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Reality Bites 

BIG APPLE DELI might not be able to create the total illusion of a New York-style deli, but sometimes it's the next best thing to being there.

The Reuben sat on a dainty plastic plate decorated with a blue floral pattern, but there was nothing refined about this massive sandwich. The layers of corned beef, piled so high that a hump had risen in the center of the rye bread, were as thick as a filet with the qualities of a good steak -- well-marbled with a taste of red meat. In an act of multi-state culinary cooperation, the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue in New York City selects the brisket and brines it, and then the Big Apple Deli on Maple Street boils the meat for four hours, slices it and uses it to make classic deli sandwiches.

Big Apple wisely builds a Reuben that is more dry than dripping -- with just a smattering of sauerkraut, a slice of Swiss cheese and a daub of Russian dressing. With corned beef this stellar, too many other ingredients would just get in the way. The Carnegie Deli also provides the smoky, spice-rubbed pastrami, and Big Apple makes a Brooklyn Reuben that substitutes the excellent pastrami for corned beef.

When you order a sandwich, it pays to be specific about how you want it prepared. One day a friend asked me to bring him a pastrami sandwich 'dressed.' He unwrapped his lunch and found under the bread a little mustard, a pale lettuce leaf and a limp tomato. I normally choose one of Big Apple's signature sandwiches and let the restaurant make the decisions for me. The Classic, for example, combines corned beef and pastrami with the perfect ratio of Russian dressing and a coleslaw full of cabbage sliced thick enough to keep its crunch.

A selection of Boar's Head deli meats, like turkey and ham, are also an option. Next to the meat from the Carnegie Deli, the Boar's Head turkey on a club sandwich seemed plain by comparison. If not for the equal ratio of grilled pastrami 'bacon' to turkey on the club sandwich, I might have felt that I was making a sacrifice in the name of good health.

A Big Apple sandwich and a can of Dr. Brown's soda, available in a range of flavors including cream soda, black cherry and Cel Ray, might seem like more than enough food for anyone without a raging metabolism. I normally assume that half my sandwich will be destined for a doggy bag and start my meal with a nosh or two. The knishes, pockets of whipped potatoes enclosed in fried dough, are a partial success: the potato mixture is filling, but sometimes the dough can be gummy after sitting out too long. Unless the knish is fresh, opt for the potato latkes, a grated potato pancake with the texture (and I say this to horrify any New Yorkers reading this review) like creamy grits. The matzo ball soup, made from scratch using the recipe of owner Greg Prasker's mother, was full of egg noodles in a chicken broth flavored with fresh parsley and dill.

The nosh to end all noshes, though, was the Reuben Wellington, one of Big Apple's original creations. A rich hash of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing is wrapped inside a soft pastry shell with extra Russian dressing on the side for dipping. It's a riff on a Reuben that you could eat while walking down the street.

Any deli that claims a connection to New York must be judged on its bagels, the quintessential New York food. Big Apple orders its bagels directly from H&H in Manhattan. The bagels are parbaked, a process that involves flash freezing bread just before it finishes baking and then completing the baking at another location. The parbaked bagels may not match the best fresh bagels in New York, but the wonderful chewy texture of the H&H bagels makes them far better than the soft bread with a hole in the center that often masquerades as a bagel in New Orleans.

After finishing a knish, a half sour pickle and most of a Reuben one afternoon, I decided to continue my parade of excess with a slice of cheesecake. (The desserts, several kinds of cheesecake, strudels and a seven-layer cake, are also from the Carnegie Deli.) The regular cheesecake tasted like nothing more than lightly sweetened cream cheese and it clung to my fork. I scraped off every delicious bite. I would avoid the rugalach cheesecake topped with what tasted like a thick layer of cheap fudge. The apple strudel, a log of moist, baked apples sprinkled generously with cinnamon and wrapped in a flaky crust, is a lighter finale to a meal. Big Apple Deli calls itself a New York deli, implicitly challenging all New Yorkers living in New Orleans to compare the restaurant to their memories of home. I've overheard families ticking off, one-by-one, which dishes measure up to true New York standards. One native New Yorker I know complained about the bright yellow decor and a car mural that looks like a tribute to Grand Theft Auto . Big Apple Deli may fail to recreate the atmosphere of a New York deli, but with half the menu imported directly from New York, they don't need the illusion -- they can put the reality of the city on your plate.

click to enlarge Pile on: BIG APPLE DELI owner Greg Prasker loves to stack - his sandwiches high, whether it's the Reuben or - signature works like the Classic and the Big Apple itself. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Pile on: BIG APPLE DELI owner Greg Prasker loves to stack his sandwiches high, whether it's the Reuben or signature works like the Classic and the Big Apple itself.
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