A new West Loop restaurant featuring Midwestern riffs on Eastern European Jewish deli favorites like bagels, pastrami sandwiches, and matzo ball soup debuts next week inside the Crowne Plaza Chicago hotel, overlooking the Kennedy Expressway at Halsted and Monroe. Rye Deli & Drink, slated to open November 19 for takeout, is from Austin, Texas native chef Billy Caruso (24 Diner, Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden).
Caruso aims to walk a fine line, showing due respect for Ashkenazi culinary traditions as he integrates contemporary techniques and locally sourced components. He’s also a gentile.
“It’s not that I think there’s something to fix in a Jewish deli,” Caruso says. “We just want a lighter version that’s chef driven. We’re making it more health conscious, thinking a little more about the ingredients.”
It takes guts for a non-Jewish chef without a familial connection to try and plant his flag in this particularly corner of the culinary world. As Chicago restaurant critic Michael Nagrant notes, “There’s an aphorism that a Jewish boy doesn’t really become a man until his mother dies. The corollary is that you can never be a real deli until you replicate every single customers’ idiosyncratic bubbe’s recipe exactly, even if that means braising the brisket in Coca Cola and dumping Heinz on it.”
Caruso isn’t anyone’s bubbe — or Joan Nathan — and he’s not trying to be. He is particularly passionate about heirloom flours — a commitment that translates neatly in to Rye’s bagel division. “[The bagels] are everything you want from a New York bagel, but we’re the world of grains: the best wheat in the U.S. is arguably in the midwest,” Caruso says.
The bagel selection features flavors including za’atar, Maldon sea salt and thyme, oat sunflower seed and pepita, and more. Caruso even decided to push the envelope a little — a controversial approach to bagel purists — with a blue masa and Mexican cinnamon bagel. Rye’s bagels are all whole-grain and naturally leavened. Instead of cream cheese, the menu proffers labneh, Greek yogurt that’s strained by staff and blended into flavors like melted leeks, burnt eggplant (garlic, lemon, pomegranate), and charred strawberries with honey.
Caruso’s matzo ball soup also diverges from tradition. It’s made with a sofrito of spices like sumac, za’atar, and Ethiopian berbere; the matzo balls (composed of blue corn) bear a faint blue hue; and the bowl is littered with paper-thin slices of radish and parsnip. Proteins including chicken (citrus mustard, charred carrots), wagyu sirloin (harissa, wilted spinach, tahini aioli), and beet-cured lox are smoked on premises. He also weaves Middle Eastern and North African flavors into the menu as well, with breakfast options like light, crunchy Tunisian briks (free-range egg, fingerling potatoes, thyme and dill, crispy crepe shell) and Persian fava bean kuku (baked-herbed omelet, seasonal roasted vegetables).
“[Crowne Plaza owner] David Friedman is a very strict Jewish man and wanted to do a straight-ahead Jewish deli, but I didn’t want to just do what everyone else was going to do,” Caruso says. “I’m making sure people still got sense of place and home, but this is is a new, different twist.”
Familiar items are available as well, including pastrami sandwiches, corned beef sandwiches, and Reubens, on marble or seeded rye made in-house with grain from family-owned Janie’s Mill in Ashkum, located 78 miles south of Chicago. The pastrami is made using a whole brisket that’s brined for 21 days and smoked for 12 hours.
Rye will also feature cocktails — playful selections that don’t integrate the deli theme — as well as wine and beer. Drink options include Once Upon a Time in Venezuela (Diplomatico Planas and Mantuano rum, coconut, fresh lime, bitters) and We Got the Beet (beet-infused Cincoro Blanco tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, black lime rim). They’ll be available to go in milk bottle-shaped containers.
Ashkenazi deli fare, rooted in the food of Eastern European Jews, is experiencing a small surge in popularity around Chicago: buzzy new West Coast-influenced modern Jewish deli Jeff & Judes has thus far been a hit in Ukrainian Village, newish vegan Jewish deli Sam & Gertie’s has developed a loyal following in Uptown, and Steingold’s — one of the originators Chicago’s modern deli boom — has become a neighborhood fixture in Irving Park. Still, there’s a dearth of Chicago restaurants serving foods from Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese), Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African), and Ethiopian Jewish culinary traditions.
The pandemic has added additional stress to the already taxing process of opening a restaurant, but Caruso is ready to stop worrying and start serving: “I just want to get the doors open,” he says. “Right now, we’re just taking it a day at a time.”
Rye Deli & Drink, 25 S. Halsted Street, opening planned for November 19 for carryout. Delivery will begin at a later date.