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.