Kansas City needs a great deli. There hasn't been a real deli in the city since Jim Holzmark closed the venerable New York Bakery & Delicatessen on Troost three years ago. (I'm snobby enough not to count the Texas-based Jason's Deli chain, which has a couple of local outposts, as a legitimate delicatessen; it's an upscale sandwich shop that serves no traditional deli fare, including matzo ball soup.)
Marv's Original Delicatessen in Leawood is maybe the closest thing the metro has had to a classic Midwestern Jewish deli — in the grand tradition of Zweig's in Chicago, Shapiro's in Indianapolis, Kopperman's in St. Louis — since the 1940s. In the years before and after World War II, there were no fewer than 67 delicatessens in Kansas City, including the Milwaukee Deli, the Chicago Deli and the Cincinnati Deli. The New York Bakery & Delicatessen was the sole survivor from that era, but it had lost much of its allure by its 100th anniversary in 2004. Five years later, when the health department suspended its operations, the Holzmarks decided to call it a day. (It's now an antique shop.)
Marv's is named for Marvin Kerner, the late father of restaurateur Steve Kerner, who opened the restaurant two months ago in the former Café Roux space in the heart of shiny, upscale Park Place. It's an odd location for a restaurant inspired by the kind of vintage deli operations found in more urban settings. But the small venue — it seats fewer than 100 — may be an experiment for a future chain. For that to happen, there are kinks that need to be sliced out.
Marv's is not a flawed concept, but I saw a few of the same mistakes that the owners of the Florida-based TooJay's Original Gourmet Deli made when they opened a short-lived Overland Park branch a decade ago: inconsistency in the kitchen; a staff of young, unpolished servers; and a menu heavy on classic (and, in some cases, nostalgic) dishes with barely a nod to contemporary tastes. A vegetarian won't find much to nosh on at Marv's.
There are potato pancakes — available as both a full order and a side dish — that should become a signature delicacy here. The first time I ordered the latkes, they were perfect: golden pucks of grated potato, onion, chives, and salt and pepper with a wonderfully crispy crust and a moist interior. Two nights later, I was served potato pancakes that bore no resemblance to the dish of the same name that I had tasted 48 hours before. These undercooked discs were chewy, flavorless, excessively greasy and, worse, visually unattractive. There wasn't enough sour cream or applesauce to mask the awful truth: These latkes were lousy.
I might have sent them back to the kitchen, but the teenage server — a polite high school senior — was easily thrown off by rejection. We learned early in our dining experience that for all his many admirable qualities, this boy could juggle only so many requests at once. The restaurant wasn't busy on either night I dined at Marv's, so I can hardly imagine him handling a full station. He's also too young to bring liquor to a table. (Right now, Marv's has a license to serve beer only.) However, you can get a milkshake and a phosphate and a fresh-squeezed lemonade. And a Coca-Cola — a point of pride here at Marv's, if only because one of the focal points in the dining room is a large 20th-century Coke sign, a relic of some long-forgotten diner called the Deluxe Sandwich Shop. The manager, Linelle, explained that an antique dealer happened to be passing by the restaurant and asked Marv's owner if he wanted to buy it. He did.
"And we do serve Coke products," she said, beaming. "It's funny how it all worked out."
Life is funny, I guess.
I'm still wondering how this restaurant's rye bread, touted as twice-baked rye on the menu, could be served without a crust. Funny, huh? Like the bagels and buns served here, the rye bread is baked at Bagelworks and is tasty enough when spread with the house-made chopped liver (a little pasty: it needs some shmaltz) and is far superior to the other bread on the plate — fried bagel crisps that were greasy enough for three oil changes at Jiffy Lube.
The plain — mercifully unfried — whole bagel served with my lox platter, "the Lox Box," wasn't any more enticing. It did provide a solid base for heaping plump smoked salmon, cream cheese, sliced tomato and cucumbers.
While I'm nit-picking on the bread, the rye slices holding together an otherwise perfect Reuben sandwich weren't grilled. They were toasted. The challah bread used for the open-faced brisket sandwich — outstanding, fork-tender beef brisket, by the way — wasn't the lightest version of this deli standard, either.
I've heard a couple of people (including a caller on a local radio show) gripe about the portions of meat on the sandwiches at Marv's. I found the stacks of pastrami, corned beef and roast beef on the specialty sandwiches to be more than generous for the price.
Marv's desserts are outsourced to the local Three Women and an Oven bakery, which does a fine job with a limited but rotating array of sweets, including a tart lemon bar and a deliciously fudgy chocolate layer cake. But Marv's doesn't do so well displaying the pretty pastries in its so-called "deli counter."
The problem with an upstart deli like Marv's is the illusion it gives of having been around for decades. That veneer can throw off customers expecting a polished operation. It's going to take more than a vintage Coke sign to generate the confident air of a long-established delicatessen. Marv's has real growing pains to overcome on its way to becoming the real deal.