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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Joe's Rejuvenated

From the Vault: Joe Kulik ran a celebrated deli on Albany's Madison Avenue for 55 years. Two years after Joe died, the place was sold to restaurateur Charles Chow, who ran it for two years before selling it to Franklin Plaza's Michael Cocca, after which I lose track of the property's permutations. Here's a piece of mine from the debut issue (December 1985) of the short-lived CAPITAL Region magazine that looks at the history of Joe's and Chow's ambition to replicate the place.

Saturday afternoon used to be one of the busiest times of the week at Joe's Restaurant. But the legendary Albany delicatessen is quiet on the pleasant Saturday when I stop in with three friends. Two or three tables of diners are conversing in low tones, leaning over those voluptuous sandwiches Joe's has served for over 50 years.

“It's strange not to see Joe at that table over there,” says my friend Alex, who has been coming to Joe's for over 20 years.

But Casey is still there. “I survived the summer,” the veteran waiter says gruffly, brown napkin folded over the shoulder of his black dinner jacket.

After a fire, financial problems and the death of its founder, Joe’s is back in business under a new management that wants to live up to the old standards.

“Pleasing Jewish ladies can be very difficult,” present owner Charles Chow told Fred LeBrun of the Times Union. But Chow – who also owns three area Chinese restaurants – shrewdly rehired as many of Joe’s former employees as he could, and proceeded to re-create the legendary menu. According to Casey, the effort is working.

“The food and the service here is as good as it ever was,” he says. “We just got Annie back, you know. She can slap those sandwiches together better than anyone.”

The menu isn’t as lengthy as it once was, but some old favorites remain. No. 19, “Joe’s Londoner,” a triple-decker sandwich made with roast beef, horseradish, tomato, lettuce, and Russian dressing, has been flown to a customer in Spain and was named by many area servicemen as one of the items most missed while abroad. In his history O Albany!, William Kennedy lamented the passing of that sandwich –  Joe’s was closed when the book was published.

I order a No. 18: “Joe’s Chosen Special,” featuring chopped chicken livers, Bermuda onion and a sliced egg. An order of pickled herring to start.

“I don’t know what to get,” says Susan. “Are you hungry?” Alex asks. “Start with the chopped liver appetizer.” She does, and asks for a No. 9 besides. That’s a “Page Hall Special,” built with chicken salad, lettuce and tomato. For Carol Ann it’ll be the “St. Rose Special,” No. 5, with cream cheese, walnuts and currant jelly. “I’ll have a tongue sandwich,” Alex decides. “On rye, of course.” Soon there won’t be a clear spot on the table.

The casual customer who thinks Joe’s has changed should find contradiction in the menu itself: though it’s shorter, the style remains. Joe’s resisted change for over 50 years as the world changed around it, as food costs soared and most restaurants cut corners. What is astonishing is that the old Joe’s lasted as long as it did – and that can be credited solely to Joe himself, a man who stubbornly stuck to what many might consider old-fashioned ideals.

Joe Kulik was the son of a cobbler. He quit school after 10th grade to work as a clerk in a sandwich shop called Charlie’s; as far as anyone can recall, that seems to have been his only formal training in the business. Then he opened his own place on Madison Avenue with a staff of two: himself and his wife, Rose. The newspapers date it to 1928; Casey is more specific: “He opened on March 17, 1927. The first sandwich he sold was Irish corned beef on kosher rye.”

Joe’s started as a sandwich shop; upon request, Rose added a hot entree and soup to the daily menu and the scope of the place expanded. The genius in the kitchen, however, was Joe himself. “He really learned to cook from his mother,” says Joe’s daughter, Nancy Ball. “And then cookbooks. He read everything he could find about food. He knew everything about food.”

“In fact, he knew food right down to the agriculture of it,” says her husband, Stanley. “He could tell you why a particular item was good in one country and not in another.”

This is from the Knickerbocker News of May 16, 1957: “Around Albany, when a buffet service party is mentioned, the name Joe Kulik is likely to follow in the next sentence.” It actually took less than 30 years for Joe’s to establish itself as the Capital Region’s best catering facility, and the scope of the operation ranged far beyond the area. “He was always going to Hartford, to Westchester County,” says Nancy. “He went to Maine. He even went to New York City when people down there discovered that they could get a party from Joe costing far less than what they’d pay locally.”

