Deli-fresh chatter



You know when you walk into a restaurant and there’s a lot of noise because it’s jam-packed and because everybody is talking and you get the feeling that everyone is just glad to be there and somehow they’re all having this experience together?

The Russell Street Deli in Eastern Market is like that. It serves lunch on weekdays and lunch and breakfast on Saturdays to a loyal crowd.

Owner Bob Cerrito says, "There’s a sound on a day when it’s very busy and the chatter is loud enough to drown out the music. If you’re there at the right moment you’ll hear the sound, and you’ll know I’m swooning."

I presume the customers are happy because they’re eating really good food, but I think there’s also something about sharing tables with who-knows-whom that brings out the best in people. On a recent breakfast visit, the trio next to us were discussing The Dreamlife of Angels, which I’d seen the night before. We agreed it was sterling.

Good art and music help too. Highland Park micropointillist artist Lowell Boileau is on the walls with scenes of Detroit (for sale).

Cerrito says his "basic ideas" are "fresh and from scratch." Eastern Market is the perfect place to be for freshness, and Cerrito puts his ingredients together in interesting combinations.

There’s a different (huge) omelette or scrambled special every Saturday, often involving "double-smoked bacon" which is not available retail. I loved the eggs with bacon, fontina, roasted red peppers and oregano.

Also delicious was a startlingly yellow omelette with Swiss chard, smoked gouda, caramelized onions and squash. Each addition was arranged separately inside the omelette, so you could mix them up or have each bite be its own distinctive experience.

Pancakes with fresh fruit are fluffy and made from scratch, not from a mix. The Traverse City maple syrup is one of the best I’ve tasted. The hash browns that come with the eggs are made the right way too. The orange juice, however, is not fresh-squeezed.

At lunchtime, the usual deli sandwiches (chicken salad, Rueben, New York pastrami, salami) are available. For an extra buck, add Swiss, slaw and Russian dressing.

Specials change daily. A recent mammoth example: hot ham on two Kaiser rolls, with cheddar and red onion.

I tried the grilled vegetable sandwich, with roasted red pepper, grilled portabellas, eggplant and chevre. Russell Street went the extra mile by grilling the bread. Avocado, meatless Rueben and other vegetarian sandwiches are also offered.

Soups are a standout. One day there were borscht and split pea. There are as many interpretations of borscht as there are Russian grandmothers; this one was thin with beet chunks, and marvelous. Split pea is not usually too inspiring, but this thick version was savory and slightly spicy, far above the norm.

The redskins-on potato salad is clean and cool tasting. Desserts are made on the premises.

How’s the service? All on her own, the waitress inquired whether we wanted separate checks! Most times, I’ve given up even asking.

There may be a wait on Saturday mornings, but it’s worth it. Russell Street is open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday.

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