Restaurant News & Reviews

Solomon’s founders hope to bring California touches to traditional deli concept

It seems like Solomon’s Delicatessen has been one of the most hotly anticipated restaurants in Sacramento forever. We’re sorry to report that Sacramento’s wait is nowhere near over – but the entire region can get a preview just a causeway away, where Solomon’s is dishing up house-cured lox on a bagel and hefty chunks of house-cured pastrami on rye at its Davis location.

The Golden Group, headed up by restaurant developer Andrea Lepore and with Aimal Formoli as head chef, opened the Davis Solomon’s in May, as a smaller iteration of the planned flagship restaurant at 730 K St. branch. The location, a former Tower Records opened in 1974, sparked the idea for the entire brand, which was developed in conjunction with three organizers of the Jewish Food Faire and named for Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, who died in March.

Delays on K Street – where the permitting and construction challenges include historic preservation, residential construction, parking and an attached music and entertainment venue called the Russ Room – continue to loom, and Lepore is now hoping for an end-of-2018 opening, but when pressed acknowledged that early 2019 might be more realistic.

By contrast, the petite Davis branch, just 1,600 square feet in the Davis Commons development marooned across from downtown, opened fast. (K Street will have twice the space in its dining room.) Its debut came with a turnaround of just 45 days from its former life as an outpost of Hot Italian.

If Sacramento seems like a slightly incongruous location for a Jewish deli, the college town of Davis seems like the very farthest thing from Katz’s in New York (which is one of several delis Formoli and the team visited on a five-day R&D trip). Then again, if Michigan’s Ann Arbor can be famous for Zingerman’s, maybe Davis’s destiny also lies in smoked meat and fish.

Also incongruous in this nondescript Davis Commons location is the slightly elaborate Solomon’s concept, which hinges on its location as a former Tower. The deli has a musical theme, with décor and branding borrowed from or inspired by the homegrown, now-defunct record chain. The bathroom walls are covered in replicas of old Pulse magazines (I’d give a lot for a copy of the early-’90s one with Lyle Lovett on the cover) and the back dining room sports images of Tower’s old giveaway calendars from the 1970s and 1980s. A puffy psychedelic font spells out “rock,” “soul,” and other menu sections in lieu of more traditional headers.

The feel of the place also seems to gesture to the nostalgia-tinged funk and grit of New York in the ’70s, which now in hindsight has taken on an Instagram-filter allure that K Street may match.

The Grateful Dead-esque font choice chimes in nicely with Davis’s more hippie-ish holdouts, but otherwise an urban groove-and-soul vibe seems like an odd match with the fresh-scrubbed college town. The restaurant, adjacent to campus, was nearly empty on my visits, but the quarter at UC Davis doesn’t start until Sept. 24.

Do oddities around the vibe really matter, though, if the food is up to scratch? The place stakes a strong claim on its housemade bagels (you can even get to the web page via the pointer nobagelsnolife.com, or pick up a button with the same phrase), which are boiled with lye and have the shiny, perfect crust of dreams. Dan Graf, of Bagel Baron in Oakland, helped train Solomon’s staff in traditional New York bagel practices.

Toasted and topped with cream cheese, the bagels have a great chew, especially in the morning. I found that the interiors could turn thickly cottony and dense on bagels purchased late in the day; possibly higher turnover or a more enclosed bagel storage system would help. Currently, the bagels are stacked on tall rods, through the hole, which looks cool but might be doing the quality a disservice.

The Twitterati who recently berated New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon for her bagel choices (she ordered – gasp – lox on a cinnamon-raisin bagel) would approve of the six resolutely traditional choices here: plain, onion, everything, salt (made with crunchy black lava flakes and very salty indeed), sesame and poppyseed.

In case you’re confused about whether you’re still in California, there are also gluten-free bagels, which are much smaller. I tried one with lox and cream cheese and it was fine, if a little gummy, but the gluten-filled ones had, obviously, far superior chew and heft.

The lox, which is house cured, was very good, forthrightly salmony and translucently coral colored, perched on top of the cream cheese and a perfectly thin slice of tomato in the sandwich called The Russ. (All the sandwiches have human names.) My one quibble: the pickled onions on top are both pretty and tasty, but with lox on a bagel I wished for the pungent, sulfurous hit of raw red onions.

The pickled variety were, however, just right on the surprisingly delicate smoked sturgeon salad, made from local sturgeon, which came on that salt bagel in The Lydia. It’s a local spin on a traditional whitefish salad; Formoli emphasized that Solomon’s isn’t aiming to be a fully traditional New York deli, but rather wants to retain that soul while adding more modern, Californian and farm-driven touches.

One traditional side, chopped liver, also available on a bagel, was nice to see on a menu. If you like liver, you’ll like it; if you think you kind of like liver but actually like the much milder notes of, say, foie gras, the flavor may overwhelm. I wanted to see the huge portion of liver served with much more matzoh; there wasn’t enough to scoop up all the spread.

