Local Ingredients Accent Russell Street Deli's Comfort Menu

Published on December 15, 2011 - 1:53 pm

by Molly Abraham, The Detroit News

Waitress Laurie Pterneas holds a pastrami “All the Way” sandwich and New England clam chowder at the Russell Street Deli. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News


Lunchtime at the Eastern Market finds a lot of people heading for Russell Street Deli's green-painted vintage storefront where a long row of tables — every one of them seating half a dozen — stretches to the rear and parallels the equally long and narrow kitchen.

Those waiting at the door are seated wherever there is an empty chair, resulting in a convivial scene as strangers share the tight quarters and conversations flow — or not.

If you still believe that six degrees of separation is what sets us apart, you'll probably amend that to three degrees after discovering that you and the randomly chosen people you are sitting next to probably have lots in common.

The claim to fame at this friendly spot, around since 1989, is the basic American menu of well-prepared sandwiches — from the Dinty Moore piled with high-quality corned beef and Swiss cheese to the club with house-roasted turkey and crisp smoked bacon on good bakery bread — and the eye-popping array of soups.

The kitchen has a revolving repertoire of about 100 soups, ranging from sweet potato bisque, corn chowder, curried yellow split pea to no less than three varieties of clam chowder — well, you get the idea. If you can't find a soup you like here, you just don't like soup.

My favorite of the day on my last visit was caldo verde, a twist on the classic Portuguese soup that includes a large piece of bone-in chicken with kale and potatoes in a resonant broth. It was just right for the blustery day, really more of a stew than a soup and completely satisfying.

Soups are tempting enough that it's not unusual for diners to order more than one. And by the way, a "cup" of soup here is really almost the size of a bowl at other establishments.

Proprietors Jason Murphy and Ben Hall, who joined former chef Bob Cerrito in '95 and '96 as dishwasher and prep cook respectively, took over ownership in August of 2007, but chef Bob's influence is still felt. He knew any restaurant in a farmers market setting pretty much has a responsibility to use fresh local ingredients, and the Russell Street Deli always has, from the maple syrup on the breakfast pancakes and French toast to the smoked sausage from Hamtramck and the Michigan eggs in the three-egg omelets. Breakfast, by the way, is served only until 10:30 a.m. on weekdays but all day on Saturday. You may order lunch, however, from the moment the place opens in the morning — a little twist on the usual.

The emphasis on local products has become even stronger under the Murphy/Hall regime.

This week, they are introducing their own jars of Russell Street jams, all from fruit grown in Michigan. They've been serving the jam all along, but now it is available to go. They've also increased the number of vegan and vegetarian choices, typified by the TLT (Vegan) made with Michigan-made tofu, lettuce, tomato and sprouts on whole wheat bread.

Service here at this pleasantly noisy, completely informal spot is remarkably efficient. Somehow, everyone gets served in a timely fashion by the staff, many of whom are involved in the arts. Artists and musicians have always been part of the staff, and that includes proprietors Murphy and Hall, who can also pitch in when someone is needed to make soup.

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