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The Times Shopper

Gourmet Delis Draw the Crowds in New York

January 11, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

On New York's West Side, on any day of the week, out-of-towners are lined up at gourmet deli counters, picking up large orders of smoked salmon, sturgeon, pate, caviar, foie gras and prepared foods, to be ice-packed and carried home on the plane to Las Vegas, Little Rock, Seattle and dozens of other destinations.

The West Side deli circuit is a top New York shopping attraction. Keen competition between the shops keeps quality high and prices fair.

Barney Greengrass, "The Sturgeon King," has been located at 541 Amsterdam Ave. (near 86th Street, phone (212) 724-4707) since 1929. Here, you get the feeling that deli is more than a business--it's a way of life and a family tradition. The original Art Deco shop decorations, mirrors and windows, are still in place, and perfectly ripe cheeses (about a dozen carefully selected varieties, plus the famous cream cheese and chopped vegetables, and mild Cheddar with horseradish spread) are kept fresh in the original white enamel icebox, now wired for electric cooling.

Founded Shop in 1908

Barney Greengrass, who founded the shop in 1908, would sell only the best and developed a large celebrity clientele. Although he never fished for compliments, there have been many testimonials, including Groucho Marx's well-publicized comment: "Barney Greengrass may not have ruled any kingdoms or written any great symphonies, but he did a monumental job with sturgeon."

Regulars today include Tony Roberts, Dick Schaap, Shelly Winters, Itzhak Perlman and other notables. They deal with Barney's son, Moe, and Moe's son, Gary, who take turns manning the fish counter and cash register.

The Greengrasses are, by nature, nurturers. Gary says he used to take two sandwiches to school--one for himself and one for everybody else who wanted a bite. Those sandwiches were made from the shop's high-quality stock of smoked salmon (eastern or western nova or lox are sold for $30, $22, $20 per pound, respectively), genuine lake sturgeon ($38 per pound) or whitefish salad ($8.50 per pound). Also available are sable, chubs, herring and other fish. The list of products is not extensive, but only the finest quality is sold.

Higher Prices

Although prices are somewhat higher than elsewhere, business is brisk, especially on Sundays, when people line up to purchase the fixings for a traditional New York brunch, or to sit down in the dining room for some famous Greengrass "novy, eggs and onions" ($9), served with a fresh bagel and a glass of strawberry-colored borscht ($1.75).

Everything, including the "novy, eggs and onions," can be ice-packed for a long trip home or to be shipped by overnight mail. Orders are taken over the phone or by mail, a catalogue is available. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; no mail orders are sent on Fridays.

Since it opened in 1939, Zabar's has grown into a West Side institution. The store is expansive, in both stock and space. Zabar's has taken over buildings adjacent to its original shop at 2245 Broadway (at 80th Street, (212) 787-2000), and crammed each newly acquired foot with foodstuffs and utensils. The air is thick with the tempting aromas of 40 kinds of salami, about 500 cheeses, 14 blends of coffee, freshly baked breads, hand-dipped chocolates, two dozen warm-from-the-oven entrees, including eight chicken recipes, appetizers, six varieties of smoked salmon and a slew of pickles.

Dangling from the ceiling, like stalactites, are gadgets, teapots, basters, imported sponges, copper pots. Shelves are stocked with dozens of kinds of virgin olive oil, vinegars, preserves, mustards, spices, teas, biscuits, honey. The quantity and variety of merchandise is overwhelming.

Zabar's is divided into departments. On the first floor, you'll find foods--the cheese counter, the chocolates counter, the deli with meats and prepared foods and the fish counter. Each has a line, and each requires a numbered ticket. To save time, go around to all the counters and take a ticket right away. Then stand in the shortest line, so you don't lose your turn.

If the lines are very long, go upstairs to shop for small kitchen appliances, cookware, utensils, tableware and all sorts of gourmet accessories. Zabar's has 40 kinds of coffee makers, seven brands of humidifiers, a complete selection of food processors, grinders, mixers, mincers, mashers and gadgets galore, guaranteed to fascinate.

There are several exclusives (Cristal cookware from Switzerland, and the De Mayere line from Belgium, for example), and, overall, prices are better than just about anyplace else. In fact, Zabar's is so proud of its prices that the store displays the newspaper ads of other distributors, with Zabar's prices prominently written in magic marker.

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