Matzo ball soup is listed as Jewish penicillin on the menu, a name that compels a diner to order a bowl. Confit chicken and coins of carrots stock a rich, fragrant broth. Matzo balls rest in the center, garnished with a sprig of dill.
Diners can agree this broth is divine but it's the matzo balls that stir debate. "My bubbe would not approve," says one. These matzo balls are sinkers not floaters, dense when sliced with a spoon. Her friend likes their heft because they're like her mother's. And they're laced with heavenly schmaltz, rendered chicken fat.
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
- Basics: Nu Modern Jewish Bistro is a deli that offers variations on classic Jewish dishes, such as latke tots, knish sandwiches and Montreal-style cured meat.
- Dishes: Latke tots, Mummy’s meat blintzes, chopped liver pate, Jewish penicillin, Montreal smoked meat, Nu BLT, Reuben knishwich, Hungarian doughnuts, egg cream.
- Prices: Starters $5-$15; soups and salads $3.95-$12.95; carving board $9.99-$15.99; sandwiches $10.99-$11.99; sweets $3-$7.
- Summary: Street parking, BYOB (no corkage), credit cards.
- Noise level: Quiet to moderately loud.
"We had to open a restaurant that competes with a mother's cooking," said Gail Klingensmith, co-owner of Nu: A Modern Jewish Bistro. "It definitely creates discussion. But we're finding that it's part of the fun."
Nu Jewish Bistro opened late last month, a sibling restaurant from Ms. Klingensmith and Pamela Cohen, the team behind Pamela's P & G Diner next door in Squirrel Hill, with locations in the Strip, Oakland, Millvale, Shadyside and Mt. Lebanon.
Raised in a Jewish family, Ms. Cohen and her younger sister Rise have finally responded to requests to open a Jewish deli in their family's neighborhood, just around the corner from the original Pamela's on Forbes Avenue that opened in 1980. The team hired Kelsey Sukel as the chef, formerly of Aij Picante, which had occupied the space for a short time. Ms. Cohen's sister and Mr. Sukel are also partners at Nu.
Pamela's success stems from a creative interpretation of comfort food, a formula that has inspired Nu, named for the Yiddish expression for "What's up?" "Well?" or "So?"
So, I like the place. House-cured meats, liberal use of schmaltz, artisan pickles and hot cinnamon sugar doughnuts are enough to make Nu a destination. Good coffee and warm hospitality are clinchers.
On one visit, next to a wall of kitschy photos of corned beef sandwiches and steaming bowls of soup, we sat at a table that overlooked Murray Avenue. Passers-by pressed against the window to inspect the goings-on.
Don't let these close ups distract from the menu, which is peppered with notes on the "nice" challah, bulkie rolls and chicken skin "bacon."
"Do you serve French press?" I asked the server on a follow-up visit. On the first visit, the coffee service was French press only, in a vat as big as a forearm, dropped off with a sand timer. Since then the restaurant offers coffee by the cup, although the press is still available. "We were messing people up, sending them on the street crazed. It was too much," the server said.
Beyond the coffee, diners can and should order an egg cream ($2.50), the Brooklyn classic made with milk, seltzer and Fox's U-Bet, the chocolate syrup with a cult following.
I especially like starters listed as "nosh," such as the latke tots ($5) with schmaltz as a binder, served in a mini basket on a sheet of wax paper. The reappearance of schmaltz prompts the diner with the disapproving bubbe to point out that they taste like chicken McNuggets. "Who doesn't like that?" she says. Thankfully, they're better and ostensibly healthier or at the very least less processed. Served with housemade apple ketchup rather than applesauce, it's these kinds of tweaks that transcribe dishes from mainstays to modern.
Sometimes this works. The table was smitten with the chopped liver pate ($8) sealed with Manischewitz aspic served in a mini Ball jar.
"What's not to like when you have a good cardiologist?" asked a diner. Indeed the pate is buttery. But if it's served with toasted rye that muddles the pate's flavor, ask for a baguette.
The Nu-Nu platter ($15) is an option for first-timers, a spinoff name derived from the Pu-pu platter of the Americanized Chinese restaurants that abut Jewish neighborhoods in cities around the country. Fried kreplach and meat blintzes are redundant, as both contain brisket and schmaltz, although the blintz is served with horseradish sauce and the fried dumpling is garnished with chicken skin cracklings, also known as gribenes. The platter also comes with latke tots and pickles.
Past the starters, the carving board is the centerpiece of the menu. Herein lies a dilemma: Should we order the classic brisket or the Quebec-style meat? The brisket is slow-cooked for 8 hours with onions and herbs in beer. The Montreal smoked meat emerges as a cross between corned beef and pastrami after a 10- to 14-day cure and a 12-hour smoke.
Hit Nu on the right day and meats are terrific. Other times brisket is tough without the gloss of melted fat. On off days, Montreal smoked meat can have an uneven texture, striped by the curing process.
Meats are available by the plate ($10.99-$15.99) or on sandwiches, such as the giant knishwich. Whether that knishwich is the reuben that's always on the menu ($10.99) or a special ($10.99) stuffed with brisket, cheddar and apple, it arrives like a deflated football on a plate. A sandwich such as this one may not be a looker, but it's decadent.
The Jewbano ($11.99) has too much going on for my tastes, with smoked meat, roasted brisket, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on a roll. So, too, does the Upstreet Dip ($11.99), a brisket sandwich with horseradish cream cheese and a side of au jus. While the condiments complement the sandwiches, they're a mess to eat.
For those willing to part from carved meats, try the NU BLT ($10.99), with crispy chicken skin, lettuce, tomato, liver pate and mayo on toasted rye. For chicken four-ways, add a schmaltz-fried egg for a buck. After this plate, you may agree that chicken skin trumps bacon.
Be sure to leave room for Hungarian doughnuts ($5). Fried then doused in cinnamon and sugar, these doughnut holes waft heat when torn apart. Served in a bowl, they're better dipped in chocolate syrup at the bottom, the final U-Bet cameo of a meal.
Such humble fare showcases the owners' aspirations for Nu. "We're not fine dining," says Ms. Klingensmith.
"We're trying to be the neighborhood place."