A breakfast egg sandwich, The Patti, comes with tomato and arugula along with many possible options to complement the thin, lacy folded egg: pastrami, lox, cheddar, avocado (hello, California). It was excellent on the tender challah roll.

The house-cured pastrami and corned beef feature in the majority of sandwiches, served on rye sourced from Grateful Bread and available with upgrades to Reuben-style (with Swiss and sauerkraut) or extra additions. I was taken off guard at first by thick hanks of the pastrami on The Stanley, on rye.

That choice was deliberate, says Formoli, who says perfectly uniform thin slices can “look processed,” and prefers the imperfections of hand cutting, something he particularly liked at Katz’s. His pastrami formula harks back to a traditional style, using a navel cut, and was the subject of much experimentation and tasting with smoke level and spice blends, which he of course declines to divulge. Is it traditional? I don’t know, but it tastes awfully good, as does the saltier, tangier corned beef.

I was surprised at first by the meat’s thickness, but there’s no denying that it retains a succulent texture and rim of tender fat coated with spices that pop in the mouth. The unabashed fat may be a bit much for some diners (not me), but it sure carries plenty of flavor. It can also soak through the bottom slice of rye, but overall the sandwiches hold together pretty well. I did wish for more melted cheese and a stronger hit of sauerkraut on my Reuben-style The Rick, which is half corned beef and half pastrami – a nice compromise.

If you need to cut through the unctuousness, the housemade pickles, made with organic cucumbers and packing both heat and a wallop of dill, do the trick.

One quibble: the sandwiches are served on salad-sized plates (which sport a very ‘70s pattern that reminded me of dinners at an aunt’s house). If you get a side of the excellent, chunky potato salad or coleslaw, or even if you don’t, there’s not much room to maneuver, especially because the heftier sandwiches may call for a knife and fork salvage operation after a few bites. Put those big sandwiches on regular-sized plates, please.

A chopped salad – not actually chopped at all, being a green salad with slices of bell pepper – was an overdressed outlier on the menu. I learned from it to stick to classics. Better was a tuna melt. According to Formoli, the tuna salad is made from scratch with fresh tombo tuna, and the texture and a fresh flavor shone through.

Desserts and drinks are a little overlooked here. I took home a loaf of chocolate babka one day; it was a little dry but, pro tip, made a killer bread pudding. I never did get to try the rugelach, which was always out of stock on my visits. Owners, take note: one of my dining companions wondered where the black and white cookies are. Maybe something to incorporate in the Sacramento branch?

In the spirit of giving notes for the upcoming Sacramento opening, I’d love to see a rather bigger variety, especially among the breakfast offerings, on the deli menu. In Davis, it’s on the short side – a deliberate choice, Formoli said, in a location the owners see as to some extent a trial run for a flagship location and long-term expansion of the brand.

Despite a few wobbles and what might be a quieter location than Solomon’s expected – at least until the quarter starts – it’s overall off to a strong start. It will be interesting to see how it evolves whenever the wait for the Sacramento location ends.

Solomon’s Delicatessen

500 First St., Davis. 530-792-7015

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.

Beverage options: Approachable, easy-quaffing beer and wine selections, plus iced coffee and tea and sodas (all of the latter in cans or bottles) and hot coffee.

Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat; vegetable sandwich options are available, but the deli focuses more on the house-cured meats.

Gluten-free options: Yes, including gluten-free bagels.

Noise levels: Modest inside, though we never visited when the rooms were full; if it gets loud, there’s plenty of outdoor seating.

Ambiance: Funky and modern, with a clever, wink-and-a-nod ‘70s vibe (including earth-toned stoneware) that nods to the 1974 opening date of the K Street Tower Records — also featured via walls papered with reproductions of vintage Tower calendars and Pulse magazines.

Overall

The Sacramento area has been clamoring for a “real” deli for ages. Is this high-concept, much-hyped place it? That depends on your deli priorities. There’s excellent pastrami (albeit in hunks, not thin slices, in the sandwiches we tried), lox and good housemade bagels, plus a rather freewheeling spirit, but this initial Davis location may be missing the urban vibe, big menu variety and high turnover it needs.

Food

Hefty, messy sandwiches, especially those stuffed with fatty pastrami and savory corned beef, and a very strong rendition of classic potato salad, top the lunch list here. Good pickles, too. At breakfast (served all day), don’t miss the smoked sturgeon salad, served on a toasty bagel, the classic bagel with lox and cream cheese, or the egg sandwich on a challah roll. Those eyeing takeout, a warning: Bagels can be dry when ordered later in the day.

Service

Counter service was warm and jovial, with dishes delivered in a reasonable time and special requests (such as cups of ice for the bottled beverages) accommodated with a smile.

Value

1/2

Sandwiches range from a very affordable $7 up to $12 and change, which may or may not be an everyday-lunch proposition depending on your budget. It’s the extras and the bagels ($2 each) that can feel a tad pricey for those hoping for a deli deal.

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