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Serving up Jewish food in Springfield
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Serving up Jewish food in Springfield

Local owners look to take up the mantle for classic deli fare

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Hal Robinson, chef and owner of the Rye Deli, calls food preparation “an art” and “my passion.”
Hal Robinson, chef and owner of the Rye Deli, calls food preparation “an art” and “my passion.”

The legendary Carnegie Deli is closing, reflecting the general sad state of affairs for purveyors of classic Jewish fare. But here in Jersey, a recent addition to the local scene is vying to take up the mantle as a signature Jewish home for corned beef and pastrami on rye. And this one is actually kosher.

The Rye Deli, under the supervision of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest, opened in Springfield in July in a space on Mountain Avenue formerly occupied by a long list of short-lived restaurants, kosher and nonkosher, including most recently Kalman’s Deli (opened in September 2015 and closed in March 2016), Springfield Deli, Z Deli, and Cubby’s. There are some tables and a counter area, but the restaurant is designed mostly for takeout.

Sephardi and Ashkenazi flavors dominate the menu at The Rye Deli, with American favorites mixed in. Try the sabich (hardboiled egg with eggplant and hummus), falafel, and shwarma, but also look for the slow-cooked barbecue brisket sandwich, sloppy Joe, and a chick-ami (chicken and pastrami) sandwich. And then there are wraps and hot open sandwiches, schnitzel and chicken marsala, salads, fish, and burgers, with options for vegetarians. And of course, there’s a Shabbos special (chicken soup, roast chicken, kugel and other sides, available for Friday pickup).

Chef and owner Hal Robinson, a Springfield resident, has been working in restaurants since the age of 16. He got his first job, he said matter-of-factly, “by knocking on doors,” and has worked at high end restaurants, including the Rainbow Room in New York City, Mosaica in Vauxhall, and the Dan Hotel in Israel, as well as others, some kosher, some not. Trained at the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing, Robinson calls food preparation “an art” and “my passion.” While his ideal involves creating dishes from scratch using high-end local ingredients and home-grown herbs, he is also realistic.

“You can’t just make things that are art,” he said. “You also have to make a living.”

Quiet and soft spoken, he prefers that his passion for food be demonstrated through his cooking rather than conversation, and he encouraged his wife, Michal Robinson, to do much of the talking on a recent Sunday evening. Michal, a physical education teacher at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, was helping out on this particular night, along with the Robinsons’ two grown children. They all live in Springfield and belong to Congregation Israel there.

They hope their restaurant will hit upon the key to longevity that has eluded more recent occupants. “We want to make good food and please people,” said Hal.

Michal was more direct: “We are different. We know what we are doing,” she said. “My husband knows how to cook and knows how to deliver food to the customers.” She hopes they will be able to offer a third alternative to the kosher infrastructure located chiefly in West Orange and Teaneck.

Scarlett Mandil, 11, of Livingston had a lot to say about the place as she, her brother Joseph, and her parents were finishing their dinner that evening. “I had a burger. It was good — juicy, not dry at all! This place is clean and it’s not disgusting!” she said, causing Michal to break out in laughter.

Joseph, 14, ordered a steak sandwich that was “really good,” though he added, “Any steak is good for me.” Prompted by his mother, Jaci Mandil, to say “what you said before,” he added with a grin, “The mashed potatoes are better than my mom’s.”

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