I was given a place of honor, seated between Ivana Trump and David Hasselhoff. No, I wasn’t at a Friars roast circa 1987, and my famous companions were, alas, only headshots at Midtown’s classic, if occasionally creaky, Carnegie Deli.
The landmark is among the last survivors of a long line of great delis that once dotted the city’s heart. While not quite as sparkling or energetic as in days past, it keeps chugging along, as it has since 1937, serving its monstrous portions of food.
I dived in with the classic matzo ball soup ($9.99). The delicious, saffron-colored broth was so dense with chicken flavor, I could practically chew it. The fist-sized matzo balls were so disarmingly light and fluffy, they put Nana’s to shame. The soup alone could have sent me home full. But as it was part of a complete meal, I was barely able to make a dent.
I was far less inclined to make much effort with the potato pancake ($5.99). The oval puck is sheathed in the thinnest veneer of crust, which provides its only pleasure.
The disheartening first bite reveals an astonishing lack of flavor and texture — just a squishy puddle of grease. It’s as if it had been pre-chewed.
The final insult: the institutional applesauce served alongside. Listen closely and you might hear the lid pop on the Mott’s jar in the kitchen.
Matters improve considerably from there. The dining room’s background music is a chorus of multi-accented oohs and ahs that accompany the ongoing parade of Carnegie’s gargantuan signature sandwiches being delivered to tables. It’s like being at a fireworks show for meat.
The perennial star, the Woody Allen ($24.99), is a teetering stack of thick-cut corned beef atop an equally ample pile of pastrami. While the nicely textured corned beef was more than respectable, I much preferred the pastrami. Moist, peppery and with just the right marbling of fat, it stole the show.
The bread goes damp buckling under the weight it shoulders and, unless you are a python able to dislocate your jaw, good luck eating this as a proper sandwich. Grab a fork.
My guest’s combo sandwich ($32.99) made mine look like a canapé by comparison. A 5½-inch stack — I dined with a tape measure — of even more corned beef came flanked by twin softballs of creamy, onion-flecked chopped liver. The portion was comically grotesque, even by Carnegie standards. My hungry guest managed to eat about a quarter and surrendered. A linebacker-scaled businessman at a nearby table, gleefully unsupervised by his wife, tucked into his cartoonish Reuben but ultimately gave up his fight as well. But that’s part of the shtick. No one expects you to finish. Almost no one ever has.
Before you stagger out, and you undoubtedly will, save a few thousand calories for dessert.
Skip the beautifully marbled cinder block of chocolate babka ($5.99). It might have been delicious whenever it emerged from the oven, but the yeasty cake had turned leathery by the time it got to me.
The better bet is the sublime plain cheesecake ($9.99). My eyes must have popped when the doorstop wedge thudded onto the table. “Don’t worry,” quipped our waiter. “I’ll bring you more when you’ve finished it.” I tried my best. The cake remains as good as ever — a flawless blend of dense, tangy sweetness. My guest and I jointly chipped away but made little progress. Defeated but sated, I passed Ernie Anastos’ grinning face as I lugged the remainder home. Heaving it onto a scale, I discovered that after so much work, the leftover portion weighed in at 15 3/8 ounces.