For those readers who intuited a degree of projection in my article about Mile End, the Brooklyn deli that served Chinese food on Christmas and thereby allowed certain young urban Jews to make “an elective assertion of their culture,” well, I plead guilty: 4 pm on Christmas Day found me there. Co-owning couple Noah Bermanoff and Rae Cohen knew who I was, and we chatted amiably—which is to say, if you want a critically honest, untainted account of the meal (or a critically professional one), you should read elsewhere. But for my money—or, rather, for my employer’s—Mile End’s meal was charming, and the food, with almost the exact right balance between whimsy and craftsmanship, was delicious, alternately Chinese-inspired and just, simply, Chinese.
The small crowd included two babies and three older couples—one of whom, sitting at the counter, were pretty clearly sous chef Aaron Israel’s folks. Along with the day’s menu, the chalkboard above the deli’s open kitchen noted that loaves of challah are for sale every Friday for $6. “We should get some and start celebrating Shabbat,” I overheard one diner say to another. “We have candles. Dunno if we have candlesticks.” There were three cooks (including Bermanoff and Israel), two servers (including Cohen), and one prep-chef in the back. That’s it.
All the diners were there for the 4 pm seating, and so everyone received the same courses at roughly the same time. First out (besides delicious, vaguely seaweed-tasting green tea with a few grains of burnt rice) was the eggdrop soup with wontons. This was simple (and richly delicious) chicken broth, stringly scrambled egg, those delicious crispy-fried things bobbing at the top (to be eaten in either crunchy or soggy state, depending on your predilection), and, of course, the wontons, ribbons of dough with a ravioli-like center—filled, as wontons are wont to be, with pork. More on that in a sec.
Next came duck buns: Standard light buns; standard plum sauce; standard thinly sliced cucumbers; but un-standard duck tongue, a nice, salty, and thoroughly deli-inspired alteration.
Then, egg rolls, stuffed with various veggies, shrimp, and, well … . Well I don’t eat pork. I am not kosher: As a proud American, I eat cheeseburgers; as a proud Marylander, I eat crabs (and other shellfish). But I tend not to have made the leap to pork. This has kept me from pork chops, ham, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage, chorizo, and—I am told, most importantly of all—bacon. And it has of course kept me from wontons and egg rolls. On Christmas Day, I nibbled at the dough of the wontons but kept my distance from their centers. The egg rolls? I broke them open, used my chopsticks to ease some of the unfamiliar meat (pork and Chinese sausage) out, and then, well, took a bite. Who knows what I actually ended up eating? That’s my story, anyway. They were good.
Next came the main courses: Smoked meat fried rice; roast duck; and Chinese broccoli. I was most excited, of everything, for the smoked meat fried rice, but—though my eating companion emphatically disagrees—to me this was the least impressive dish. Not that it wasn’t scrumptious: The fried rice was fine, with the egg and the standard peas, carrots, etcetera; and Mile End’s signature homemade smoked meat—the native-to-Montreal brisket/pastrami mash-up—is always welcome. But together, they were, well, smoked meat and fried rice. Neither ingredient detracted from the other, but nor, to my tastebuds, did either complement the other especially well. You were either tasting (perfectly good) fried rice or (typically fantastic) smoked meat. I would rather eat fried rice with the typical chicken protein, and smoked meat in its traditional sandwich setting (or in Mile End’s phenomenal poutine), is what I’m saying.
The broccoli was superb seasoned by the usual garlic and the inspired ginger (which I ate by itself, getting that kick of a mouth-sting).
And then there was the duck, for me the clear highlight. Duck for two—the chefs must have resisted the temptation to accurately but tritely name the dish “duck three ways”—was one half of a roast duck: Leg confit-ed; breast cured and smoked; and wings roasted and basted. The leg was great, fatty and delicious. The wings were finger-lickingly fun. And the duck breast was the ultimate triumph: You could not eat it and not think of Peking duck, and yet it was different than Peking duck, clearly cooked with superior craftsmanship—different and better. It is the dish I find myself thinking of a day later, and the dish I will continue to crave.
Dessert was fortune and almond cookies and orange slices. When I read this on the menu several weeks ago, I felt disappointed—surely they could be more creative than that? But Saturday, circa 5:30 pm, there was nothing else I would have wished to eat, and probably nothing else I could have eaten.
“You guys’ll have to come back for the Seder tasting menu,” Cohen quipped to departing diners. (I am pretty sure she was joking, although Bermanoff did note that, last Passover, they made their own matzah.) As for the Chinese food, though: I can officially report Cohen’s unofficial guess that, pretty soon, on one Sunday per month, you will be able to line up outside Mile End’s small Boerum Hill storefront for a traditional Jewish Sunday night supper. You will want to do this.
Related: Jewish Christmas [Tablet Magazine]