Refuge: Great pastrami on the Peninsula

The Belgian beer craze has hit the Peninsula at The Refuge, a deli and pub that features the oddest conglomeration of food and drink I have encountered in 35 years of covering restaurants. Frenchwines, Belgian ales and pastrami sandwiches — the most voluptuous, velvety, meltingly tender, luscious pastrami I’ve ever tasted — all share top billing.

The pastrami recipe was developed by trial and error by Refuge chefs and partners Matt Levin and Michael Greuel, who met in the kitchens of Viognier at the high-end Draeger’s market in San Mateo.

“Delicatessens don’t offer stages [apprenticehips],” Levin told me over the phone when I asked him how he learned to make such extraordinary pastrami. “They keep their recipes a secret. We had to start from scratch.”

Greuel and Levin use beef navel or belly (bacon, if we were talking about a pig). After curing, brining, smoking and finally steaming, this cut delivers the unctuous thrill of foie gras with pastrami’s sweet, salty, spicy, garlicky, peppery seasoning.

The thick, hand-carved slices offer no resistence when you bite into the sandwich.

You get a lot of it between two slices of fresh rye bread smeared with mustard ($13). The Rueben ($16), a pastrami sandwich with melted Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, also was delicious, but why gild the lily?

The two chefs must have fantasized together about all the things guys love because every one of them appears on The Refuge’s one-page menu — pastrami, burgers, cheesesteaks, “charcuterie,” a few token salads and chicken noodle soup.

The half-pound Angus hamburgers ($13) have big beefy flavor and an exciting juicy, crumbly texture that comes from grinding the meat in-house with just the right amount of fat. The burgers are cooked to exact specification and worth a detour.

Cheesesteaks ($12) need punch. Though the thinly sliced beef is tasty and there’s lots of it, the cheesesteaks pale next to the pastrami and burgers. The boys should get to work on pickling sweet and hot cherry peppers, the traditional cheesesteak condiment. But I’m not much of a cheesesteak fan. (I’m a hot dog gal.)

The chopped chicken liver ($8) also doesn’t do it for me, and I’m an expert on this. It’s too smooth and sweet, as if apple, for heaven’s sake, had been chopped into it. The presentation on a plate loaded with olives, tired pecans, a scoop of grain mustard, raisin compote, crackers and thick hunks of white bread is ridiculous. Oy. What is Matt Levin thinking?

The broth in chicken noodle soup served in a crock ($7) has real, if light, chicken flavor that came to life with a little salt. I liked the bright-flavored carrots and celery.

No less than 13 draught ales are available; I’m actually beginning to like some, like Blanche de Bruxelles ($7), which is lower in alcohol, clean, fruity and refreshing. The problem with these complex beers is that they prevent me from eating a lot of pastrami.

The dramatic copper front of this small pub and deli hidden in a residental block lets Refuge seekers know they have arrived. The more modest interior with a copper bar, a few comfy black booths and high and low tables, has a warm coral paint job — a pared down setting for the ultimate pastrami sandwich and a glass of good cabernet franc from the Loire.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net. 

The Refuge

Location: 963 Laurel St., San Carlos

Contact: (650) 598-9813 or www.refugesc.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday for lunch; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday for dinner; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Price range: $7 to $16

Recommended dishes: Pastrami sandwich, burgers

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Reservations: Not accepted

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