You know how in those old photo booths four shots for a dollar you're never quite ready for the first frame? In the next one you're laughing, so grateful for the second chance. The third is kind of settled and genial, the best by far. And the fourth always winds up with one face out of the frame.
The reinvented New York Deli at the same spot in Carytown has one of those photo booths tucked away in the back. It works, and it's as good a reason as any to check out how the place has changed.
The old New York Deli was a lot like the first frame of a photo-booth strip not great. Not awful, either, but Richmond isn't New York. We don't think ugly is hip, and we don't need kosher nosh at 4 in the morning (not that the deli was open past 10 p.m.).
The new version is a cheerful second chance. The interior is antithetical to both its predecessor and its name, with walls alternating between a warm brushed orange and exposed brick. The dark wood bar with its gleaming bottles and back mirror can be glimpsed through broad walk-throughs. The old stained linoleum has been replaced by hardwood floors; the crowded booths switched to an open table layout. Picture windows let in the sun and the entertainment of Cary Street's sidewalk crowd. And there's not a meat counter in sight.
This new, very un-deli-like New York Deli still touts itself as the home of the Sailor ("a legend born here at the deli in 1943!") a mammoth mix of knockwurst, pastrami and Swiss but the sandwich now shares menu space with an eclectic mix of dishes ranging from Chinese to Middle Eastern.
The preparation of these dishes is what keeps the restaurant from reaching the level of that third and best photo frame. It is a lovely setting, but the food does not live up to the décor.
The problem isn't the menu design. I get, and kind of like, the idea of an un-deli. It's a nod to the former digs that conveys a sense of history, but serves everything from Mexican egg casserole, burgers and Reubens to falafel and even Szechuan.
Here the problems are with execution. From the simplest staples to the trickier entrées, the kitchen wasn't firing on all cylinders on my visits. Eggs came out overcooked. Burgers that seemed to be of the frozen premolded-patty variety came out well-undercooked, then well-overcooked on the recovery attempt. One has to wonder what's going on when eggs and burgers pose a challenge.
I had hopes that the dishes from far afield would have inspired a little more attention on the line; however, two of the more exotic offerings were among the least well-prepared. A large portion of General Tso's chicken suffered from a scorched breading that had literally detached from the chicken it was meant to cloak in its sweet and spicy glaze.
The falafel was as arid as the chicken was soupy. Normally the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers would help, but here the veggies seemed to originate with a mega-food purveyor that provides everything from produce to plates. Translation: Even while crates of fresh, locally grown, late-harvest tomatoes gleamed at the 17th Street Farmers' Market, the slices being served a couple of miles west were pale and flavorless.
The biggest disappointment, however, was when the simple egg, cheese and tortilla casserole, which seemed a bright innovation on the breakfast menu, arrived cold and bathed inexplicably in poorly infused parsley oil. The fresh salsa that the menu promised was obliterated by this oddity.
The meal that was most enjoyable was a simply monstrous Reuben. A holdover from the old menu that breaks from the New York tradition by matching corned beef and pastrami (most places give you one or the other), Swiss and the unusual addition of Cheddar, each ingredient in portions deserving their own sandwiches.
Maybe the Deli should reconsider the un-deli approach. At least it should note this: On three consecutive visits, my guests and I agreed that the Cisco frozen potato products (you know, the beer-battered, seasoned french fries and home fries that go straight from freezer to fryer to table) were the best of the food we sampled.
The beauty of the New York Deli's current situation is that it's easier to hire a competent cook than undergo a down-to-studs renovation. They have the setting down. Even more difficult, they've attracted a lively bar crowd and created a popular new spot in Carytown with a nightly DJ, a rarity in Richmond. Once the food has reached the same level, it will have earned that third frame.
New York Deli ($)
2920 W. Cary St.
8 a.m.-2 a.m. daily (breakfast, lunch and dinner, and nightly DJ)