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Martin Benjamin

Written in Sandwiches
By B.A. Nilsson

Center Stage Deli
2678 Hamburg St., Schenectady, 355-7791. Serving Mon-Sat 8-8. AE, MC, V.

Food: * * * ½
Service: Quick

Ambiance: Deli!

Let’s sing the praises of sandwiches. Last week’s discourse on crêpes noted the wider array of fillings available when the items are fully wrapped; working within the traditional bread slices restricts you to stuff that’s been sliced—or at least lays somewhat flat.

Deli meats, for instance. Sticky salads. Sauerkraut and Russian dressing tend to exceed those limits and squirt past the corned beef, but that’s what makes the classic sandwich Reubenesque.

You can find such eats at specialty chains and supermarket counters and, worst of all, made much earlier in the day and cellophaned into flavor submission. But for the real thing, you need to go to a delicatessen.

It’s a legacy of 19th-century German immigrants, whose cooked-food shops thus introduced the wurst that would become (at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904) that all-American snack, the hot dog.

The association between delis and theater probably began in the 1930s when Max Asnas opened his Stage Deli at Broadway (it’s now at 7th Avenue) and 48th Street in Manhattan and won a loyal following among the theatrical types who worked nearby.

When David Kniskern opened the Center Stage Deli on Schenectady’s Jay Street in 1981, it was part of a supposedly revitalized downtown that included a pedestrian mall on that thoroughfare. The patient went into remission briefly, but downtown has since slipped into a coma. There’s a branch of his deli still operating in Proctor’s Arcade, but he relocated the main operation to Rotterdam five years ago.

Here on Hamburg Street, he has developed an enthusiastic customer base in vivid contrast to what downtown Schenectady offered. His storefront is in a nondescript strip mall, and the inside decor is similarly unobtrusive. But it’s comfortable, and the walls are lined with autographed pictures and posters collected from shows and artists who have visited Proctor’s Theatre over the years and sampled Kniskern’s fare. Thus you’ll see encomia from Don Knotts and (in a different production) the cast of Cats.

Sandwiches are an obvious mainstay, although there are lunch and dinner specials available throughout the day, and I can testify that on another visit I enjoyed a terrific plate of meat loaf while my daughter gobbled up a plate of fried clams.

The menu lists every traditional sandwich, cold and hot, and adds combos, subs and triple-deckers. There are burgers, other grilled sandwiches, salads and soups. Most of the items fall into the $5-$7 range.

Building a worthy Reuben isn’t about size. It’s a matter of proportion. This is true of any sandwich, but the Reuben has such a loyal following that the ingredients are emotionally debated—as is the provenance. Some credit it to Arnold Reuben, of his namesake Manhattan delicatessen, who is said to have concocted it in 1914 for a noted actress (cheese and cole slaw were among the ingredients). Others favor an Omaha grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky as the inventor, serving players in a late-night poker game in 1922 or ’25.

A grilled Reuben ($6.50) thus became one of the important items to consider during a visit to Center Stage. I lunched with my friends Tom and Malcolm, neither of whom is bashful about tucking into a meal—but Malcolm, most diminutive of the three of us, is able to put away grub in anaconda-like proportions.

This is his regular dining spot, and our server already knew what he’d want: an Italian mixed sub ($7), listed among the gourmet subs. That’s the price for the giant size; a mini will run you a buck and a quarter less.

I put in for a terrible, wonderful combo: roast beef and chopped liver ($6.50), also available as a triple-decker ($7). “Get the regular combo,” our server suggested. “That one also has cole slaw on it.” As with the Reuben, there’s something about shredded, seasoned, dressed cabbage that adds more of a deluxe quality to a sandwich than mere lettuce. So I went for it.

We started with soup: Tom and Malcolm each had a bowl of tomato with rice ($2.75); I had a cup of chicken noodle ($2). The soups shared the tricky quality of adhering to the recipes made famous by the canned varieties while sporting the obvious flavor of the freshly made variety, where stock and not salt becomes the major flavor enhancement.

Sandwiches for Tom and Malcolm arrived pre-split so each could share half of the other’s. What with the size of the giant sub, even cut in half, both plates had barely room to accommodate the pickle and potato chips.

On the Italian sub, ham and spicy cappicolla nestled with salami and provolone cheese, but it was the roasted peppers that set off the flavors, with lettuce, tomato and onion to finish the mix, with a perky Italian dressing to add zing. The Reuben was as traditional as it can be, which is just what you want in that sandwich.

I could make it through but half of the roast beef-chopped liver combo. Too rich; too good. A great and filling dinner sandwich later that day.

Rice pudding and bread pudding both are made in-house ($2 each), and both use a rich egg custard base for a pleasing effect. Because Tom and I stopped ourselves halfway through our sandwiches, we each enjoyed one. Malcolm, who wolfed down everything on his plate, finished off with a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie ($3.50). Amazing what you can do to yourself.

Lunch for three, with tax and tip, desserts and sodas, was $49.

TABLE SCRAPS


The Saratoga Wine Exchange (42 Phila St., behind Ben & Jerry’s, across from the carousel) has several noteworthy October events on tap, including a tasting of New York wines tomorrow (Friday) and next Friday (Oct 25); a tasting of California wines on Saturday; and an Oregon tasting on Oct 26. All run from 4 to 10 PM. Call 580-9891 for more info. . . . Ferrandi’s French Restaurant (Route 67, east of Amsterdam) hosts a Fall Harvest Dinner Oct 17-20, for which chef Eric Masson presents a four-course meal celebrating local end-of-season produce. It’s $29 per person; for info and reservations, phone the restaurant at 842-6977 or check out www.ferrandis.net. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland. You can also e-mail them to food@banilsson.com.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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