At Josh’s Deli in Surfside, the water is municipal, the napkins are paper, the portion sizes demand doggie bags, and there’s not a single Edison bulb in sight.
Josh Marcus’ little deli that could is refreshingly un-trendy. The food he’s putting out is some of the very best of its kind.
Josh’s Deli revives old-school Jewish fare like matzo ball soup and potato latkes by putting a decidedly modern twist on things. Much of it is downright unorthodox — shellfish, swine and other treif ingredients are a big part of Josh’s repertoire — but nearly all of it works.
The soup doesn’t stray far from its roots, but in the hands of Marcus, a young chef whose kitchen experience includes time at China Grill, Timo and North One 10, its pretty presentation is ramenesque. A firm matzo ball bobs at the bowl’s 4 o’clock position, with tidy stations of egg noodles, chopped onions, soft kale and tender chicken floating in the soul-nourishing, schmaltz-spiked broth.
Thick, crispy-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside latkes come unadorned or, on a recent Sunday, topped with house-cured, pastrami-spiced tuna, pickled onion and grated truffle. A thinner zucchini version features a dollop of tzatziki and bubbles of salmon roe for a bright, briny pop. Sorry, Mom, I’m going to Josh’s for Hanukkah this year.
Breakfast and lunch are served daily until 3:30 p.m. During busy season, from October through May, Josh’s extends its hours to serve pizza, roasted chicken, rye risotto and more for dinner several nights a week.
Pancake and French toast setups change weekly, but a folded pancake with white chocolate chips, banana slices and blueberries is heavenly: not too sweet or too heavy, just right.
Clarinet jazz that sounds like a Woody Allen movie plays as one of Josh’s competent, witty servers delivers the plates.
Straightforward, piled-high sandwiches get a boost from quality ingredients like house-smoked or roasted meats (the turkey is richly flavorful) and a dill pickle that Marcus brines in juniper for a botanical twang. Josh’s Jewban sandwich — a double-decker mishmash of roasted pork and house pastrami slathered with Gulden’s mustard and blanketed in melted Swiss — is an epiphany.
An autographed photo of Albert Brooks from the movie Defending Your Life overlooks the tiny dining room, perched just above one of Norm from TV’s Cheers, superimposed with the face of Miami chef and Marcus pal Danny Serfer.
(I should note here that Josh’s 20-some-seat dining room made keeping myself anonymous on visits nearly impossible. But my service was no different from that given to other customers whose bottomless coffees were kept full and who boxed up their own leftovers.)
Nothing about Josh’s screams that it’s taking itself too seriously, a common affliction among Miami restaurants. Guests get fist-bump greetings from the chef, young children are welcomed by name, and the lone rotating dessert on the menu is usually baked by a regular customer.
Egg cookery is always a basic test of a chef’s skills, and a necessity at a breakfast-and-lunch joint. At Josh’s, eggs are cooked beyond reproach, from poached to hard-boiled.
It’s the former variety that tops a mound of corned beef hash, peppers and onions in Josh’s “benediction.” One poke with a fork of the quivering egg and the yolk pours out. The bottom half of a chewy, crusty housemade bagel sops up all the flavors from beneath the pile.
The only clunker of a dish on my visits was a fat lobster croquette set on a dull-green edamame purée and topped with a poached egg and baby arugula. Marcus boils potatoes for the croquette in the same water he uses to cook the lobster. Still, no lobster flavor came through, just bite after bite of potato gruel. More salt and lobster meat would have helped to perk things up, as would a shot of acid like a lemony dressing for the peppery arugula.
I also wish Josh’s menu allowed customers to order a la carte some of the components that work so well on other dishes. I’d happily pay, say, $4 for a bowl of pickles or a half-pint of Josh’s vinegary cole slaw. It’s not a traditional deli, I know, but why not offer a takeout market of sorts with containers of chopped liver, pasta salad and the like?
The presence in Josh’s of a ceramic pig holding a blackboard scrawled with “Doing Deli Wrong” is tongue-in-cheek clever.
The truth is, by breathing new life into classic comforts, Josh’s Deli is doing everything right.
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