Hali Deli is not Schwartz's Deli.
Whew, that was a real load off! Take a deep breath. Sit down if you need to. It's going to be alright. Because while Hali Deli is not Schwartz's Deli, it is still a pretty darn good deli.
Retro half-globe pendant lights loom above, hanging from a tin-tiled ceiling, giving the pretty diner a bright glow. Wood- grain walls have mustard yellow accents, and an old-fashioned bar runs the length of the room. Chalkboards list desserts and drinks, like old world coffee cake, egg creams and cold glasses of milk.
The dining room is cozy, with a small scattering of tables edging up against one another and big bay windows that fog up as warm, winter conversations hit the cold glass.
It's hard not to set your expectations a little high when a deli or lunch counter opens. Scenes from When Harry Met Sally and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz might run through your mind. But, in a moment of Woody Allen-style kvetching, someone is also bound to say "well, it's not gonna be a Schwartz's, so, you know, why bother?" After all, nobody is harder to please than people who want to be pleased.
The first time I went to Hali Deli, I got the hot dog ($8.99): a plump all-beef dog on a fluffy bun, piled high with sauerkraut, caramelized onions, melted Swiss cheese, and a heap of delightfully tart pepper relish. I opted for a knish and tsimmus on the side, the latter being a pile of sweet, buttery carrots that aren't far off from a side my mother makes for holiday dinners. It was a very homey plate.
I decide to go back with a few friends. This time I get the smoked meat sandwich ($10.99), Sarah orders the chicken matza ball soup ($5.69) and the grilled cheese deluxe ($9.99) and Ryan orders the hot brisket sandwich ($11.99).
The matza ball soup is delicious. It's light, with a clear, flavourful broth and a few vegetables. The ball—a big, tender, cracker-like dumpling made of matzo meal—has great texture and good seasoning. It's a simple, delicious soup.
The hot brisket sandwich is great, with eggy challah and tender brisket complemented by savoury onion gravy. Once again, it's hearty and homey. The grilled cheese, made heavy with the addition of smoked meat and tomato, is also filling and good.
The sandwich is a paradox of size: it is, at once, huge and tiny. Small slices of rye bread, maybe twice the size and thickness of a saltine cracker, hold Jenga blocks of deeply pink meat. It is impossible to hold and bite without the whole thing falling apart, so I remove some of the steamed brisket and, after adding some mustard, bite in. It's not bad. It would improve with meat that has a little bit more fat on it—they seem to favour leaner cuts.
It is disappointing that the smoked meat at Hali Deli is shipped in from Lester's—I'd personally prefer the authenticity of a deli selling is own smoked meat more than I do the exactness of an ingredient originating in the 514 area code. It's hard to get too bent out of shape, though. The brisket is brined for days, marinated even further, smoked, then steamed.
The sandwich halves on my plate teeter against a pile of hand-cut fries that round out the plate with coleslaw and a half sour. The fries are not good. They are too soft, almost soggy. I do like the crisp, light coleslaw and the mild half-sour, though I'd love the option for some kosher dill pickles.
It's not Schwartz's Deli. But it'll do.