After serving Central Florida for the better part of three decades, Amira's Kosher Deli closed its doors in May of last year, leaving a vacuum in the mouths and bellies of Jews and Gentiles craving kosher staples. Not one to succumb to the vagaries of the economy, Amira and Jerry Cohen's son, Justin, did his part to fill that vacuum, even if it was more than 40 miles away from where Amira's once stood. The place, Cohen's Deli and Butcher Shop, is ensconced in an oddly shaped strip mall off U.S. Highway 27 and U.S. Highway 192 in Clermont. The reason for the deli's locale? To cater to tourists, of course ' specifically, the scores of Jewish vacationers keeping kosher. For the rest of us, it'll definitely require a schlep to satisfy cravings for latkes, knishes, matzo-ball soup, pastrami or, yes, even halvah.
For those who do make the drive, comfort awaits ' not so much in the seating, but certainly in the food. Puckering up over sour dills (served whole) and pickled tomatoes is a pleasure while perusing the menu. Justin, sporting a chef's coat with 'Master Butcherâ?� printed on the back, makes the rounds with regulars, then dashes behind the counter to fill orders. And while Cohen's menu is held to strict glatt kosher standards under the supervision of Rabbi Yosef Konikov, that hardly means it comes at the expense of taste. Pulpy matzo farfel soup ($2.99 cup; $3.99 bowl), while mushy, was a lemony delight and reminiscent of Greek avgolemono soup. Unintentionally star-shaped potato latkes ($3.99) were, ironically, the star of the menu. A side of apple sauce made an ideal dip for the perfectly crisp potato pancakes, and they held up quite nicely the next day. Seeing the glass case loaded with an assortment of knishes made ordering one difficult to resist. The potato version reminded me of my mom's potato vadas ' doughy, pliant and wonderfully seasoned. All that was missing was some red-hot chutney.
Burgers aren't what come to mind when you think of a Jewish deli, but I had to try Cohen's quarter-pounder ($6.99) after learning the beef is ground fresh in the butcher shop. (Like Amira's, Cohen's has the luxury of an on-site butcher shop to supply meats for their deli and catering operations.) The resulting patty was a little flattened, but tasted great, and the bun, baked on the premises, was out-of-the-oven fresh. I opted for a side of fresh-cut, skin-on fries ($1.99) and a tumbler of sweet, crisp coleslaw, both spot-on.
The overstuffed beef brisket sandwich ($10.99) is just that ' two slices of spongy, flavorful rye stuffed with nothing else but beef brisket. While purists may appreciate the no-nonsense approach, they may also find it a tad dry; a dip in the decanter of gravy helps. Creamy potato salad ($1.99) made from red-skin tubers makes a perfectly worthy side.
The thin slab of halvah ($1.99), a crumbly sesame-paste confection, didn't exactly wow me, and made the dense dairy-free chocolate cake ($4.99) taste better than it actually was. But with its many menu holdovers from Amira's, it's nice to see the tradition live on, even if it is in Lake County. Forget the desserts. Like Amira's, Cohen's real strength is straight-from-the-shtetl home cooking.