Corned Beef Comfort

The meat is one good reason to meet at Joe's.

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Joe's Fine Deli & Restaurant 19215 Hilliard Road, Rocky River Hours, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.


Safe bets abound on the menu at Joe's. - Walter  Novak
Safe bets abound on the menu at Joe's.
Renowned restaurant critic and writer Ruth Reichl was all over the airwaves earlier this year, promoting her newest best-selling memoir, Comfort Me With Apples. But with all due respect to Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine, I must demur: Sometimes it takes more than apples to replenish our spirits and lessen our woes.

Not that there's anything wrong with Winesaps or Rome Beauties -- especially baked between flaky crusts, with sugar and cinnamon, or slowly simmered with a splash of Calvados and served beside a pork roast. But for sink-your-teeth-into-it comfort, is there anything better than a sturdy corned beef sandwich? And is there anyplace more homey and welcoming to enjoy it than Joe's Fine Deli & Restaurant?

This is the spot, after all, where tidy little flowerbeds line the walkway to the front door. Where motherly waitresses seldom pass by without filling coffee cups or bringing more soda. Where, in the days following September 11, tabletop vases sprouted freshly picked mums, freesia, and tiny American flags, and where patrons felt free to spontaneously join together in a -- if not rousing, then at least heartfelt -- chorus of "God Bless America." If, in times of stress, our thoughts inevitably turn to images of hearth and home, Joe's is easily part of the big picture.

As for the aforementioned corned beef (freshly cooked on the premises, daily), it is simply first-rate: not relentlessly lean, but so thinly sliced and tender (with just a bit of that wondrous corned beef tang) that we could barely suppress our contented sighs. And there is no scrimping in Joe's kitchen, either: The meat comes stacked at least three inches high, on buttery grilled rye, with Swiss and sauerkraut, in the impressive Reuben; on bouncy potato pancakes, in the gigantic Beef & Latkes platter; or on sturdy white bread, in the classic deli corned beef sandwich. (A breakfast menu is offered until 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, with the usual pancakes, eggs, and breakfast meats. But we're willing to wager that the star attraction of early-morning fare at Joe's is the homemade corned beef hash.)

The corned beef is only the beginning, of course. The large lunch and dinner menu lists 10 towering combination sandwiches, including hot pastrami with cole slaw and freshly made tuna or chicken salad, matched up with bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Then there's an assortment of savory sirloin burgers, grilled boneless chicken breast sandwiches, hearty entrées, and specialties that range from an open-faced roasted turkey breast sandwich, served over homemade stuffing, with turkey gravy, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, to shish tawook: marinated chicken tenderloins served in a pita pocket with garlic mayonnaise.

Along with fatoush, baked spinach pies, and tabouli, the shish tawook is a clue to owners Joe and Jeannette Kanaan's Lebanese heritage. The couple -- he, a former plumber and she, a member of the Slyman's corned beef dynasty -- opened their first deli and coffee shop on Playhouse Square in the 1970s, in space currently occupied by Otto Moser's. The move to Rocky River came in 1991, and the Kanaans, together with chefs Ed Zeager and Sobhy Hanna, have been nourishing the hearts and bellies of their mostly suburban clientele ever since.

Not surprising, then, that the flavorful Mediterranean Vegetarian Platter, a selection of Middle Eastern favorites, was a standout. Parsley-rich tabouli (a salad of finely ground bulgur wheat, mixed with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs) was crisp and tart, but not too acidic. Smooth, creamy hummus (a dip of mashed garbanzo beans, lemon juice, and sesame seed paste) was rich and well balanced. And baba ghanoush (pureed eggplant, blended with tahini, lemon juice, herbs, and spices) was exceptionally light, delicate, and delicious. The platter came garnished with a colorful if somewhat droll composition of dill pickle, a crimson strawberry, and a pistachio-topped diamond of crunchy, sweet baklava, and was accompanied by a basket of tender pita bread.

The roundly flavorful corned beef and Mediterranean dishes notwithstanding, if we have one complaint about Joe's food, it is that much of it is too mildly seasoned. For example, homemade soups -- with daily selections of classics like chicken noodle, matzo ball, beef barley, and New England clam chowder -- were full of wholesome ingredients and had been slowly cooked to simmering perfection. But they nevertheless required a tableside sprinkling of salt and pepper to unlock their natural flavors. Likewise, made-from-scratch mashed potatoes were good, but they would have been better if the cooks had lavished them with salt, pepper, and butter before sending them out to the table. And homemade tuna salad was obviously fresh, but without any apparent nudging from sweet or savory herbs, spices, or fruits, it remained essentially bland. Of course, when your clientele encompasses everyone from toddlers to cane-wielding senior citizens, maybe you learn that less is more.

Like most of the sandwiches, dinner entrées tread familiar ground, with fried chicken, spaghetti, chopped sirloin, and broiled pork chops heading up the regular menu. Daily specials are written on a board in the lobby, and regular customers take the inevitable wait for a table (reservations aren't accepted) as an opportunity to check out the listings, as well as to ogle the contents of the dessert case and get in a game or two of checkers. (Not to fear: The staff sees to it that the tables are turned at a brisk pace, and the wait is rarely long.) We were duly impressed with one evening's 12-ounce T-bone steak special: A modest $10.95 got us a thin but tender and flavorful piece of meat, done medium-rare as requested, and served with a choice of soup or salad, potato, a portion of well-handled mixed vegetables, and warm honey whole-wheat rolls and butter. We also had no complaints about our Fish Fry: three large pieces of battered and deep-fried cod, crunchy and light on the outside and moist within.

Like any self-respecting deli, Joe's stocks all the usual tall tortes, bulging cream puffs, and towering Napoleons, along with cream and fruit pies, baklava, and homemade rice pudding. The thick, barely sweetened rice pudding turned out to be a favorite, with its firm grains suspended in a custard-like matrix and a swirl of whipped cream on top. Both lemon meringue pie and blueberry pie were pleasantly average, and we appreciated both the outstanding quality and the freshness of a Trio Torte, from Old Brooklyn's Gateau Royal: a decadent stackup of chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate mousse separated by layers of moist chocolate cake.

Apples, it wasn't. But, like a mother's hug or a warm jacket, it brought comfort to us nonetheless.

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