If you’re familiar with the saying “Two Jews, three opinions,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there hasn’t been a consensus — among all deli lovers, not just Jewish ones — on Rye Deli in Minneapolis since it opened in November. First, we liked it. Then Andrew Zimmern hated it. Shefzilla backed him up. Chowhound went bananas. Then City Pages gave it a thumbs up, Dara liked it, but not before calling an early meal “an epic disaster,” and Rick chimed in with his approval. So what’s a girl supposed to believe around here?
Heavy Table editor James Norton and I pondered this question over dinner at the Lowry Hill restaurant last week as we picked through sandwiches and slurped down a chocolate egg cream and lemon soda. In between bites of corned beef and potato knish, we came to four main conclusions, which we present below:
1. Rye was a victim of its own hype.
I’m not sure if it was Rye’s ownership and management that set the bar so high or the eager deli hounds who stalked the Hennepin Avenue space to make sure they entered as soon as the open sign popped up, but the talk around town was that Rye was the Second Coming of Deli. I reviewed the initial press release we received back in October, and it made fairly modest claims, calling Rye “a moderately priced delicatessen and bar serving Jewish and East European style foods modernized for contemporary tastes” without much of the hyperbole we often see in these releases. But somehow the hype grew with such intensity that swarms hit up the deli in its first few weeks expecting a pastrami (aka “smoked meat”) sandwich that would instantly export them to the Lower East Side of New York. And nope, Rye’s food just isn’t at that level because…
2. The meat is drastically underseasoned.
My first dish at Rye was the smoked meat hash, and it was so lacking in seasoning that I dumped half the contents of the salt shaker onto the potato-pepper-meat jumble. Lack of salt usually isn’t the problem with cured meats — in fact, it’s more often the opposite. But after tasting the corned beef, smoked meat, chopped liver, and brisket, James and I agreed. The meats’ texture and tenderness were on point, but when the dominant flavor coming through upon biting into James’ Reason for Rye sandwich was the rye bread and not the meat, there’s a problem. It wasn’t that the ingredients in and of themselves were bad. We felt like they were made from good quality stuff. It’s just that there wasn’t much oomph, and there was nothing in that sandwich — or any of the other meat dishes we tried — that made us crave it.
3. There’s no excuse for a bad chocolate egg cream — or erratic service.
A chocolate egg cream is comprised of three ingredients: milk, chocolate syrup, and soda water. When those ingredients are blended in the proper ratio, it’s creamy, chocolately bliss. When they’re not, it’s fizzy, watered-down chocolate milk. Unfortunately, that’s what we got at Rye.
That egg cream is an apt metaphor for the service we’ve received at Rye, too. At successful restaurants, everyone, from the cashier to the bartender to the busser, provides consistent, excellent service. But at Rye, we’ve received a mix — friendly counter service but gruff table service, or vice versa. On a previous visit, an employee handed one of us a to-go box before lunch was finished — in a half-empty restaurant. To win some true raves, Rye needs consistency in this area — and especially for those beloved egg creams.
4. The bakery is for real.
As in real good. The rugelach, black and white cookies, and chocolate babka have been the highlights of our meals at Rye. In particular, the rugelach demonstrated a flakiness and filling-to-pastry ratio that made it on par with some of the best New York versions we’ve tried, and the frosting on the black and white cookies is out of this world. The babka would be better served if it were sliced to order so the pieces wouldn’t dry out, but the yeasty, chocolately flavor hits all the right notes. The dough encompassing the filling of the potato knish exhibited similar skill — golden, toothsome, and not too thick. The underseasoned filling paled in comparison to the delicate crust. Rye better keep its pastry chef because that’s what will keep us coming back — especially with rugelach priced at 80 cents each.
So to Rye or not to Rye? Here’s the deal: Go in with the modest expectations you would have at Mort’s, Cecil’s, or any other local deli. You may find a dish — or cookie — you love, or you could be seriously underwhelmed. This isn’t the kick-ass deli many of us prayed for, but after so many years of wishful thinking, will the Twin Cities ever get a deli that lives up to our idealized standard? I’m not betting on it.
Rye Deli, 1930 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403; 612.871.1200