Whatever you do, don’t call DGS Delicatessen a “deli.”
“Deli has become any old store or gas station on the corner selling sandwiches and chips,” explains Nick Wiseman, co-owner of the Dupont Circle restaurant. Think also of slices of ham and cheese at the supermarket deli counter.
“For us, delicatessen food is rooted in Eastern European traditions and the immigrants who landed in America, setting up their smoke shops and really good retail shops specializing in food they knew, each with a unique personality.”
For Nick and his partners—cousin David Wiseman, Chef Barry Koslow and general manager Brian Zipin—the downfall of the delicatessen was the industrialization of food over the 20th century. Processing, convenience and portion size overwhelmed quality and authenticity, laments Koslow. ”It became a shortened word just like the convenient, processed food.”
But now, DGS is here to take deli back to delicatessen!
Matzah ball soup, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, kasha varnikas, kreplach, kishka, knish and, of course, smoked meats and fish. They’re all there on the menu since DGS opened its 85-seat, two-story restaurant in November 2012. And yet…
…there’s something else going on here!
Matzah balls made with duck schmaltz? Cabbage stuffed not with ground beef and rice, but ground brisket made almost like a paté and served on a bed of orzo? How did meat-stuffed kreplach floating in broth become salt-cod ravioli with roasted tomatoes, garlic and za’atar spice?
And who ever heard of stuffing a knish with spicy lamb merguez and lentils, served with schmears of raisin mustard and spiced yogurt?
“We wanted to go back to the original meaning and sensibility of the word delicatessen, bringing the feeling, flavors and labor-intensive craftsmanship back,” the chef explains. “At the same time, Jewish food felt stagnant. It hadn’t progressed from its classic roots.”
And so, the DGS team dedicated themselves to modernizing the traditional dishes, “moving the cuisine forward” by mixing Sephardic traditions and tastes into Ashkenazic as well as using techniques from other styles of cooking, like Koslow’s French training and Wiseman’s time with fine Italian food.
Creating the food for the new restaurant led to over a year of trial and error—testing recipes, reading everything they could get their hands on, cooking at home, cooking at their parents’ houses, catering holidays for family and friends and working with Jewish food experts like Joan Nathan to make sure they were still connected to the traditions while staying true to their new vision.
Koslow started experimenting using the little red smoker in his back yard, sometimes under a large beach umbrella in the rain with meat or fish smoking for hours. “My wife would come home from the grocery store and there would be a whole brisket brining in the fridge with no room for the baby food,” the chef chuckles.
Pickling also was a lot of experimentation. Koslow explains that the recipes change very little, but the techniques of fermentation can alter the flavor significantly. “I will pickle anything,” he says, even the artichokes leftover from the Passover menu.
DGS smokes, cures, brines and pickles everything in-house, remaining true to the roots of delicatessen while making the food is more broadly appealing with a lot of depth and substance.
The restaurant is also devoted to bringing top quality and the value of healthy food back to Jewish food through seasonal, local and sustainable meats, fish and vegetables.
Sometimes, Koslow admits, the results mean doing something that traditionally would never be done. Remember that kreplach…or rather, ravioli? “I know sometimes it’s not what you’re used to,” he says, “but it’s how we like it, and it’s good and cool and we want you to try it.”
Wise adds, “We are excited to push forward together with our diners. It’s a collaborative process.”
In just a few short months, DGS has put itself at the leading edge of what Koslow and others see as a renaissance of Jewish food by bringing new awareness and tastes to the fine tradition of the delicatessen.
DGS Delicatessen, 1317 Connecticut Avenue NW, DC, (202) 293-4400. Open seven days a week.
Top photo: Even simple bagel and lox is updated to smoked salmon pastrami with yogurt-based labneh, pickled mustard seeds and cucumber salad. Photo by Joshua Cogan.