Ever since Micah Wexler decided to leave world-famous L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon to build his tiny temple of smoked meat and fish at Wexler's Deli, L.A. has been in love with the house-smoked salmon and home-brined pastrami of his modern homage to the classic deli. It's familiar food through the lens of the fun, relaxed and very California #SmokeFishEveryday attitude that makes Wexler's a successful and, dare we say, important example of modern West Coast–style deli.
You can get traditional pastrami on rye, rightfully referred to as the O.G., at Wexler's, but it's made with hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, sourced from environmentally conscious farms, cured in-house and cut in thick meaty slices atop locally made rye bread. The fish, from fishermen focusing on sustainability, gets smoked in-house, whether it's the double smoked “pastrami lox” or the whitefish.
“We make everything in-house,” Wexler says. “We make our own pickles. We even make our own mayonnaise! If we can't make something, then we try to work with small artisan producers to collaborate on a great product, like our rye bread. No other deli in L.A. takes that kind of approach.” (Though they do use Philadephia brand cream cheese.)
Since Wexler's has already made a name for itself in stepping up the quality, craftsmanship and sourcing behind many of the nosh shops that preceded it, it should come as no surprise that the deli's latest venture, a line of sustainably sourced caviar and fish roes, looks to reimagine the caviar experience of the delis of old.
The new caviar selection is available in either Siberian or Osetra varieties in 30- and 100-gram tins inscribed with the Wexler's blunt-smoking fish logo, making them look nothing like the fancier, old world tins of yester-deli. Wexler admitted part of his desire to branch out into caviar was his own personal love of the briny sturgeon eggs, “I have a bit of a caviar obsession,” he says, “I think it's one of the greatest things to eat, both tastewise and texturally. I really fell in love with caviar when I was working for Joel Robuchon in New York — we used a lot! In New York all the old-school appetizing shops carry caviar, and so it was something that we have really wanted to do for a while. It's obviously a very expensive habit, but we really think it completes the #SmokeFishEveryday lifestyle.”
Caviar itself has a pretty long history with delis, especially on the East Coast, where New York's Russ & Daughters is truly an icon. But it still remains a delicious splurge that's more evocative of midcentury glamour than anything contemporary. At Sadelle's, a newer appetizing shop/restaurant, caviar is largely inaccessible: The smallest possible serving will run you $400 and caviar service is treated with pomp and circumstance befitting the Russian tsars.
That's something Wexler hopes to change with the introduction of caviar to his deli. “Caviar has had its place in smoked fish shops for many years. We wanted to bring that sensibility to L.A. Caviar is certainly seen as something unapproachable and only for fine dining, but we're really trying to change that. There's no getting around the fact that top-quality caviar is expensive, but that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed from time to time. Why can't you be hip and approachable while indulging in some luxury? They're not mutually exclusive. In this city no one has a problem spending $12 on juice twice a day, so to us it's just a natural extension of the life, baller style.”
In true Wexler's fashion, the caviar is sourced with equal care for quality and environmental sustainability. Wexler's private-label producer, Black River Caviar in Uruguay, is one of the top when it comes to sustainability and preservation of sturgeon species. It was the first to aquaculture sturgeon in the Southern Hemisphere, and uses technology such a free-flow water system fueled by gravity, placed in the Rio Negro, so the fish can have a life approximating that in the wild.
“We chose the sturgeon caviar from Uruguay simply because it's the best, and it's raised and processed in the most sustainable way,” Wexler says. “The sturgeon are raised in abundant amounts of clean, open river water in an environment that is very close to their natural one. They are given plenty of time and space to grow and mature, so that they produce a very high-quality caviar. Wild caviar stocks have become endangered and are being decimated. If we want to be able to enjoy caviar, the way to do it is by eating sustainably farmed caviar.”
Beyond the addition of caviar, Wexler is making our daily roe dreams come true with the introduction of house-cured salmon roe from locally caught salmon, available for $10 an ounce, to be added to any menu item or eaten in the form of the most delicious roe-covered bite in town, a toasted piece of sourdough bread with lox and an ample helping of deep orange-red roe. It's known as the K.G.B. and will only be intermittently available at the Santa Monica location. Because if there's anything better than smoked salmon, it's smoked salmon covered in little popping pearls of salmon roe.
“What I really wanted to do is create a place that respects the traditions of the past but presents itself with an L.A. soul,” Wexler explains. Expensive, but for ethical reasons, sounds about right.
616 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (424) 744-8671, wexlersdeli.com.