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A DELI TO (ALMOST) DIE FOR : Nova, Matzo, Bialys, Sable--They're First-Rate and as Close as Beverly Hills

January 29, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

Intent on avoiding temptation, I scurry past the shoe department and dash past a particularly fetching hat before we step--safe--into the mirrored elevator. A meal at Barney Greengrass, the new restaurant in Barneys New York department store in Beverly Hills, can be dangerous.

The doors whoosh open onto a sleek bar backed by a shimmering mosaic of Neptune. My friend Mary and I are at the West Coast branch of the 87-year-old New York deli, and it is something to celebrate.

I've got just one thing on my mind: Barney Greengrass' sensational smoked fish. I peer over the shoulder of an elderly man to admire the sides of coral Nova Scotia salmon, the hefty smoked sturgeon, golden chubs, pale sable. "You just don't get fish like this out here," he says excitedly. "Look, they have Nova heads and wings! That you don't see out here."

"Inside or out?" inquires the well-dressed maitre d'. Inside is the small, beautifully proportioned dining room decorated in the discreet tones of an Armani suit. Outside--and that's what you'll want--is a narrow terrace furnished with black metal tables, antiqued cane chairs and oversized umbrellas.

"This isn't anything like Barney Greengrass in New York!" says Mary, a transplanted New Yorker. "That one's just a hole-in-the-wall on the Upper West Side. But the place is always jammed because the stuff is so good. When I moved here, I used to fly out the Nova and sable from New York--it cost me a fortune."

You can find excellent pastrami at Langer's and good matzo brei at Nate n' Al and fine rugelach at Canter's, but you cannot find fish of this quality anywhere else in L.A. The late Barney Greengrass' grandson Gary hand-selects all the fish and puts it on a plane to LAX along with the deli's signature caramelized onions and the New York bagels and Brooklyn bialys.

I'm taken with the thick disks of handmade matzo, blackened at the edges, tucked into rectangular baskets on each table. The pickled herring in cream sauce and onions looks like Jewish nouvelle, silky and sweet with a penetrating vinegary punch. And is there anything better than warm, toasted bialys, spread with a cool ivory cream cheese and topped with smoky, deliriously rich Nova Scotia salmon? Running a close second: all of the above, but substitute oily, soft-as-down sable for the salmon (I find Barney's famous smoked sturgeon a bit dry).

On another visit, we try the Nova Scotia salmon scrambled with eggs and lots of caramelized onions. Yes and yes. The broiled Nova heads (the fish "collar") and wings (fins) are no doubt appealing in cold weather, but in this climate, heavy.

Forget ordering a pastrami or corned beef sandwich: Barney's hasn't got either. But it does have a first-rate chopped chicken liver sandwich laced with chopped egg and sweet-tasting schmaltz (chicken fat). The tuna sandwich on toasted country bread, dressed with lemon mayonnaise, is a masterpiece.

But main-course salads, such as the greasy roasted chicken tossed with designer greens, pecans and dried cranberries, are fussy departures from the simplicity of the traditional deli items. In fact, with the exception of the scrambled eggs, all the cooked items that I tried have been ill-conceived. Silver-dollar potato pancakes are doughy and greasy; blintzes are just OK.

The service is invariably willing and cheerful, yet frustratingly slow and forgetful. One entree will arrive with the appetizers, your second bialy might arrive after you've finished your smoked fish, or you may end up with a dish or two you never ordered.

With a menu of almost 100 items, this Barney Greengrass aspires to be more than a deli. The rest of the menu is a problem, but the traditional deli items are superb. I'm only too happy to stop by for a weekly fix of smoked fish and bialys.

Barney Greengrass, Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 777-5877. Open daily. Takeout available. Smoking permitted on terrace. Meals for two, food only, $20 - $70.

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