There are plenty of extraordinary talents who will never have the experience of being professionally reviewed. Art critics don't write about caricature sketchers, book critics don't write about ghost writers and music critics don't write about celebrity impersonators, no matter how well they draw, write or sing. Because although critics in different disciplines use different words - I'm still unclear on coloratura - we're all ultimately interested in creative vision and the idiosyncrasies of interpretation. When an artist's only objective is to imitate, we don't have much to say.
To steal a word from the art critic's playbook, pastiche is something I don't often encounter on the restaurant reviewing circuit. But Goldbergs' Famous Deli is exactly that: A studious attempt to replicate a deli that sprung up in a community 3000 miles from here. As I say in this week's review, it's the edible equivalent of a tribute band.
While I was writing the review, I asked our music editor, Chris Kornelis, how he'd measure the quality of a tribute band. "Tribute bands are all about having fun," he e-mailed (I know, I could have walked over to his desk, but I hate to stray too far from my keyboard.) "That, to me, is the only benchmark. Nobody's trying to be cool or get a record deal. All they're trying to do is have a good time."
I'm with Kornelis: If a restaurant's a re-enactment, it ought to be enjoyable. And many such restaurants are: I'm incredibly fond of ye olde restaurants at open-air museums where patrons sip lemonade through macaroni straws and puzzle over what "do." means on a menu. I once spent a New Year's Eve supping on Moravian chicken pie at the Old Salem Tavern, and remember dragging my parents to Ed Debevic's on every Chicago trip we took when I was in high school. What makes those restaurants work is a healthy sense of humor - which is a very distinct type of vision - and an equally well-developed sense of fun. That's what Goldbergs' is missing.
I don't think it really matters how well Goldbergs' mimics The Stage Deli, its Detroit-based inspiration, but it's an effort I'm oddly capable of judging. The Stage's main location is on Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield, just down the street from the Jewish Community Center that served as the dispatch point for buses to my summer sleepaway camp. Coming home from camp meant lunch at The Stage, where the pickles were always forthcoming and servers never forgot my chocolate phosphates. Suffice to say I had no idea Goldbergs' was modeled after The Stage until I found the information online.
Interestingly, while Goldbergs' couldn't quite manage the Stage rip-off, a new restaurant in New York provides a template for successfully paying homage to a chopped liver institution. Zach Kutsher recently partnered with mega-restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow to open Kutsher's Tribeca, its name and concept borrowed from the century-old Catskills resort. At Kutsher's, there's smoked veal tongue, duck pastrami and "virtually no incongruous elements," as Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema explained this month in his very positive review. The restaurant apparently captures the Borscht Belt's spirit without smothering it through duplication. "The miracle of the menu is that it resolutely stays within the canon of Jewish-American vernacular food, lovingly revamped by chef Mark Spangenthal," Sietsema writes. Sounds like fun.
Goldbergs' is obviously in a different category, but it's not a complete miss. I really like the kishke, and the Nation's Best corned beef is excellent. For more on what's worth ordering, check out my full review here.