Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SLICE MAKES NICE: Co-owner Steve Osterback weighs out some prime pastrami.
Georgia Food on My Mind
Rosemary and Thyme Deli in San Jose keeps alive the art of making pastrami right
By Stett Holbrook
SILICON VALLEY'S best pastrami sandwich happens to be hiding in a Russian/Georgian deli in San Jose. The pastrami sandwich is a classic of the American deli. The brine-cured and sometimes smoked beef brisket came to America via Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The origins of the deliciously tangy, fat-moistened meat are thought to be in Romania, but several neighboring countries including Armenia and Turkey also have a history of pastrami.
It's difficult to find anyone who makes pastrami anymore, especially on the West Coast. Most of what passes for pastrami is mass-produced and shrink-wrapped. Pastrami making is a dying art. It's traditionally made from the navel end of the brisket, a cut of meat that could be described as the cow's chest. The meat is brined and then coated with spices such as garlic, pepper, coriander and clove. It's a technique meant to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration. The result is a lightly salty, wonderfully rich meat that borders and sometimes crosses over into fatty.
Tiny Rosemary and Thyme Deli serves a few American dishes as well as the aforementioned Russian and Georgian food. While pastrami is a classic of American delis, the meat's Old World roots make it right at home here. Co-owner Steve Osterback created the recipe with former partner Ryan McTigh, and it's superb.
The pastrami sandwich (half $4.50, full $6.99) is served hot with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, spicy mustard and creamy Russian dressing, which kind of makes it a Reuben/pastrami hybrid. The meat itself is wonderfully smoky, with a heady briny spice to it and lacy crispy fat on the edges. It's kind of like bacon—beefy bacon. The only flaw in this otherwise superb sandwich is the bread. It's rye bread, which is the classic accompaniment, but it's light and fluffy and unsubstantial. A great sandwich needs great bread, and this isn't it.
While the pastrami sandwich should be at the top of your list here, there are several other standout items not to be missed either. There are a few outlets for Russian food in Silicon Valley, but none that I know of for Georgian food. Georgian food is lighter than Russian food owing to the country's lower latitude and warmer climate. Eggplant, tomatoes, lamb, walnuts, olives and fresh herbs play central roles in Georgian food.
Co-owner Louba Burstein is from the Georgian Republic and is clearly proud of her native food and enjoys introducing customers to it. She steered me toward the khinkali, and I'm grateful to her for doing so. Khinkali are Georgian-style dumplings stuffed with highly seasoned ground beef. The cue-ball-size bundles are wrapped up in a thin dough and twisted at the top into a point.
To me, they're like oversize dim sum. To eat them you hold the little point and bite down over a plate. The dumplings are loaded with aromatic beefy juice and this method minimizes the chance that it dribbles down your chin and into your lap. But the dumplings are so good they're worth the risk of grease stains on your pants. They're sold for $6.99 a pound so you can get just one or a whole plateful. They're also available frozen to take home.
Adjap-sandal ($4.99 a pound), a hearty and rich blend of roasted eggplant and tomatoes, is another Georgian specialty that tastes like it could come from Italy or Spain with its sultry Mediterranean flavors. It's a great side dish, but the meaty eggplant makes it work as a vegetarian main course.
My favorite Georgian discovery was khachapuri ($2.50), a wonderful cheese-filled pastry, which is available in a square of puffed pastry or as a kind of reverse pizza round with the cheese inside a moist and savory crust. I tried the latter and loved it. The pastry has a yeasty tang that really sets off the gooey mozzarella and feta cheese filling.
Golubtsi ($2.50 each) is a classic of Russian food, and the cabbage-wrapped meatballs are juicy and flavorful here. Be sure to get some of the Russian-style sour cream to plop on top. The deli makes its own chicken- or potato-filled piroshki ($1.50), but they're best right out of the oven. Mine was reheated in the microwave, and the once light pastry became too chewy.
Borscht (cup $3.99, bowl $5.99) is another Russian standard, but the beet and beef soup was a disappointment. Served hot, the soup was strikingly bland and needed salt, a splash of vinegar, or both. If you're hankering for soup, the cream of mushroom is better.
The deli makes a wide range of pastries and cookies and other desserts. I'll have to come back for those. OK, and I guess I'll get another pastrami sandwich, too.
Rosemary and Thyme Deli
Address: 5175 Moorpark Ave., San Jose.
Hours: 10:30am–7pm Mon–Sat.
Cuisine: Russian, Georgian and American deli.
Price Range: Most items $2.50–$8.
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