Resurrected deli is in the ballpark

June 20, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From 1935 to 1967, Nates & Leon's was the place to be. You could spot local sports heroes, politicians and celebrities plowing through corned beef sandwiches and kibitzing with owners Nates Herr and Leon Shavitz.

A wall of fame in the newly resurrected Nates & Leon's documents these noshes of the rich and famous. It's crowded with autographed black-and-white photos of stars like Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra.

Will the new Nates & Leon's expand its wall of publicity shots scrawled with chummy superlatives about the chopped liver? With closer attention to detail, this reborn eatery promises to serve up authentic Jewish delicatessen fare.

Folks in O's hats on their way to Camden Yards and visiting conventioneers can't miss the restaurant's green neon sign. During home stands, Nates & Leon's caters to game-goers with a "Bird Feeder" takeout kiosk. Fans eating inside will be gratified that the downstairs dining room's decor devotes itself to chronicling the Birds' successes. A poster of Cal peers down at the chrome-rimmed, Formica-topped tables outfitted with classic deli-issue condiments.

The pickle is always a good benchmark of deli authenticity. Nates & Leon's specimens prove erratic. On one visit, the kosher dill halves were crisp, bright green half-sours. Another time, they were soggy, salty and deep green, as if they'd been fished from the bottom of the proverbial barrel.

On the other hand, Nates & Leon's delivered the goods on the appetizers. Jewish deli standards such as latkes were home runs. Three perfectly seasoned potato disks with crisp, golden brown skins were flawed only by an accompaniment of overly cinnamony applesauce. Blintzes were delicate crepes enfolding sweet, curdy ricotta cheese complemented by a dollop of sour cream. Matzo ball soup brought a pleasantly light matzo meal sphere bobbing in a clear, slightly underseasoned chicken stock. And, although no one would claim they are kosher, the crab balls are an auspicious starter, featuring lump crab meat, bits of roasted red bell pepper and breading in a passel of little crab cakes, served with a bracing cocktail sauce.

Entrees were less sure-fire. At lunch one day, patrons all around the dining room were swooning over the Combination Number Three sandwich. Ineffably tender corned beef was piled on good seeded rye, slathered with Russian dressing and topped with crunchy, piquant cole slaw. Another evening, that same Number Three suffered from salty, dry corned beef that was shaved too thin. Roast brisket was similarly afflicted, shaved paper thin and drowned in salty gravy.

Our other entrees that evening might have been entirely appealing had temperature not seemed to present such challenges to the kitchen. A burger ordered medium rare was cooked to medium; rare roast beef didn't muster a blush; and a side order of crinkle-cut fries arrived pale and anemic. Even beverages exhibited some variability. Our chocolate and our vanilla shakes were agreeably sweet and not too thick, but the vanilla shake was half the size of its chocolate counterpart.

Before departing, visit the old-timey dessert cases slowly rotating under the weight of tall, whipped cream-topped cakes. Layer cake, pairing moist yellow cake with vanilla custard filling and rich chocolate icing, was lovely. The house signature banana cream pie was plush and flavorful but would have benefited from a flakier crust.

A friendly service staff makes up somewhat for missteps in the kitchen. One cheeky waitress could be overheard cajoling, "You don't want the sour cream?! I'm bringing it on the side. You don't have to eat it if you don't want to." It may not be New York's Carnegie Deli, but with personal touches like this, the new Nates & Leon's may in time move from Triple A to the Major Leagues.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

Nates & Leon's

300 West Pratt St.

(410) 234-8100

Hours: Open Monday through Thursday, 7: 30 a.m.-9: 30 p.m.; Friday 7: 30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday 10: 30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 10: 30 a.m.-9: 30 p.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$7.95; entrees, $4.95-$10.95

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