Gottlieb’s interior is a museum of smudgy ’50s-style Formica, green Naugahyde, and the kind of high counters that made you feel smaller as a kid. Like many of New York’s greatest Jewish delis—Katz’s, Jay and Lloyd’s—the restaurant prides itself in deferring its face-lift. Within easy walking distance of hipster Williamsburg, this ancient and obscure kosher restaurant thrives in the midst of the Satmar Hasidic community, a sect that has distinguished itself with startling anti-Zionist views (see www.jewsagainstzionism.com), and an 18th-century costume that features knee britches, powder-white stockings, and buckled slippers.
The menu incorporates none of the modern fripperies like wraps, Buffalo wings, and Israeli salads that self-consciously modern delis have added. Instead, the window beckons with its display of chicken cutlets, moist homemade kishke, and two types of potato knishes, and there’s a solid menu of what our waiter playfully termed “Jewish soul food.” This includes chopped liver, gefilte fish, cold tongue, matzo ball soup, particularly good Hungarian goulash, several egg-meat combos, and, especially, the manifold permutations of beef brisket. While the pastrami and corned beef are just so-so, the brisket sandwich ($7.50 regular, $9 large) shines, made with a roasted cut of meat that sports a nice caramelized edge and effusive juiciness. Request gravy. Those chicken cutlets lolling in the window are also superb, pounded thin and only lightly breaded.
While offering nothing modern, the menu does have its odd byways. When I spotted Irish beef stew ($3.50) I was flummoxed. Would it be the usual chocolate swamp of meat and potatoes? What appeared was a saucer of sweet sauerkraut with tidbits of smoked meat. Then the significance struck me—this is what early Jewish immigrants must have seen their Irish neighbors eating, and copied it. Note that the celebrated corned beef and cabbage never existed in Ireland, but was, according to NYU prof Hasia Diner, invented here when Gaelic immigrants added Jewish deli meats to their meager dinner of boiled cabbage.
Also in evidence are a handful of dishes that probably reflect the state of Chinese cooking when the restaurant was founded. Though the chicken chow mein ($3.50 appetizer) is a soggy mess, it’s worth considering for scholarly purposes. Chicken cacciatore and meatballs in tomato sauce are the restaurant’s Italian borrowings. Think of it as yesterday’s fusion cooking.
But when it comes to placing your order—stick with the brisket sandwich, french fries, and cole slaw.
The simplicity of tiny coffee shop BUREKTORJA DUKAGJINI (758 Lydig Avenue, Bronx, 718-822-8955) is refreshing, with a menu limited to three kinds of bureks (cheese, spinach, and ground meat), homemade yogurt to dip them in, and the standard permutations of espresso. The contraption the bureks fly out of looks like a miniature pizza oven, and these round filo pies appear with clockwork regularity. Though they outwardly resemble the Bosnian bureks of Astoria, the Albanian examples are less greasy; the spinach version lacks cheese, but is more powerfully flavored with dill, while the cheese is extra-cheesy and even tastes good stone cold. Whole pie: $12.
The far-eastern town of Bellerose boasts several grandiose Indian restaurants, and newcomer RAJ MAHAL (248-08 Union Turnpike, Queens, 718-831-0200) welcomes guests with an ornate cloisonné door, a samovar the size of a small car, and a stadium-size dining room. In addition to standard Mughal fare, tandooris, and biryanis, the menu offers a handful of regional specialties, including a Kerala goat fry of flavorful meat with a piquant masala, and a wonderful bindi masala featuring lemony baby okra. As we downed our excellent chicken tandoori, a wide-screen television presented colorfully turbaned Sikhs confronting Brit colonialists on the cricket pitch. Not the way I remembered it.