HANGING WITH HARRIS: NATE 'N AL, COLES & THE VARNISH
A few months ago, while I was filming the penultimate episodes of "The Next Iron Chef" in Las Vegas, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to my new good chum, Mr. Billy Harris over a stellar meal at Bartolotta @ The Wynn.
Billy has been a professional comedian and magician for over twenty years and has also become well known as the formidable host of charity auctions, which raise many millions of dollars for worthy causes. He also compares trade events, like the legendary Tales of The Cocktail in New Orleans and more recently, has been recording a series of web based programmes called “Hanging With Harris”. He produces these in conjunction with a small company from Seattle called The Smallscreen Network owned by Brian Dressler and Colin Kimball.
Billy and I hit it off immediately and, since we met in Vegas, had been planning to get together so I could hang with Harris in some of our favourite Los Angeles locations. With both our schedules being so crazy (Billy is on the road even more than I am) it has taken the best part of five months to come up with a date. However, we finally we managed to co-ordinate so that we could spend all of Friday talking and eating, hopefully for other people’s enjoyment. First stop was breakfast and a Los Angeles institution, Nate ‘n Al of Beverly Hills.
Nate ‘n Al is a New York style Jewish deli and first opened its doors in 1945. Almost immediately, it became the go to place for the Hollywood set. It has maintained its popularity ever since and over 40% of its business apparently comes from regular customers. Countless multi million dollar movie deals have been concluded over a towering Nate ‘n Al pastrami sandwiches. Larry King is a regular, stopping in at 8.45am on the dot everyday for his breakfast and so too, I was told, is Al Pacino, who for the record likes Tuna on toast. It’s that kind of place, full of noise and energy. Even in the relative lull between breakfast and lunch, the place was still packed and queues of people lined up for tables.
We were joined in our corner booth by co-owner, David Mendelson, the grandson of the co-founder, Al. He has been working in the restaurant since he was a kid and now runs the place and its new branch in Thousand Oaks with his brother. After giving us a potted history of the restaurant, we left it in David’s hands to send out what he considered the quintessential dishes for anyone wanting to get a true experience of a Jewish deli. He didn’t disappoint and soon our tables were being filled to edges with plate after plate of Nate ‘n Al’s finest.
The arrival of the food began with a sensible trickle and then turned into a ludicrous deluge. Some assorted bagels, a plate of deliciously smoky sable fish and some chopped liver (made as it should be with chicken fat) would have made a great breakfast on their own. Soon they were joined by even more plates; terrific fresh cheese blintzes served with sour cream and apple sauce, crunchy potato latkes with the same accompaniments, chopped herring in sour cream with slices of sharp onion, light chicken broth with softball sized matzo dumplings, matzo brei eggs with cinnamon sugar, gefilte fish, a triple decker sandwich on rye bread with pastrami on one layer and corned beef on the other. Finally, just to make sure we could not complain of going hungry, David sent out two of Nate ‘n Al’s rightly famous hot dogs, made to their specification by Vienna Beef and served both boiled as well as “scored, boiled and broiled”
Those of you who have encountered American Jewish deli food will know that there is nothing apologetic about it and here was no different. I suspected that David was only semi joking when he told me that they had a direct line to the cardiology unit at nearby Cedar Sinai Hospital. That being said, it was all (gefilte fish aside! I am afraid I will never learn to love this, particularly when served cold) damn tasty and the hot dogs were as good as any I have tried in the United States. It was my first visit to Nate ‘n Al and I am sure it wont be my last. Next time I visit I shall be proudly wearing the baseball cap David gave me before we left.
Billy and my two new friends from Smallscreen, Brian and Colin, complained about being stuffed as we left, but us professional eaters have to be made of sterner stuff. By the time we arrived at our next destination, I may not have been hungry but I was certainly ready to face down another plate of food and a cocktail or two.
When Nate ‘n Al first opened its doors after World War II, Coles in downtown Los Angeles was already approaching its fortieth year of business. It is the oldest continuously open public house in the city and was recently sensitively refurbished by the owners of many of L.A’s best bars such as Seven Grand.
Coles is famous for one thing above all else, its French Dipped Sandwich. It battles with another downtown rival, Phillipe’s in the claim to have invented the sandwich, but both tell a similar story about the chefs dipping a roast beef sandwich in the cooking jus to make it easier to eat for a customer with bad teeth. Although the two places are very different, both make excellent sandwiches and Coles has the added benefit of boasting two of the best bars in the city.
We joined the GM of Coles, Caroline Roberts-Mason in the booth which was reputed to have been the favourite of gangster, Mickey Cohen and, after her brief history lesson about the joint, we were presented with even more food. They like to spice things up a bit at Coles and as well as their arse burningly hot “atomic pickle” we also shared a couple of bowls of fries spiced with hot paprika and enough garlic for me to still be tasting it a day later. A grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup pushed all the correct U.S. comfort food buttons as did a bowl of Mac & Cheese. Pride of place was saved for the star turn, a rare roast beef sandwich topped with blue cheese. Unlike Phillipe’s who pre dip their sandwiches before serving them, Coles likes to serve their gravy on the side allowing you to dip and count to three to allow the juice to soak through the bread. It’s a terrific combination and went well with a large old fashioned made for us by Coles’ bar manager Brent Falco.
By the time we had filled our faces once more, it was almost time to take our Seattle based chums back to LAX for the short hop North. That just left us enough time to squeeze through the small, unmarked door at the back of Cole’s dining room into The Varnish, officially the best bar in Los Angeles and overseen by its best bartender, Eric Alperin. There, we filmed ourselves making the famous Ramos Gin Fizz the traditional way, passing it down the line of four bartenders one by one to shake until the mix of cream, eggs, gin and orange water reached the right consistency.
It was a perfect way to end another perfect day of eating for a living, and a great way to make some fantastic new friends in my adopted hometown. I will post the film segments when they go live in the New Year. In the meantime, I can’t wait for the next opportunity to go “Hang with Harris”