760 6th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 | Cuisine: Jewish | $ | ★★★★★
Just around the corner from the Verizon Center, the smells of pastrami and latkes spread onto the streets of Chinatown. Entering the new deli-style restaurant On Rye, customers will be greeted by a wall displaying staples from authentic New York Jewish delis, such as cookbooks and condiments, contrasting with the more modern, open layout of the diner, designed by local firm HaptakDemetriou+.
On Rye’s menu succeeds in offering genuine Jewish deli items that can appeal to customers unfamiliar with the specific cuisine. Many selections appear to be basic sandwich-shop fare but with a Jewish twist. The “P.L.T” stands out as a take on the classic BLT, consisting of pastrami bacon, spinach and green tomatoes on challah bread. The “turkey and haroset” sandwich — turkey breast, fennel and apple compote on a Kaiser roll — may strike the unknowing customer as an interesting combination of ingredients, but it is much more: a tribute to a Passover tradition. Haroset, or charoset in Yiddish, is a fruit- and nut-based paste eaten at Passover that symbolizes the mortar used by enslaved Israelites in Egypt, according to the Talmud.
The restaurant is replete with small but noticeable nods to New York Jewish culture. The main soda offered at On Rye is Dr. Brown’s. The brand, created in the late 19th century, was sold mostly to New York delis and door-to-door in Jewish neighborhoods during its first years. It was one of the few soda options available for observant Jews before Coca-Cola received its kosher certification in the 1930s. These small but significant details at On Rye attest to its authenticity as a New York-style Jewish deli, while the variety of the diner’s menu allows for a broader customer base. Ilyse Fishman Lerner, the owner of the new deli-style restaurant, hopes the sandwich-based menu can offer the hits that attract people to Jewish delis while also providing selections trendy and healthy enough to keep up with the competitive D.C. restaurant scene.
Before bringing her updated take on Jewish classics to the nation’s capital, Lerner studied restaurant management at the Institute of Culinary Education. Lerner and her husband Jonathan Lerner — grandson of Washington Nationals’ owner Ted Lerner — are both former New York attorneys trying their hand at the D.C. culinary scene. The couple debuted select items pop-up style throughout the city before the restaurant’s opening. They focused on Jewish communities, sampling at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, located a few blocks away from On Rye. The couple’s brand received its first major buzz when they sold their signature babka ice cream sandwich at Nationals Park.
One of the Lerners’ main goals in starting On Rye was to offer healthier versions of Jewish deli staples. The signature corned beef and pastrami is made of a leaner, wagyu beef and cooked sous vide, which helps reduce the need for salt. Additionally, the menu offers vegetarian-friendly fare; half the sandwiches already are or can be made meatless. The Reuben, traditionally made with corned beef, is offered with either smoked beets and gouda or mushrooms and charred broccoli. Vegetable latkes with lemon-yogurt sauce are also available to those more health-conscious or veggie-loving customers.
Some of the most special items, however, can be found on the dessert menu. The chocolate egg cream is made vegan, with no eggs and no cream. The traditional Jewish dessert babka, a spongy cake made of twisted dough and topped with streusel, comes by the slice and as part of an ice cream sandwich. It can even be served as a delicious substitute for French toast during weekend brunch.
Lerner says the restaurant hopes to expand its brunch options in addition to the sandwich-based menu currently offered.
Most hands involved in the making of On Rye head from the D.C. metro area. Although Lerner is a native Floridian, her husband is a native Washingtonian and Georgetown Law alumnus. She has recruited local help, in both the provision of ingredients and production, and thus built the success of On Rye. The bread-heavy menu features selections from Uptown Bakers, of Hyattsville, Md., and Leonara Baker, from Arlington, Va. The babka ice cream sandwich, the item that first put the restaurant on the map at Nationals Park, features vanilla bean gelato from the local favorite Dolce Gelato on a chocolate babka.
A few blocks from the Gallery Place metro stop, On Rye is a great new option for a quick meal, especially after a basketball game or for a Sunday brunch excursion. The small but varied menu can appeal to almost any eater — gluten-free, vegetarian or meat lover. The Lerners have merged the millennial-focused D.C. culinary scene with the generational New York Jewish deli in a subtle but effective way. On Rye succeeds in offering food that carries authentic Jewish themes while remaining trendy enough for weekend Instagrams.