On Rye does not purport to transform Jewish cuisine. It does not wrap gefilte into sushi rolls, press corned beef quesadillas or make kimchi kugel. It does, however, reflect the genuine spirit of the future of Jewish food in America. It’s new, but grounded in tradition; it’s nostalgic, but reflects contemporary dining standards.
“This is the food that I spent my childhood eating, elbow to elbow with my grandparents, in Boca Raton, Florida,” says founder Ilyse Fishman Lerner. “The menu is a conversation with the diner—it conveys what you’re about and what you value.”
Fishman Lerner has been cooking and baking since childhood, but after leaving law practice and honing her skills at Per Se as well as earning a degree in culinary management, this is the first time she’s tested the waters of owning an establishment.
She was fortunate enough to open a pop-up stand at Nationals Park to see how her goods would be received. “Our goal,” she told us, “is to change the perception of Jewish sandwiches and other deli items as ‘heavy, special-occasion food’ to everyday fare that you can eat several times a week, while still maintaining a connection to the comfort and tradition of the cuisine.”
That baseball stand brought Fishman Lerner, and her third-generation-Washingtonian husband and business partner Jonathan Lerner, sweet acclaim all summer. Accolades overflowed like a bubbly egg cream, most especially for her incredible summertime confection: the babka ice cream sandwich. With her smooth, moist babka threaded with cinnamon and chocolate and paired with vanilla bean gelato from local favorite Dolci Gelato, she hit it out of the park.
Then came the tough part. On Rye, which opened its doors in Chinatown on November 11, focuses, clearly, on the sandwiched history of the American Jewish deli. But Fishman Lerner shied away from the overstuffed plates of yore. These dishes are trimmed-down versions using fresh ingredients and with a low sodium content. Half the sandwiches are or can be made vegetarian.
The version of that most famous deli staple—pastrami on rye—features gently prepared low-sodium-brine sous-vide Wagyu corned beef, Wagyu pastrami or roasted turkey breast, plus a simple slather of mustard, laid on locally sourced marble rye. Meat is a treat, says Fishman Lerner. It should be treated like that.
Of course, you’ll also find the traditional Reuben, as well as a veggie options that rotate seasonally, like the current standout roasted-beet Reuben. Chanukah will bring both fried and baked latkes; brunch means more of that heavenly babka, but this time in French toast form. Seinfeld’s Elaine would be so lucky.
Talking about her food, Fishman Lerner said, “I think that the On Rye menu is a great reflection of where we see Jewish food headed moving forward. We want our food to be comforting, but healthy, honoring the past while adapting to current wants and needs.”
The drink program is also both a throwback and an elevation of deli fizz that cuts through any sandwich, heavy or light. There are, of course, Dr. Brown’s sodas, as well as egg creams: milk, U-bet chocolate syrup (the only possible syrup to use) and seltzer. Coming soon and bringing it up a notch: champagne and wine, to make that pastrami even more of a special occasion.
As for the space, there’s a bookshelf that lines the back wall of the dining area. Fishman Lerner said this was planned specifically to reflect a certain kind of atmosphere. “The materials on it—the books, the plants, the tchotchkes—are conversation pieces. Our grandparents’ generation and those before them used to sit around and kibbitz in the Jewish delis of yesteryear.” Though it may be a sandwich shop, this area is meant to foster this same kind of conversation, with a focus on lively community spirit.
On Rye is subtly, forcefully, yet tastefully bringing the Jewish deli into the modern culinary era.
On Rye, 740 6th Street, NW, Washington, DC, Open daily 11 am–10 pm. Not kosher.
Top photo: On Rye’s roasted beet Reuben (All photos by Scott Suchman)