“His reputation for catering was such that nobody had to go over a menu piece by piece with him,” says Stanley. “Not like you do today. All you said to Joe was, ‘Here’s how many people I’ve got coming’ and ‘Here’s how much money I have to spend on it.’ And you were guaranteed to get more than enough food.”

From the beginning, Joe’s has been a favorite of the Legislature. Every governor of the state since Dewey has visited the restaurant; when former Connecticut governor Abraham Ribicoff's daughter was an Emma Willard School student, another governor-patron was added to the list. It was said there used to be a competition among members of the state Legislature to see whose function – catered by Joe’s, of course – would be most lavish. And it was unthinkable to go anywhere else for the food. Joe could boast at least 200 parties a year during his prime, often with four or five on the same day.

Stanley Ball credits Joe’s success to his work in the kitchen. “Sure, you’d see him greeting people out on the floor, but then he’d go in the back to check on the stove. The way he could correct and guide food preparation was remarkable.

“And he could prepare anything. Shortly after I married his daughter he discovered that I like linguine with white clam sauce. The next time I was at the restaurant, it was on the menu – and prepared better than anything I’ve had in an Italian restaurant. You could ask him about any dish and he either knew about it or would go home and learn about it. He never stopped reading.

“He had an artist’s touch in the presentation of food too. Anyone who has seen one of his banquets knows that.”

In 1959 Joe decided to expand and opened Joe’s State Street, at 102 State Street in downtown Albany. The dining area was three times the size of the Madison Avenue shop and the walls were hung with art from talents as disparate as Toulouse-Lautrec and Hirschfeld. There was a French chef – he spoke no English, in fact – preparing a French menu in addition to Joe’s regular menu.

This restaurant, too, was successful, but only for a few months. Problems with parking and the changing face of Albany, not to mention dogged loyalty to the Madison Avenue address, kept the customers away. “Many of them didn’t even know about the French menu,” Nancy recalls. “The waiters and waitresses came out of the Madison Avenue restaurant and were so used to the old menu that they didn’t even give out the other one.”

“But they had the best lobster thermidor I ever tasted,” adds Stanley.

The publicity that surrounded Joe’s final years may have irreversibly colored the public’s recollection. There was a fire in 1974 that closed the restaurant for nine months while a wing was rebuilt. “It was never the same after the fire,” some people complained.

Nevertheless, in 1977, Joe said that he had no time for anything but the business, of which 30 percent was catering, even as he complained, “The day of the full-service restaurant is on the wane. Someday soon it will all be fast food; no one can afford it any more.” Despite the skyrocketing price of supplies, Joe insisted on continuing to offer the freshest and the best. His friends said, “His heart gets in the way of his head when it comes to business.”

In 1980 a number of sanitary-code violations almost prompted a shutdown; then the place did shut down, in January 1981, for nonpayment of taxes. In June Joe’s reopened after settling a tax debt of over $100,000. (Casey, for one, doesn’t like to discuss these figures. “You have to understand something with Joe,” he says. “He had a heart of gold. When you wanted a meal, he’d feed you. If you couldn’t pay for it, he’d feed you anyway and put it on a tab. You know how much people owed him? A hundred thousand dollars. I know that.”) This time, the restaurant was operating under the aegis of Joe’s sisters, Lena and Sadie.

Joe died in July 1982 at age 75. The restaurant closed again a few months later; tax problems again were cited as the reason. William Kennedy had good cause to mourn: this was the establishment that the state Assembly praised in 1975 in a resolution lauding Joe for reopening after the fire. It identified the restaurant as “a meeting place for everyone who enjoys fine food and discerning fellowship.”

In 1984 the restaurant was sold to Charles Chow, a onetime Olympic bicyclist. “We needed someone who could put some money into the place.” says Casey. “Charles came along and spent the money.”

A good reputation in the restaurant business can turn into an albatross. Consistency is the hardest thing to maintain, and to maintain it for half a century is a miracle.

Joe entered the food service business at a time when things were inexpensive and the world ran at a more reasonable pace. Opulence was encouraged, especially in the restaurant business, and customers appreciated the difference between fresh and frozen food, between marinated and doused with sauce. For those growing up with a microwave oven in the kitchen, this may be difficult to understand. Today the unknowing identify elegance with the number of items on a salad bar.

Joe believed that strawberries should be fresh and beautiful. He believed that in 1940; he stuck to his belief in 1970 when the price was far more prohibitive.

