29 May 2007

Katz's Survives Bruni Test

What? Does Katz's have a sign on its back that says "Kick me?" Why does fate seem to have it in for the venerable Lower East Side deli. First, that putz who got in a drunken fight with a security guard threatens to sue the place. Then the rumors that a condo tower would wipe it out. And now, just when it's weak and vulernable, the New York Times sends its egomanical pitbull restaurant critic Frank Bruni after it. Katz's needs a Bruni assessment right now about as much as a hole in the head.

I've frankly had enough of Bruni. The man's all about his own power and reputation, as far as I can see. That said, his review is fairly respectful. His keeps the wiseass remarks to a minimum. He leaves the "Ah, but is it really that good? Is it Bruni good?" devil's advocate stance at the door. One star he gives the place. But he correctly praised many of the deli's offerings, and emphasized the special quality of the service set-up:

To revel in its pastrami sandwich, one of the best in the land, with an eye-popping stack of brined beef that’s juicy, smoky, rapturous. To glory in the intricate ritual of the place: the taking of a ticket at the door; the lining-up in front of one of the servers who carves that beef by hand; the tasting of the thick, ridged slices the server gives us as the sandwich is being built; the nodding when we’re asked if we want pickles, because of course we want pickles.

It’s a ritual unique to Katz’s, an argument, along with Katz’s age, to consider it the king of New York delis, reigning above the Carnegie, above the Second Avenue Deli, which closed a year and a half ago. It may reopen, but not on Second Avenue, a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.

Katz’s shouldn’t be. At few other restaurants can you feel that you’ve stepped this surely into a living museum, a patch of urban mythology.

Bruni the reporter, however, strikes out. Trying to discover if the owner Fred Austin plans to sell the place, he finds out about as much as any of us have. Though he does reveal Austin as a bit of a merciless sadist, toying with New Yorkers' hearts and minds:

When I asked Mr. Austin about the latest rumors that Katz’s was being sold, he said it was entirely possible that somebody could come along and “offer me an amount I can’t walk away from,” but that none of the many offers made so far were sufficiently tempting.

I remarked that his response seemed to leave him plenty of wiggle room.

“How about that?” he said mischievously.


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