HAUTE CUISINE COMES DOWN TO EARTH : Between them, these chefs own six of L.A.'s most upscale restaurants. But Wolfgang Puck, Bruce Marder and Michel Richard are now turning their attention to affordable food.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a matzo ball problem at the new Broadway Deli. Other delis have similar troubles, but this is the deli owned by Citrus' Michel Richard and Bruce Marder of the West Beach Cafe, Rebecca's and DC 3. The third partner is restaurant investor Marvin Zeidler--the man married to cookbook author Judy Zeidler ("The Gourmet Jewish Cook"), who should know from matzo balls.

And so, last Thursday, Marder, Zeidler and Richard huddled over yet another experimental matzo ball, pinching, tasting . . . wrinkling their noses. "It's still too hard," Marder said.

Because of Richard's and Marder's reputations, trend-seeking crowds (and long waits for tables) are inevitable. But what they and Zeidler ultimately hope the Broadway Deli becomes is an accessible, fairly priced, drop-in sort of place.

"No reservations, no white table cloths, simple food," Richard says.

"It can't be sterile," Zeidler says. "It's got to have good smells all over the place."

"We'd like to create a sort of institution," Marder says. A place that will still be around 25 years from now.

"I want to create a deli , not a fancy deli with green pepper mayonnaise, and all that." Richard says, sliding into a booth. "When you bite into that pastrami sandwich I want you to feel like, yeah!, this is a pastrami sandwich, not white truffles."

With that pastrami, Richard prefers a good Meursault to cream soda. (In fact, he'd never heard of cream soda until a friend gave him a taste of one last week.) And the pastrami's on homemade rye.

"Instead of buying bread from somewhere else, we make it, in wood-burning ovens. And we make our own mayonnaise. Soon we'll make our own salami and our own prosciutto, a few pates --but the American way--and our own headcheese . . . I ordered two pork heads last week! "When we decided to open," Richard continues, "I was afraid I'd have the tendency to make everything too fancy. Sometimes I think it's easier to make expensive food. When you go to a great restaurant in France, it costs $200 per person. For that money they can give you foie gras , truffles--the best ingredients that exist. And with the best chef. But a guy who's going to give you a great sandwich on fresh bread, for the right price . . . that deserves Michelin stars."

Right now, Richard, known for his modern French pastries and terrines, is trying to make great American desserts: rice pudding, blueberry muffins, cobblers.

"I'm a fellow who's been working with good ingredients all my life," he says, "and I've had to adjust. The food here doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be the right value for the money."

Expectations are high at the Broadway Deli, which might be the most ambitious restaurant project of the year. You can have the chopped liver or pastrami on rye you might expect, but also grilled Chilean sea bass, steamed mussels, or short ribs on a bed of greens that have been sauteed in extra virgin olive oil. Among the side dishes are creamed spinach, cole slaw, baked beans--stewed tomatoes too, but stewed vine-ripened organic Roma tomatoes. There's caviar. And what other deli has an espresso bar and its own temperature-controlled retail wine cellar?

"Well, you know, the word deli is pretty misleading," Marder says. "This is a restaurant and a market, an international market."

It's also a take-out spot, a patisserie , a bakery and a wine shop.

"We've essentially tried to open several different businesses at the same time," Marder says.

The strain shows. Now in its third week of business, the Broadway Deli is in the midst of its hot-restaurant stage. There are too many customers at peak hours and not enough trained staffers. Plans to bake pizza in the bakery section's wood-burning ovens after 10 p.m. have been postponed, and the menu pared down. To give the staff a chance to recuperate, the deli is temporarily closed on Mondays.

At the moment, though, Bruce Marder is worried about salmon. None of his counter staff know how to slice the fish paper-thin. To teach them, Marder has scheduled a training session. "OK, hold the knife lightly," Marder says. He taps the counter with the knife to get his employees' attention, the way a conductor would call an orchestra to order with a baton.

