First look: Ben Poremba’s new Jewish deli

Israeli native’s latest culinary venture is located at the Delmar DivINe in the former St. Luke’s Hospital.


Photo by Ellen Futterman

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, Jewish delicatessens were as plentiful as corner bars in south St. Louis — they were pretty much everywhere.

And while the number of these delis (and corner bars, for that matter) have dwindled over the last few decades, the ones that remain seem to be thriving. Last summer, while on Long Island for my mother’s unveiling, we stopped at the legendary Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen to enjoy corned beef and pastrami sandwiches the size of our heads. And don’t get me started on the bottomless bowl of pickles and coleslaw. As I told my digestive system a few hours later, the meal was well worth a handful of antacids.

Ben Poremba, owner and chef of Bengelina Hospitality Group (Bar Moro, Elia & Olio, Nixta, Benevolent King and more) also remembers growing up with Jewish delis, though his were in his native Israel. For years he has been talking about opening a Jewish-style delicatessen in St. Louis because he felt that type of cuisine was lacking from our city’s otherwise vibrant food scene. 

Well the good news is that come May 1, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Poremba will unveil his latest project: Deli Divine, in the former St. Luke’s Hospital on Delmar Boulevard, now the site of Delmar DivINe, started by Jewish entrepreneur Maxine Clark as a hub for nonprofits.

Last week, I moseyed into Deli Divine to see what to expect when its doors officially open. Chef Anne Fosterling was on hand to give me an impromptu tour of the expansive space, which up front is a casual eatery and toward the back, an eclectic market boasting everything Jewish, from fresh and frozen specialty foods to a dizzying array of gourmet and packaged goods to unique gift items to Yiddish-themed and pun-funny greeting cards. I mean what says love better than: “We go together like pastrami on rye”?

Photos of Deli Divine

While the menu is still a work in progress, says Poremba, the “appetizing” selections boast a variety of bagels and schmears as well as bagel sandwiches, including ones with smoked whitefish, kippered salmon, lox, smoked sturgeon and more. Herring and an assortment of caviars, served with sour cream and pumpernickel, round out the appetizing section.

The deli part of the menu features several soups, including chicken kneidlach and chicken kreplach (and a combo of both); kugels; knishes, stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish, jellied chicken feet, goulash and classic sandwiches, such as corned beef, pastrami served two different ways, beef salami and beef tongue. 

Diners can choose between “nosher” and “fresser” sizes, which translates to 4-ounces versus 6-ounces or go full-tilt glutton and combine meats or stack them double-decker.

Other sandwich offerings include Poremba’s grandmother’s famous egg salad as well as tuna, chicken salad, chopped liver and whitefish salad. Several kinds of Reubens are also highlighted as are some original creations such as the Manek, consisting of a kosher hotdog, turkey bacon, sliced tomato and sauerkraut, topped with “famous sauce.”

Desserts run the gamut, from crustless cheesecake to “Not Your Bubbeleh Rugelah” to babka to blintzes.

“We are not kosher, but we’re very kosher style,” Poremba said. “There are no pork products or shellfish on the premises. We will have a lot of packaged kosher items so while people who are more observant won’t be able to eat the food here, they will be able to get kosher products from our market.”

Poremba is still working on pricing but expect most regular-sized sandwiches to run between $10 and $16. Restaurant patrons will order at one of two the counters — one for appetizing, another for deli and sandwiches – and then can eat at one of the tables or booths either in the front dining room, the market area or outdoor patio and courtyard. Poremba estimates 40 people can be seated inside and another 40 outside. 

He also said that while much of the meat and fish will be prepared on premises, some will be shipped in. For example, Detroit-based Sy Ginsberg’s Meat & Deli will supply the corned beef and lean brisket pastrami while Poremba, Fosterling and company will prepare a slightly fattier, hand-sliced pastrami in Deli Divine’s compact kitchen.

As for the design and ambiance, Poremba wanted the look and feel of the place to evoke character and comfort.

“I wanted a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s why I put in some vibrant colors,” he said, noting that each wall is painted a bright color, be it orange, yellow, green or blue. “I wanted a place that was indicative of American Jewish life — the comfort of food, the sort of humor. I just wanted it to have character like it’s been around for a long time. I didn’t want when you walked in for it to be so well-designed or too new feeling.”

More than anything, says Poremba, this project is “very personal.”  One wall is devoted to his children’s artwork while the other walls showcase dozens of black-and-white portraits taken by close family friend, Joseph Zimbrolt, a Central Reform Congregation member who had Parkinson’s disease and died in 2007.

“Joe was a semi-famous photographer. His wife, Carole, unexpectedly passed away shortly before he did,” Poremba explained. “Their house was full of beautiful things, everything of which was sold in an estate sale. Some distance relatives came in and sold it and swooped up everything.

“I managed to buy a box of photos and a small box of negatives at the sale and kept them in my basement for more than 15 years. When I began this project, I wanted to fill the walls with character and wanted some unique things to represent Jewish life. I remembered I had the photos. I didn’t realize what I had until I opened the boxes and low and behold, a treasure trove of unbelievable pictures Joe had taken. Almost all of them are of Jewish figures from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”

The deli at Deli Divine, located at 5501 Delmar Boulevard (at Belt Avenue), will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the market, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Saturday. Poremba acknowledges that its near-north St. Louis location, which he chose in part to pay homage to the once-strong Jewish presence there, may give some people pause but adds: 

“Jews have always been pioneering and breaking rules and norms. It’s safe and there’s secure parking. It’s a daytime kind of thing, close to Wash U. There are people in the building – it’s part of a bigger development. 

“But yes, it’s north of Delmar and people are going to have to get used to that idea.”