An early November Thursday night was especially festive for DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood. Hipsters, cool millennials and well-dressed Washingtonians filled the space, sipping Schmoozer and Mazel Tov cocktails while nibbling chopped liver with a side of gribenes (chicken cracklings), potato latkes and homemade pickles. That evening a few specials were introduced to the crowd, including Reuben tortelli with homemade pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and pumpernickel croutons, made in collaboration with local Italian restaurant Osteria Morini.
Owner Nick Wiseman, a local Washingtonian millennial himself, looked right at home in the bustling restaurant. On its third anniversary, the highly praise delicatessen he had opened with cousin David Wiseman seemed to be doing exactly what they set out to do: introducing a whole new audience to the comfort and deliciousness of the Jewish foods they grew up with.
The trend of new Jewish cuisine has finally hit the American capitol after a revival that started years ago in New York and across the U.S., in establishments like Russ & Daughters Cafe, Baz Bagels & Restaurant and Mile End delis.
“We wanted to capture our personal experience that started in Eastern Europe, then made its way with some of the family to Israel, some to New York, and ultimately landed in D.C.,” Nick Wiseman said a few days later over morning coffee. His professional background was in Italian fine-dinning, but when he was ready to open his own place, Wiseman knew it had to be authentic and relate to his own family background.
“My Jewish experience was eating lox and bagels on Sunday mornings” - still some of his favorite foods - “and eating Chinese food with my family on Sunday nights.” And on Christmas eve too, naturally, which is why DGS Delicatessen offers a Jewish-Chinese menu every Christmas, in collaboration with some of the best Chinese chefs in town.
But the Wiseman cousins knew they had to offer a lighter, healthier and fresher version of the old classics if they wanted young people of their generation to feel comfortable at the new place. “There is this perception about the deli that got stuck in the 1950’s. It was about who had the biggest sandwich, it was kitsch.”
The Wisemans wanted to go smaller, but better. They researched how to cure their own pastrami, how to cold-smoke salmon, to brine and pickle, and how to make their own mustard.
“There’s so much culture that’s embedded into the smoking and curing and pickling. These techniques are in vogue right now,” said Wiseman. This made it easier to introduce these foods to Jews and non-Jews alike.
The restaurant draws its name from the cousins’ family’s history and from a chapter in Washington’s Jewish history. DGS stands for District Grocery Stores, a cooperative of mom-and-pop grocery store owners, most of them Jewish, that formed in 1921. According to the Jewish Historical society of Greater Washington, the organized group didn't only gain better pricing from wholesalers: More crucially, “the cooperative fought the anti-Semitism they encountered in business and social relations. By threatening boycotts, they forced food manufacturers to abandon overtly discriminatory employment practices.” The cooperative later opened a warehouse, allowing the small stores to compete with the big supermarkets.
DGS became a social group to its many members. Alongside the yearly banquets and weekly picnics, they would go on beach outings to Bay Ridge beach near Annapolis, one of the only beaches that was open to Jews and other minorities. Eventually they were able to buy their own beachfront property in the area, making a resort for their families, where they were always welcome.
David Wiseman’s grandfather, David Jeweler, was a Jewish Polish immigrant and one of the D.C. DGS owners. Like many of the original DGS owners, he ended up converting his place to a liquor store, Colonial Liquor, in the 1950’s.
With all the rich Jewish history and memories the Wisemans bring to their deli, I found it interesting that their website and restaurant do not mention the word “Jewish” anywhere. “To us, delicatessen holds the Jewishness. That word is loaded and we wanted to regain that word,” said Wiseman. But they wanted to create a wider tent that does not exclude anyone, which is one of the reasons they also decided not to make the place kosher. Being kosher would have increased their prices significantly and would have eventually alienated some of the young patrons they were after, they say.
The Wisemans definitely succeeded in drawing the masses, teaching them the concept of Jewish cuisine, including those who “did not know what the difference is between pastrami and corned beef was.” And that includes their Guatemalan cooks, who love eating matzo ball soup with the addition of cilantro and chili, and prepare corned beef pupusas for themselves for lunch.
Recipe: DGS Delicatessen’s Benedictberg
One of DGS Delicatessen’s brunch favorites is this take on eggs Benedict. Their version consists of poached eggs over latkes with sumac hollandaise, served with their own smoked salmon. How's that for a Hanukkah brunch?
Sumac is available at health food supermarkets and Middle Eastern supermarkets.
You can buy clarified butter, also known as ghee, or you can find instructions for clarifying it yourself here.
For the sumac hollandaise:
4 1/2 egg yolks
1 cup clarified butter
1/2 teaspoon sumac
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the latkes:
4 1/2 potatoes, peeled and shredded
2 1/2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons minced thyme
3/4 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
oil for frying
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound smoked salmon
1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius).
2. To make the sumac hollandaise, mix yolks in a stainless steel bowl. Place over a saucepan containing 2 inches lightly boiling water (make sure the water does not touch the bowl) and continue to whisk until thickened. Slowly add clarified butter while mixing. Remove from heat, and add sumac, lemon juice and salt. Cover and keep warm.
3. To make the latkes, mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, then squeeze out the excess water using your hands. Make into 12 large patties and arrange on a tray. Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan and fry on both sides until nicely browned. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.
4. To poach the eggs, add 1 inch of water, the salt and the white vinegar to a low, wide saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Break each egg into a small cup and carefully slide it into the water. Turn heat off, cover and let sit for 5 minutes. Do this with 6 eggs at a time.
5. In the meantime, arrange 2 latkes on each plate. Arrange salmon next to latkes. Carefully top each latke with a poached egg and generously spoon sumac hollandaise on top. Serve immediately.