If you believe the hype generated by this city's fans of yellow mustard lavished over rye bread, Dr. Brown's soda, sauerkraut and pumpernickel whenever possible, bagels with smoked salmon and capers, and Pastrami Mouthbuster sandwiches whose girth make good on that name, Martin's is home to the only true deli in New Orleans proper. It's not Carnegie Deli, the New York-savvy among us like to point out, but it's the best we've got.
I used to believe, and probably even helped generate, the deli-branding of Martin's. Then, one Sunday in late summer of this year, a wild hair provoked me to forgo my usual Rueben for a couple of Martin's daily specials. First I tried a cup of chilled white peach soup that, unlike most members of the fruit soup genre, resembled neither a blended smoothie nor a super-strained juice; rather it possessed the assertive but distinctly liquid structure of a full-bodied broth, and -- most remarkably -- it tasted like the ideal of a ripe white peach. Equally vibrant with plain flavors, a main course composition teamed together medium-rare beef medallions, delicately soft-poached eggs, barely dressed arugula and tomato slices roasted just long enough to tease out the fruit's natural sweetness.
Branding Martin's 30-odd sandwiches as New Orleans' best stab at a delicatessen always felt something like a cautious compliment or a veiled insult -- Americans seem to agree that New York sets the deli standard, and a deli outside New York will forever suffer from comparison. In contrast, proclaiming that Martin's daily specials (there's always a salad, entree, "healthy" selection, Sugarbusters dish, quiche, burger, sandwich and soup) are as polished and as pleasurable as any lunches served Uptown is as straightforward as compliments come.
How long this was the case before I tuned into the now-irresistible display of pre-plated specials is up for question, as they are not a new phenomenon. What I can report is that since that late-summer brunch, I have surrendered to a skin-on fillet of ruby red trout, greaselessly pan-fried and set over greens with a black bean and pineapple salsa; to a thick, lean, grill-charred sirloin burger on a toasted sesame-egg bun with creamy blue cheese and a side of spicy battered steak fries; to split pea soup, and to Monday red beans, both undulating with ham. The Friday soup is always Aunt Elsie's shrimp, crab and okra gumbo, a sea-kissed pottage buzzing with pepper.
Though I have long directed Creole-weary travelers to Martin's for detoxing on roughage, none of the restaurant's standard salads (Chef, spinach and mushroom, tossed, Caesar) prepared me for the gobsmacking delivered by this salad special: spicy, lemon-dressed arugula cradling bundles of sliced San Daniele prosciutto, Parmesan shavings and grilled wedges of red-skinned pear. If only I knew when it would surface again.
Three Tuesdays ago, I sat down to what was to be my final pre-review lunch, coq au vin: a leg-thigh portion of chicken, its flesh stained from red wine, its skin browned and chewy (poultry candy) and its thick braising liquid imbued with roasted garlic, thyme, mushrooms and lardons. Nutty fingerling potatoes and pencils of asparagus flanked the chicken, proof that there's even a strategy to side dishes in Martin's narrow, semi-open kitchen.
That wasn't, by the way, my final pre-review meal, and if I couldn't already sense my editor wringing his hands, I'd probably be there again right now. At least there's the Daily Specials Hotline recording (894-7407). Today, I just heard, the salad involved a mint-crusted lamb loin, the "healthy" was yellowfin tuna, and the soup paired wild rice and duck. This sort of virtual eating is more satisfying than you might expect. I frequent the Uptown Martin's (there's also a popular one in Metairie with different chefs but a similar menu) because it's convenient to where I work; besides its deli sandwiches and lunch specials, convenience is Martin's greatest asset. It's a cafeteria of durable elegance, of sunlight fractured through a glass brick wall, of Perrier in plastic bottles and of wines for less than $4 a glass. The system is essentially self-service. You stand in line to order, pay before grabbing your own silverware and fetch your provisions when called. If it's not posh, there is payback -- prices are reasonable and the streamlined system means that, if timed right, even workers with a 30-minute break can dine well. What else do you want out of lunch?