Ben's Kosher Delicatessen
209 West 38th Street
New York, NY 10018, United States
The size of the place really caught me by surprise. Whilst I'd been expecting a tiny outlet quite like the kebab shops in London, Ben's Deli is really a full-fledged restaurant with a deli counter on one side and a spacious dine-in area on the other.
You know you're in completely foreign territory when you look at the menu and realise that you have never heard (and can barely pronounce the names) of most things. What do you do when you have absolutely no idea what to order? You go for a mixed platter, Ronnie's Mixed Platter to be precise. The huge platter of a stuffed cabbage, a slice of derma, meatballs and some chicken posed quite a challenge, even shared between two people. While the chicken and meatballs were fairly conventional, the stuffed cabbage and derma (beef casing stuffed with matzo meal or flour) were a different story altogether. For some reason, perhaps having had far too much sauerkraut over the exam season, I was expecting the cabbage to be on the sour side so to say that the sweet cabbage caught me off-guard is a bit of an understatement. The derma left us a bit intrigued as we spent most of the meal trying to figure out what it was - the stuffing tasted a lot like chickpea flour but when we asked our waiter what it was stuffed with, he just gave us a shrug and told us that if we knew, we probably wouldn't eat it. Upon returning to London and consulting our dear friend Google, it seems that we weren't so off the mark afterall.
The platter came with a choice of two side dishes. Our waiter strongly recommended a serving of fries but we decided to be a little more adventurous by getting egg barley and mushrooms as well as serving of Kashe Varnishkas (buckwheat groats with bowtie pasta). Both side dishes were rather bland and dry, leaving us somewhat disappointed. As the meal progressed, I was beginning to think that there was a reason why our waiter was so adamant about us ordering fries.
Something that seemed quite obvious from the menu was the fact that meat is pretty high on the priority list at these delis. There were still some vegetarian options, though, and the pescatarian among us decided to go for a simple Fresh Veggie Omelette served with potato pancakes and apple sauce.
I have to admit that no other meal has left me quite as perplexed as this one - I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the food. Some of the flavours were completely new to us and while we enjoyed quite a bit of it, some of the dishes left much to be desired. Perhaps it was more a case of the deli letting us down and not giving us a good representation of what the cuisine is really like. A part of me wishes we had a little more time in the city for a stop at a different deli, just to put things into perspective.
I suppose that's what travelling is all about - new and sometimes perplexing experiences. Also, if you do ever happen to be at Ben's, be sure to look out for the joke that runs along the top of the wall, just for a little laugh.