I have lived on the Upper East Side for 32 years and have somehow missed going to P.J. Bernstein’s famous Kosher style delicatessen, one of only a handful of these old-school type of eateries left in the neighborhood. This week I was lucky enough to find out firsthand why it P.J.’s has been a neighborhood legend for four decades. I sampled a lot of the classics and was pleased with the quality and the prices (for instance, soups are about $6-$7 while sandwiches are $15-$20). Hot entrees like beef goulash or a hot brisket platter run about $25.
I had my first-ever kleplach soup thanks to the suggestion of affable manager Steve Slobodsky, who is actually a dentist (it is a long story, but he is filling in for his dad who is recuperating from his recent bout with cancer). The dumplings were beef (flanken) and not chicken filled–and they were unbelievably tender and flavorful. Homemade beef stock was used and there were also oodles of noodles in my bowl besides the mighty dumplings. I was totally delighted and I think I might be going back a dozen times or more for this soup, I loved it THAT much. My friends loved their mushroom & barley and matzoh ball soup as well. (I swear that my friend Cindi’s matzoh ball was as big as her hand!)
I then sampled both the potato and meat pierogies with my dining pals. The pierogies were generous in size and fried to a beautiful golden color, and served with sautéed red onion and sour cream. I was full at this point but I could not stop eating these beautiful and authentic puffs of doughy goodness. It is hard to get authentic pierogies these days, let alone on the Upper East Side, but now I know to come to P.J.’s!
The latkas were up next for our table. They were huge (about 7″ in diameter), fried to golden perfection and were a beautiful chunky texture. They come served with applesauce and sour cream and these were hands down the best potato pancakes that I have ever had anywhere in recent memory. They were thick and flavorful and one portion can definitely serve two hungry people.
It was most important of all for me to sample the meats that New York delis are legendary for, and P.J.’s did not disappoint in this arena, either. My friends and I sampled the brisket, corned beef, flanken, pastrami and cold roast beef on the rare side with some super-fresh unseeded rye bread and classic deli dill pickles on the side. It would be nearly impossible to say which one I liked the best as they were all top notch quality–each meat I tried was tender and flavorful (and I probably could eat a pound of each in one sitting)! Slobodsky’s personal favorite is the tongue and he recommends that to all first-time visitors; sadly, I was not that adventurous and always put pastrami on the top of my list when trying meats at a new kosher deli.
Unlike the other fare, desserts are not made on the premises at P.J.’s, but they are excellent. My friends and I split three different ones–the French apple cake with its huge fresh golden slices on top, the ultra-creamy classic New York cheesecake topped with whipped cream and the chocolate seven layer cake filled with the most perfectly creamy frosting. (You are probably wondering how we could eat three desserts after having soup, potato pancakes, pierogies and meat but we are professional eaters, LOL!)
P.J. Bernstein’s is special not just because of the food and because it has been on the Upper East Side so long but because of the friendliness of the staff. They seem to know their customers on a first name basis and there is a lot of casual chat going on between the staff and the clientele. P.J.’s truly feels like a home away from home–the kind of place you can send you kids over to for dinner without an adult and not worry (you know that someone on the P.J.’s staff will have an “eye out” for them)! Your family will also love the signed photos of celebrities who have eaten there including Lucille Ball and Liza Minnelli. For more info, go to www.pjbernsteindeli.com. Reservations are not necessary and attire is casual; they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are open seven days per week from 8 AM to 9 PM. P.J.’s also does catering and delivery. Address is 1215 Third Avenue (they’re on the northeast corner of 71st and Third); phone number is 212-879-0914.