Liz Johnson, the chef at the new Echo Park delicatessen Freedman’s, has put in time at Noma, the Michelin two-starred L’Effervescence in Tokyo, and the tiny New York brasserie Mimi. Her three-tiered smoked fish platters at Freedman’s are the equivalent of a first-class plateau de mer (I encountered it as a Mother’s Day special). She makes her schnitzels out of sweetbreads and makes you believe they should always be made of sweetbreads. Her dense little matzo balls have the presence of quenelles.
But the only time you see Johnson at Freedman’s, and then only if you order the $105 brisket for four, the emotion she is likely to inspire is not chefly reverie, but fear.
She wheels a cart over to the table and flicks on a big battery-powered carving knife of a sort you may not have seen since your mom accidentally cut through the cord of hers on Thanksgiving 1983. She wordlessly slices the soft, herb-glazed brisket into thick slices, deftly angling the blade when she gets to the point. She turns the knife off, and you realize how ominous the sound had been; certain scenes from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” come to mind. When you reach for a slice, you realize why the electric knife may have been a good idea — the meat is luscious, juicy, soft enough to eat with a spoon — but by the time you look over your shoulder to thank her, she and the cart have already disappeared.
To create a spectacle with flambéed duck — that’s why the dish was invented. To create a spectacle with brisket, the homiest dish of the Jewish American kitchen, is remarkable. And while I’m sure the brisket your bubbe trots out on Pesach is truly delicious, you really should give Johnson’s version a try.
Freedman’s would have been the favorite restaurant of your late Uncle Morris, the guy who had a drawer full of cuff links, a favorite room at the Sands, and a chilled seltzer gun in the fridge. The restaurant may be in Echo Park instead of on Fairfax, but the wood is dark, the bar is ready to make a whiskey sour or a fancy martini, and you can get smoked dates served in a splash of smoked foie gras fat. Tiny latkes — “pommes Freedman” — are tricked out like tater tots. There is an entire salad based around half-sour pickles, a concoction you may have wished for the existence of when you were still in the second grade.
The wallpaper looks like something William Morris might have dreamed up in his arsenic-green phase. Slender whitefish eggrolls are served in repurposed candy boxes. The china is mismatched in a way that suggests the year Morris and Yetta just gave up on the idea of separating the milchig plates from the fleishig ones, even on the holidays. A plate of cured yellowtail with green tomato splits the difference between an appetizing plate from Russ & Daughters and a dish you had the last time you went to Koi.
Freedman’s is Jewish but doesn’t hit you over the head with it, as you will realize the first time you see the golden, crunchy potato latkes that have been crisped in a waffle iron, with curls of firm, salty cured sea trout and a schmear of sour cream. (Also, although Johnson is notably fond of Norwegian death metal, whoever is in charge of the music is not above playing an Oasis album all the way through.)
When you walk into the restaurant the cooking scent that wafts toward you is not garlic or chicken soup, but fat hot dogs, spiked and spinning endlessly in what looks like an old carnival machine.
This may be the only deli in existence whose signature sandwich involves neither pastrami nor brisket, but ripe avocados and fried chicken skin, which is delicious in ways it may be difficult to explain.
But there is house-smoked pastrami — good if not quite Langer’s — arranged on a plate with an equal quantity of what may be the best sliced deli tongue you have ever tasted, cured in the manner of corned beef but with a bounciness and depth that corned beef rarely approaches. A mushroom-barley soup, which is a pallid dairy dish at even the best delicatessens, is thick as congee and as mushroom-pungent as a double-boiled Chinese soup, with a piercing mushroom flavor that stays with you long after the soup is gone. Afterward, a chewy black-and-white cookie, which is so far above the usual sat-on-cupcake concoctions you may have gnawed on at a Jewish bakery that it should really have another name.
But the best meal at Freedman’s may actually be weekend brunch, when the soft, dense Toronto-style bagels are freshly baked, the cream cheese may be blended with whitefish or roasted Hatch chiles, and the streaky scrambled eggs are airy and light. You will be tempted by the pancakes with crème fraiche and salty shreds of hot-smoked salmon, and the spectacular hash made with corned tongue and diced potatoes. Will the bagel tower be on the menu when you visit? You should only be so lucky.
A new take on the Jewish deli in an Echo Park strip mall.
2619 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 568-3754, freedmansla.com.
Snacks $4-$11; cold plates $12-$18; hot appetizers $11-$18; larger plates $15-$29 (whole brisket $105).
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.