Zaftigs Delicatessen opened in 1997 in Brookline's Coolidge Corner, and there isn't anyone who knows the town well who doesn't compare the restaurant -- favorably or otherwise -- to the legendary Jack & Marion's, which was down the block for more than 20 years. Two of the three senior women in my group one night said, "This is just like Jack & Marion's," while another said, "This is nothing like Jack & Marion's."
In fact, Zaftig's isn't like Jack & Marion's, the big Jewish delicatessen founded by Jack Solomon that closed in 1971. Zaftig's isn't as traditional -- there's an Oriental noodle salad with chicken, a veggie burger, and grilled salmon fillet, for instance -- and though some dishes are wonderfully Old World, others have the unmistakable taste of chemicals. A perfectly good meatloaf ($12.95), for instance, which came with mushroom gravy and a terrific slaw, was drowned in a dark sauce that tasted as it if had been enhanced with Gravy Master. Owner Bob Shuman says on the phone a few days later (a little sheepishly), the sauce was probably made with something called "gravy base." Chicken soup ($2.50 a cup, $3.50 a pint, also available by the quart), which was practically spilling out of the bowl with a large, tender matzo ball, chunks of sweet carrot, and strips of moist chicken, had a broth that was a little too golden. The soup, made from kosher chickens, says Shuman, "sometimes" contains chicken base.
Like much of the menu, the place itself is very appealing, starting with the poster-sized portrait of a fleshy lady in red -- the term "zaftig" is Yiddish for "voluptuous." The 100-seat deli is often full, and the waitstaff is friendly -- and particularly accommodating to seniors.
Many items on the menu are very appealing. Meatless beet borscht ($2.50-$3.50) was deep scarlet, slightly sweet and sour, and a fine version of the classic. Potato pancakes ($5.95) had crunchy exteriors and soft interiors. These are not lacy, but rather thick, firm, and tender. Soft and cheesy blintzes ($5.95) were like pillows, albeit with a fruit compote accompaniment that was too sweet. Zaftigs's meat knishes ($4.50) were very different from the ones generally made in this region. These pastry-wrapped dumplings were filled with bits of pastrami and oddments of meat in the kitchen, flavorful but a little dry. Little scoops of chopped liver ($6.50), an intense but smooth mixture without much egg, came with very thin bagel chips. The same crisp chips, made from all kinds of Zeppy's bagels, are set down with a cream-cheese spread when diners arrive, a welcoming touch.
An ample Cobb salad ($10.95), brimming with crumbled bacon, morsels of turkey, chopped eggs, and avocado, was a treat. So was a roasted half chicken ($12.95) with its steamed vegetables. And the Reuben sandwich ($10.95) was perfect: corned beef and Swiss cheese with sauerkraut and Russian dressing inside toasted pumpernickel. With one of the best half-sour pickles I've eaten in ages ($1.50 for a side order), the superb sandwich was indeed as good as the old Jack & Marion's.