He slices into a trainer salmon ("I'm not going to use the good one on you guys," he says). "The key to getting this thin: you have to be able to see the knife blade under the salmon. And if you push sideways," he tells them, "nothing's going to happen. Get the blade going back and forth, back and forth. What we want are nice, thin slices. That way, when the customer takes it home it's going to look real pretty."

Marder admits to being obsessed with appearances.

"I've always been a product-oriented person," he says. "It started way back when. The first time I went to Dean and Deluca's I thought, 'Oh, Jesus!' It was pretty impressive, sort of like going to Girardet for the first time.

"When people walk in the market I want them to shop . I want them to see things they can't see anywhere else. They might find one item somewhere else, but not such a concentration of product."

To shop at the Broadway Deli is to enter a world in which grocery shopping is elevated from an errand into a cultural event. A shopper in need of a few good tomatoes might find 15 near-perfect organic vine-ripened specimens, artfully arranged in a pretty wicker basket . . . for $6.95 a pound. The shopper could also pick up a bottle of herb-infused Paul Corallot vinegar from France, a bag of organic pitted prunes, or even a six-pack ofICB root beer (St. Louis' finest) and some thick-sliced, home-cooked Ole Salty potato chips from Rockford, Ill. Hanging above the deli counters are aged hams, whole dried salt cod that look like whitish fish fossils, fat Italian cheeses and wreaths of bay leaves.

But not everyone buys. Some wander around the displays with a sort of gawker's curiosity--it's a foodie museum. Even some Broadway Deli staffers are awe-struck. One cashier, for instance, was calmly ringing an order through the computer scanner--one loaf of caraway bread, two packages of Italian whole-wheat pasta, a jar of wood-roasted artichoke hearts from France--when suddenly, she gasped. It was the olive oil: "$28.50?" She lifted the bottle--half a liter of Mancianti Affiorato from Umbria--and examined the price tag: $28.50. "Whoa!" she said. "That scares me. And I'm not even buying it."

Though Michel Richard and Bruce Marder belonged to the same wine-tasting group, they weren't close friends when they first decided to become partners. Both have a reputation for being stubborn and neither is used to not having the final say on decisions that affect their restaurants. The food world couldn't help wondering: how were these two going to get along?

"The biggest question people have asked me was how I was going to keep Bruce and Michel together . . . or apart," says co-owner Marvin Zeidler, who was the major backer of Richard's Citrus. "There have been surprisingly few difficult moments, though. Bruce respects Michel's food expertise and Michel respects Bruce's concepts--he has a clear understanding of what the public wants. I guess I bring a sense of order to the whole thing. I'm the 'no' guy and they're both 'yes' guys. That balance works out. We've had one or two little flare ups, but every family fights a little--it's hard to take orders from somebody else."

"I think it's easy to get along with me," Richard says. "I guess it's a little like being married. At first, you're kind of afraid, and people say, 'Are you sure you've found the right person?' And then you get married and it's fine. We have little problems like everybody else, but Bruce is a food professional--we respect each other. I like him because he's a strong person. And the deli hasn't been as hard as it would have been if I were alone. Marvin and Bruce have an American taste, so if I come up with an idea, we taste together, and I can see their reaction."

"I have a bad habit," Marder says. "Sometimes someone might ask me something or tell me about something, and I hear what they're saying, but I don't always have a response so they know I've heard them. It's a problem. I have to watch myself and Marvin and Michel have to watch themselves.

"But, rightly so, Michel is up here," Marder says, lifting his hand above his head. "He has a great grasp of food and its physics. He understands it a lot more than I do. But I think I have a better understanding of California and Los Angeles. Combining our efforts, it could work out extremely well."

Now if they could only figure out the matzo balls.

The Broadway Deli is at 1457 3rd Street Promenade; Santa Monica. (213) 451-0616. It is open Tuesday-Sunday for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane

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