Monty’s Deli–The Perfect Pastrami Sandwich

Kristen Frederickson

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Call me shallow, but one of the things I miss the very most about living in New York City is… pastrami. There is simply nothing here in London quite as luscious as a pile of the juicy slices on proper Jewish rye, from Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side of New York. I have missed it all terribly, here in our English home.

Of course, London has its share of Jewish restaurants, especially in the neighborhood of Golders Green, and I’ve been to several of them with friends from New York, searching for that elusive taste of home. But while I’ve found pastrami and corned beef (known here as “salt beef”), I haven’t found the sense of homey passion, that single-minded devotion to traditional Jewish food, that Katz’s Deli offers up so naturally.

Until Saturday, that is, when I found myself at Monty’s Deli in the terribly hipster-ish Maltby Street Market in the southeast London neighborhood of Bermondsey. Open only on Saturdays, 9:30-3 along with everyone else in Maltby Street Market, Monty’s is the brainchild of 34-year-old Mark Ogus, a Londoner born and bred, raised in the Jewish culture and traditions of his Grandfather Monty for whom the small, warm, bustling café is named.

Oh, the pastrami! Early each week, Mark acquires 45 stunning kilos of responsibly sourced, grass-fed Scottish beef through a family-run butcher shop in southwest London (I know who they are, but I promised Mark not to reveal his sources). This he brings home (literally, as so far he’s cooking entirely from his own kitchen) and soaks it in his special, secret brining liquid for six days, bringing it out on Friday to rub it with spices (also secret), preparatory for Saturday’s mayhem at the Market.

And it is mayhem! Having been featured two weeks ago on BBC Two’s inspiring program “Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food,” Monty’s crowds are totally overwhelming. We arrived there the first Saturday after the program aired, and were turned away at 1 o’clock. No more pastrami! No more salt beef! We’d have to try again. In the meantime, I had a wonderful email exchange with Mark.

“On the wonderful and rare occasions I got to go to Katz’s Deli in New York or Langer’s in L.A., I yearned for a place like those delis in London, but there isn’t the same Jewish culture in the UK. I felt like now is the time to try and fix that. A big part of those places’ appeal is that the meats are cured and prepared in house, the delis making their name on the quality of their specific recipes for pastrami and salt beef (called corned beef over there). In London you’ll find that nearly all of the places selling salt beef buy their meat ready-cured. It’s manufactured on a very large scale, and has an over-salty taste and dry texture.”

On the wonderful and rare occasions I got to go to Katz’s Deli in New York or Langer’s in L.A., I yearned for a place like those delis in London, but there isn’t the same Jewish culture in the UK.

No fears on that score with Monty’s, as I found out for myself on our second visit. We returned last Saturday at 11:30, determined to get some of the good stuff. We scored the last two sandwiches, giving our order to the impossibly poised and friendly Miriam behind the counter. During our wait, we watched Danny, who has possibly the saddest job in London, telling all the dozens and dozens of people streaming into the little shop, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but there is no more pastrami, no more salt beef.” I asked Danny why he didn’t get a sandwich board (or rather, a no-sandwich board) to put outside the shop once they’d run out of meat.

“No, I couldn’t do that,” Danny said earnestly. “Some of these people have come really far, as far as Bristol, and they deserve the personal touch.”

Feeling rather guilty, but very lucky, we sat down with our pastrami. So worth the wait! Luscious and lean, piled on real Jewish rye with those inimitably chewy crusts, topped with homemade cabbage and carrot slaw. Not wet, mushy slaw, but properly crunchy and fresh. The flavor of the beef was subtle, and figuring out my own brining mixture eventually will be hit or miss, as Mark’s not talking. “My recipes come from experimenting with family staples such as chicken soup and kneidlach. The pastrami and salt beef recipe is always improving and changing as I tinker with it all the time to make it better!”

Monty’s started trading in February 2012 and was invited to join Maltby Street the following month. As Mark explained, “I’ve never looked back!  We are going to be moving in to a proper kitchen space before the end of this month hopefully, and that will enable me to produce more food and trade longer hours, so I won’t be running out of grub by noon anymore!” But he’s determined to keep the business trading at Maltby Street, which is lucky for his regulars.

“I love my regulars but since the TV thing I worry they haven’t had much of a look in! The sooner we get into our kitchen space the better as I want to make sure I at least have enough food for them.”

Because I’m terribly greedy, on my visit I wasn’t satisfied with just a pastrami sandwich, no matter how delicious. We started with a steaming cup of chicken noodle soup with matzoh balls–small and tender, just as they should be. I was immediately taken straight back to my friend Alyssa’s kitchen in Tribeca, stealing spoonsful of her perfect soup at Rosh Hashanah. No matter how many times I try, my matzoh ball soup never has quite the right magic. I think it is Jewish love, that flavor.

And can I just say, possibly even more fabulous than the pastrami was the chopped liver!  Rich and chunky, with hints of onion and just the right sprinkle of hard-boiled egg, it was simply sublime piled on little bits of the Jewish rye that I stole from my pastrami sandwich. You can buy matzoh or challah for your chopped liver at Monty’s, but to my mind the rye is the perfect vehicle.

We’ll be back to Monty’s Deli, perhaps waiting until Mark’s set up in his new off-site kitchen, so we don’t have to arrive at breakfast time to avoid disappointment. And maybe by then, we’ll be able to get an extra sandwich–a Reuben dripping with sauerkraut, melted cheese and Russian dressing–to bring home to Avery who is, after all, the real New Yorker in the family.

What food do you miss when you are far away from home?

Photo credit: John Curran