new eatery just below Dupont Circle. Twenty-somethings nudge between patrons seated at a 10-person bar to order glasses of Austrian sparkling rosé, bottles of Belgian beer and cocktails composed with the likes of Small’s gin, Meyer lemon juice, orange bitters, Jameson Irish Whiskey, pickle brine and Genesse cream ale. At nearby counters, friends quaff and text while sharing orders of smoked salmon tartare and chicken liver spread, the kind of scene playing out in hip restaurants all over town. Except this place isn’t called a restaurant, it’s called a delicatessen—DGS Delicatessen, to be precise.

Two years ago, the owners—cousins and third-generation Washingtonians Nick and David Wiseman—devised the idea to modernize the deli concept and opened DGS Delicatessen last November. DGS refers to District Grocery Stores, a co-operative of Jewish-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores that flourished in the Washington area in the decades between 1920 and 1970. Black-and-white photographs taken at DGS stores of yore, including one of Wiseman’s relatives celebrating a Seder in 1922, adorn the restaurant’s walls.

Architect John Nahra conceived the 80-seat space, a light-filled, two-level floor-through that stretches from Connecticut Avenue to 18th Street. Design elements represent the zeitgeist: exposed brick walls, industrial lights hung with Edison bulbs, reclaimed wood, stainless steel, brushed aluminum Navy chairs and dining tables that forego tablecloths for dishtowels and napkins. White hexagonal tile flooring, subway tiles and floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with glass jars of preserved foods pay homage to DGS stores and old-school delis.

To actualize the food, the Wisemans wisely tapped noted Washington fine-dining chef Barry Koslow (Tallula, Mendocino Grille) to breathe new life into a style of cooking they found stagnant. Koslow leapt at the chance to reintroduce craftsmanship to foods of his Jewish heritage. To that end, he does all of his own brining, curing, smoking and pickling at DGS. The timing is right for this revival. When the bottom dropped out of the economy in the mid-2000s, comfort food became fashionable. Suddenly, fat wasn’t an issue anymore, at least not in the form of fried chicken or bone marrow. Enter Koslow, who takes eight days to brine and smoke premium Black Angus brisket with a handcrafted spice blend. He also turns pastrami into the new pork belly.

But a pastrami sandwich alone does not a deli make, and even though Koslow’s is sublime, to call DGS a delicatessen is a misnomer. It is, more aptly, a restaurantessen with an eclectic, Jewish-inspired, chef-driven menu; an up-to-date cocktail program; and a well-chosen wine list. 

Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) and Sephardic (Spanish) influences abound on Koslow’s 22-item dinner menu. Dishes sound familiar, but sophisticated twists set them apart. Koslow upgrades a cunning, cumin-laced pickle platter with crisp daikon radish, turnips, carrots and a beet-brightened hard-boiled egg half. He attributes his ethereal matzo ball soup to grandma Dot; though she likely didn’t imbue elegance into orange-sized matzo balls with duck fat.

The chopped liver at DGS is sumptuous and will soon become legend, as it’s graced with rosemary or garnish with red onion marmalade and shards of crisped chicken skin.

Smoked-fish aficionados will appreciate Koslow’s appetizing board of applewood and hickory-smoked salmon, salmon pastrami and whitefish served with cucumber salad and double-baked rye bread. Shmutzy fries, Reubenized with shredded pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, should enter the lexicon as Jewish nachos.

Another Eastern European mainstay, holishkes (stuffed cabbage), benefits from rye bread in the brisket stuffing and as a garnish in the form of toasted crumbs. A gastrique of reduced vinegar and tomatoes adds refinement and balance to a dish often cloyingly sweet.

Koslow expands the Sephardic profile to include all of the Mediterranean: think ras-el-hanout on cauliflower, za’atar on french fries, tzatsiki with grilled mahimahi kabobs, chermoula and smoky baba ghanoush on pan-roasted bass. Tunisian spices, anise, figs and spinach enhance his take on flanken, for which he replaces short ribs with boneless chuck flap and braises it with red wine, beef stock and harissa, a North African red chili paste.

Not all of the chef’s efforts hit the mark. A knish’s pastelike filling of lamb sausage and lentils renders both of those ingredients indiscernible. Salt cod ravioli masquerading as kreplach, and deep-fried Brussels sprouts with grapes aren’t particularly good ideas. Koslow remains at his best when he keeps things straightforward, like majestically simple and succulent smoked half-chicken with braised kale and stone mustard.

Desserts, usually brought in from elsewhere at delis and forgettable, are worth your while at DGS. A bread pudding of smooth challah custard with salted caramel ice cream and dollops of melted bittersweet chocolate melds babka flavors but eschews stodginess. It’s a four-star way to end a meal.

Brian Zipin, formerly of Central Michel Richard, formulated DGS’s outstanding, concise beverage program. Even though the smart cocktails have corny names (the Rob Roystein; the Mashuguna), Zipin’s homemade herbal aquavit tinged with star-anise, lemon, coriander and black pepper and citrusy, plum-based slivovitz make up for any lapse in judgment. This is a guy who can match Chinon with stuffed cabbage and correctly pair chopped liver with a Finger Lakes riesling—when is the last time you came across that in a delicatessen?

DGS Delicatessen
1317 Connecticut Ave. NW

Open daily. Lunch, 11:30am-2pm; dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm

Dinner small plates: $8-$16
Dinner entrées: $15-$21
Desserts: $7

Happy Hour
Mon.-Sun. from 5 to 7pm is a must-do. If $7 cocktails (such as the Le Marais: sparkling rosé, OJ, St. Germain and Peychaud’s bitters) and $6 wine (Di Lenardo chardonnay from Friuli) and $4 Tsingtao don’t entice you, then the pastrami chili-and-cheese fries, smoked salmon tartare with everything aioli, bagel crunchies and mini tongue Reubens should

Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 2:30pm is already on the radar for weekenders. My idea of heaven: DGS’ absolutely smashing smoked salmon platter (wish this item were available all the time there) and an order of chopped liver. But the smoked salmon eggs Benedict on potato latkes aren’t to be ignored, either.