When Joe died, his nephew Jeff Coplon wrote a tribute for the Knickerbocker News. “His family feared he was an easy touch.” it read in part. “There were dishonest suppliers, unscrupulous ‘partners,’ an occasional waitress kept on past her prime. But Joe never seemed to mind when his loyalty went unreciprocated. Never seemed to care that a business that should have made millions often landed him in debt.”

“Joe knew his business,” says his son-in-law Stanley. “He never had any problem with taxes or the like for years and years, and then, when he got older and his health started to fail, he took on managers. Good managers, he called them, but that’s when the crooks got in.”

There are other suggested reasons for the decline: one of them puts the blame on former governor Hugh Carey, who is said to have clamped down on the spending practices of government officials that flourished during the regime of Nelson Rockefeller.

Casey has been at Joe’s for a long time. “Quite a few years,” is all he will say, and he goes on to explain: “The college kids don’t know about the place these days. That’s because of the times it was closed. It used to be that every new class at Saint Rose came over here as soon as the semester began.”

Nor does he think highly of today’s state legislators. “I’ve seen some of them – they don’t know how to eat anymore. I see them runnin’ through the halls with a briefcase in one hand and a Big Mac in the other.”

Even now the dinner menu reflects the eclecticism that has been a Joe’s trademark. A visit from the Times Union’s Fred LeBrun in December 1984 confirmed that the restaurant, under the ownership of Chow, has successfully re-created the cuisine and atmosphere of the old Joe’s.

Our second visit, for dinner a few weeks ago, is a delight. Old-fashioned chicken-in-the-pot with carrots, onions, peas, noodles, and matzoh balls proves to be a delicious and sizable (a hallmark of Joe’s) entree. Sautéed chicken livers are prepared just right: a little crispier than your average chef might care to make them, but it’s the crispness of the livers and onions that enhances the flavor.

Charles Chow has taken on the challenge of serving the fine food Joe Kulik was known
for while running a profitable business – something Joe, at least in his later years, was unable to do.

Perhaps Joe was just too kind for his own good. Kind people don’t expect to be betrayed, whether by customers or associates. “He hated to be thanked,” wrote Coplon. “His pleasure lay in giving freely, without obligation on either side. His generosity was a river and it flowed to family and friends and employees, to brides and bar mitzvah boys. He was not one for ornate phrases or moist sentiment. He showed his love in the most direct fashion – in giving people things that made them happy.”

A Page from Joe’s ‘Cookbook’

While he was alive there was always talk about “Joe’s cookbook,” a massive volume kept entirely in his head. It may be just as well that no such book ever reached print: the ingredients and preparation required would tax many a contemporary let’s-eat-quickly chef.

Nevertheless, here is the recipe for Joe’s Salad Dressing, which must be made at least 24 hours in advance. (These are large proportions; those handy in the kitchen may wish to experiment with smaller quantities. In any event, the dressing will keep for some time if properly refrigerated and stirred before serving to prevent separation. )

1½ cloves of garlic
1 pint wine vinegar
2 eggs
2/3 T. dry mustard
2/3 T. paprika
2/3 T. salt
1/2 t. white pepper
I t. sugar
1 1/2 quarts olive oil

Crush the garlic and add it to the wine vinegar. Marinate it for 24 hours, then remove the garlic and set the vinegar aside.

Add everything else except the oil to the eggs in a bowl, then pour in the oil slowly and start mixing it with a whisk immediately. It is important to beat in the oil gradually and continue beating until it is thoroughly mixed. Add the vinegar to the egg-and-oil base and whip everything together until fluffy.


Unknown said...

I lived at 285 Ontario from 1966 to 1969. 5 girls who made many trips around the corner to Joe's. Roast beef with Russian dressing. So good!

ajcmyers said...

Does anyone have the recipe for Joe's legendary Russian dressing?

Anonymous said...

Can anyone remember the ingredients in a #13 Kosher Medley? I’m thinking a triple decker on rye with corned beef, pastrami, kosher salami, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and Russian dressing.

Unknown said...

You can still find many of his sandwiches at Market 32 "Ben&Bills" deli. Latham, Slingerlands,Saratoga

B. A. Nilsson said...

I wouldn't put the Ben & Bill's offerings in the same class as Joe's. The closest you'll find in the Capital Region are at Schenectady's Gershon's Deli.