There is a Yiddish word, fermicht, meaning "confused" or "befuddled." And Beetroot, Portland's newest Jewish deli, is fermicht.
Admittedly, I have especially high standards when it comes to Jewish deli food. It is my personal heritage cuisine, and I've co-authored a book on the subject. But my bar is low compared to Beetroot's natural affinity group, elder members of the local Jewish community, most of whom are either self-proclaimed experts on deli food or have mothers, grandmothers or other ancestors who were allegedly masters of the craft. Let's face it: No matter how good you are, you can't compete with mavens and memories.
To an extent, owner Sonya Sanford has herself to blame for setting expectations high. Advance word on Beetroot pegged it as a space where both deli classics and modern Jewish foods would coexist. Sanford also touted a decade of experience in the food service industry, mostly in Los Angeles, although this is her first actual restaurant.
In any event, the reality to date has not lived up to the promise. The selection of traditional Jewish deli favorites at Beetroot is limited, and most items offered are purchased from elsewhere. Bagels ($2 plain, $4-$5 with schmear), which are baked golden and chewy, come from the Puddletown cart, and are available only until 11:30 am. The excellent rye bread is made by a home bakery called Starter Bread, but it only comes with a fish platter ($16). Other components on the platter are less compelling: flavorful but small portions of hot-smoked salmon and trout tending to the dry side; beet-cured gravlax distinguished only by its a garish ruby red hue; mushy slices of tomato; and a difficult-to-discern cure in a small bowl of pickled vegetables.
The pastrami, which is decent but nothing special, is another import, from a deli in Washington, D.C., though Sanford says she's hoping to do it in-house at some point. Oddly, the Starter rye isn't used on Beetroot's pastrami sandwich ($14), though it does come with housemade sauerkraut and either a passable Russian dressing or mustard-kissed mayo that evokes memories of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Also take note that sandwiches at Beetroot aren't sold until after 11:30 am.
If you're looking for any other deli meat standards at Beetroot—corned beef, chopped liver, salami, rare roast beef, tongue—you are out of luck. In fact, there are a few deli classics of any sort, save for matzoh ball soup ($4, $8), sweet noodle or potato kugel ($4, $8), and a gorgeous, perfectly baked, intricately braided round challah, which may be the highlight of the entire menu (available only to go, however). The albacore tuna ($11) and egg salad sandwich sandwiches ($9) merit some traditional credibility, but everything else—baba ghanoush, roasted veggies with zaatar, arugula with cucumber and quinoa, zucchini with hazelnuts, harissa green beans and honeyed beets with labneh—fail to fulfill the OG Jewish deli dream.
Beetroot's strength is its salads, of which there are many that rotate on and off the menu ($5, or a trio for $14) and arguably fall under the modern Israeli food umbrella. And about half the Beetroot space is dedicated to a market featuring Jewish foods, which is a plus. Sanford is especially proud of packaged halvah from Hebel & Co. in Los Angeles and Soom tahini-based products from Philadelphia. There is also a nice selection of Dr. Brown's sodas you can drink with your meal in the airy, light-wood space.
That and the salad tsunami may please a certain crowd, but patrons hoping for traditional Jewish deli savior are apt to be disappointed. Overall, Beetroot is a confusing addition to Portland's Jewish deli landscape. Time will tell if it finds a niche and charts a successful legacy of one sort or another. That's what we'd call a mitzvah.
EAT: Beetroot, 1639 NW Glisan St., 503-227-2154, beetrootmarketanddeli.com. 8 am-4 pm Sunday-Friday.